Ronald Reagan: Celebrating the Centennial of His Birth, 1911-2011

January 25, 2018
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Beverly Hills Public Library
Beverly Hills, CA
February 2011 - August 2011


This exhibition features letters, manuscripts and signed photos that celebrate various aspects of the remarkable life and character of Ronald Reagan, the 40th U.S. President. There are examples of his optimism and his pessimism; letters about his fierce presumption of racial equality, and manuscripts decrying riots, lawlessness and a coercive state. Featured, too, is a photo of Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin inscribed “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall!” Present is a letter written shortly after surviving his own assassination attempt saying, typically, that he was feeling fine. Ronald Reagan led an extraordinary life: this exhibit allows us to celebrate its rich diversity.

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Two days after Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat, Ronald Reagan, co-chair  of California Citizens for Goldwater-Miller, takes stock here of the nascent Conservative movement, speculates that the Left wants to see the Right in concentration camps, and gives vent to a rare burst of personal animosity: Lyndon Johnson, he declares, is a bum.

For himself, in the days ahead, Reagan envisions a modest role – albeit in a high-stakes drama:

One of these days I’ll probably be back there again because I guess I’ll still travel the mashed potato circuit until we either win, or the other side starts putting us in the concentration camps, and I’m not so sure they haven’t got that in mind.

Two years later, Reagan was the Governor of California.

On April 12, 1967, Aaron C. Mitchell became the 501st person executed in California since 1891.  The opposition blamed Governor Reagan for not commuting the cop killer’s sentence, even though the ruling had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Reagan responded to the anti-capital punishment opponent:

Incidentally, with regard to your reference to the ten commandments the bible was interpreted from the ancient Hebrew language.  Leading Hebrew scholars say the literal translation of that particular commandment is; “Thou shalt not murder.” This is the same Old Testament that calls for “An eye for an eye.”

It was in fact his executive prerogative in regard to murder that Reagan found to be most difficult aspect of his governorship; no part of the job, he confessed, was approached more prayerfully.

The extraordinarily busy Reagan came to write upwards of 10,000 letters. He answered every question – or accusation – put to him, however abusive or almost, mad. It seems a Mr. Adams in Ohio took exception to the death sentence imposed on one Aaron C. Mitchell who, in the course of a gun battle during a café hold-up, killed a Sacramento policeman. Adams wrote Reagan that by not commuting Mitchell’s sentence, the Governor was a murderer as well, and he, Adams, would for the rest of life remind him of this, on each and every anniversary of the cop killer’s execution – although he doubted Reagan would ever see his letter(s).  To this, Reagan (actually) replied.

Reagan, it would seem, was willing to engage, in good faith, any citizen, on any important subject of the day; and that he would do so, places him in the great tradition of those earliest and most egalitarian of presidents, who opened the White House to all callers and comers…

About each other they never speak ill, ex-presidents, once out of the Oval Office; it’s on the way in that they’re lethal. Even the gentlemanly Ronald Reagan, en route to the White House, could speak unkindly of a foe. Here, newly installed as Governor of California but already seen as a Republican challenger to President Johnson, he takes L.B.J. on, and down.

Replying to the question what he thought John F. Kennedy might have done had he lived, Reagan writes:

I really don’t know the answer to your question about our course if Pres. Kennedy had continue.  I do know I thought him a much more intelligent & perceptive man than the present President.

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Reagan’s famous optimism seems to have kicked in shortly after he was elected President, for what he saw before, politically, was mostly doom:

Frankly, I do not believe this nation can survive a continuation of this aimlessness for another 4 years.  I realize this makes me a crier of doom but these are days unlike any we’ve known and the world faces a time of decision that will determine man’s destiny for generations to come.

Reagan adds that he is now in a position to influence the Republican Party’s choice. “I’ll do my best in that role,” he declares, “but I aspire to no more than that.”

One year later, at the Republican convention in Miami, Reagan declared himself a candidate for the President of the United States.

