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'Diaries' reveals the man behind the presidency

The Reagan Diaries, By Ronald Reagan
Edited by Douglas Brinkley, HarperCollins, 784 pp., $35

For eight years, Ronald Reagan, sometimes regarded as the least introspective of American leaders, the most inattentive of presidents, the least compulsive of men, did what almost no one suspected he was doing. Late at night, in odd hurried moments, on planes and in guest houses, Reagan paused and made regular, dutiful entries in a diary.

These diaries, the work no one knew was in progress, came to fill five volumes. The entries came almost every day. Few presidents, in fact, have thought to do such a thing. Only George Washington, John Quincy Adams, James K. Polk, and Rutherford B. Hayes kept regular diaries. Reagan's entries are all the more remarkable because he was the first president in exactly 100 years to be a diarist, because the president never kept a diary before he entered the election, and because Reagan always thought of himself as a man of celluloid, not of paper.

And yet he did it, day by day, crisis by crisis, triumph by triumph, mind-numbing meeting by mind-numbing meeting with mid-level administration officials about issues whose urgency and importance, if indeed they ever had them, have long since passed.

The result, with some editing by Douglas Brinkley, is "The Reagan Diaries" -- a thick but not unwieldy volume covering all eight years of what we now regard as the Reagan Era, a crowded hour in the nation's history that included the release of the Iran hostages, repeated confrontations with Libya, the beginning of the terrorist menace, the overhaul of the income-tax system, the Iran-contra affair, summits with Soviet leaders, and much more.

In all of these entries some abiding features of the Reagan way come screaming out. He was intuitive, not intellectual. He was a sucker for a sob story and was never sucker-punched by his adversaries. He had rivals but not enemies.

He believed in a few things -- the abiding genius of the American system, the fatal flaws of Soviet-style communism, the miracle of the markets -- and took the rest as it came. He was a lousy speller, he was no master of the plural, and he made more references to church and faith than anyone in Washington from 1981 to 1989 would have guessed. (He was criticized for failing to attend church, but his diaries say he yearned to do so but was kept away for security reasons.)

Most of all, these diaries are a portrait of a marriage, and of a man so in love with his wife that no White House love story, save perhaps that of Woodrow Wilson and Edith Galt Wilson , comes close. These are some of the things he says of Nancy Reagan, who as often as not is referred to as "Mommie" by the president of the United States: "I worry when she's out of sight six minutes." And: "Why am I so scared always when she leaves like that? I do an awful lot of praying until she returns." And: "Nancy's Birthday! Life would be miserable if there wasn't a Nancy's Birthday. What if she'd never been born? I don't want to think of it."

Throughout these pages there are reminders of the biggest thing we forget about our presidents. They are people, too. They have families. On April 28, 1983, Reagan writes: "Patti called -- she's been looking for work quite awhile -- needed to borrow some money." In the next entry, Reagan writes: "Nancy phoned -- very upset. Ron casually told the [Secret Service] he was going to Paris in a few days. I don't know what is with him. He refuses to cooperate with them. . . . I'm not talking to him until he apologizes for hanging up on me."

The book has some odd asides, like the suggestion that many members of the United Nations General Assembly carry weapons. Ordinarily in volumes such as these it is safe to skip the editor's notes. Not here, or else you might miss the notation about Reagan eating lamb gonads at an event for Paul Laxalt, the former GOP senator from Nevada.

What is missing is the deeper form of reflection that might have elevated " The Reagan Diaries " to the first tier of presidential writing.

Almost everyone agrees that the emotional high point of the Reagan years was his appearance in France on the 40th anniversary of D- day, when he gave one of his best speeches. Look back at that speech, and you will see these stirring lines: "These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war." Now turn to June 6, 1984, in the diaries and you will find this: "We met 62 [veterans] who returned for this anniversary. I addressed them & the large crowd. It was an emotional experience for everyone." What a letdown.

Turn ahead five months to the day Reagan won re election in a 49-state landslide. Here's the entry: "It was really great to be with our friends. While there Mondale called to concede." He made history, and he made almost nothing of it.

In essence, these pages allow Reagan to be Reagan.

David Shribman, for a decade the Globe's Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.