Reagan supported the Vietnam War, but not the President who declared it, and he makes that distinction here, to an officer apparently then serving.

In my opinion we must have a change of leadership in Washington and a change of policy in the conduct of the war.

An enthusiastic “hawk,” Reagan felt that Johnson was not willing to go all-out to win the war, and that asking soldiers to die in combat with their hands tied was, at the very least, immoral. But for the men who fought there – and often came home to contentious receptions – he had the greatest respect. “Please know that many of us are eternally grateful to all of you,” he closes, “for what you are doing to preserve freedom.”

On the night of June 5, 1868, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, while campaigning for the presidency, was shot in the head by an assassin. Unable to make contact, Reagan wrote this note – although by the time he penned it, the news was certain: Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy, was dying of an assassin’s bullet in his brain.

I know there is little anyone can say at such a time but if there is anything we can do to be of help in any way please let us know.  Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Robert F. Kennedy died some 26 hours later on June 6th, 1968, assassinated by a Palestinian fanatic.  Reagan would also be the object of an assassin – but he would live, and die an old man, almost thirty-six years to the day, after Kennedy.

Just a couple weeks before, in what the New York Times called “the greatest comeback since Lazarus”, Richard Nixon outgunned both Vice-President Rockefeller and Governor Reagan for the Republican nomination – and now, Reagan tells a supporter, he will beat his brains out trying to elect him. “We haven’t too many more chances in this land of ours…”

1968 was not first time, however, or even the second, that Reagan took to the stump for Nixon. In 1960, it was as a Democrat-for-Nixon against John F. Kennedy, for President; in 1962, as a newly-registered Republican, when Nixon ran for Governor of California; and in 1968, vowing to never speak ill of another Republican (Reagan’s famous “11th Commandment”), as a just-defeated aspirant for the presidential nomination.

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For his sunny optimism, as much as anything, Americans loved Reagan.  Here, in a sentence, he expresses that defining faith: “I’ve known the feeling you have,” he writes, “but from experience can tell you the best days are always the ones that lie ahead.”

Having come of age in the Great Depression; worked in Hollywood for thirty years; been defeated in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, twice – and yet gone on to become one of the most popular presidents in American history, Reagan knew of what he spoke.

Having played the West Point cadet, George Armstrong Custer, in the 1940 western film,Santa Fe Trail, Reagan continued to admire the controversial general. Writing to Western historian and Custer biographer David Humphreys Miller, Reagan defends Custer from his detractors:

…in truth he was a brilliant officer and not at all the boastful show-off his detractors would have us believe… It isn’t well known that a brother, a nephew, and his brother-in-law died with him that last battle.

The implication that Custer would never have knowingly placed in harm’s way members of his own family is an unusual, and even novel, thesis. Certainly it reflects Reagan’s deep imaginative empathy for soldiers sent into battle.  He understood this, naturally, as an actor – and profoundly, as a President.

In this letter, Ronald Reagan gets his facts wrong but the point right: During World War II, Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto rose up with the Polish Home Army to fight the Nazis. But Reagan says the “freedom fighters… were largely from the Jewish ghetto” and this attribution is wrong. The Polish Home Army, which fought the Germans in 1944, was comprised of irregulars and few Polish Jews who survived the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

Where Reagan was correct was in noting that the “the Soviets stood back and didn’t enter Warsaw until the Nazis had massacred the Polish freedom fighters…” – and that as much as anything, made him regard the Soviet Union as evil.

Politics, it’s been said, is show business for ugly people – except, that is, when a Hollywood star occupied the Oval Office for eight years, and a beautiful young couple graced the White House for a thousand days. The Reagans of 1980 and the Kennedys of 1960 had very different politics, very different backgrounds, and very different fates, but what they had in glamour in common.

With the Reagans, glamour, came back to the White House. Late-night talk show hosts might joke that when the Reagans relaxed, they would dress down from white tie to black tie, but the fact was, they made Washington glamorous.

Signed White House cards document two things: occupancy in the White House, and the ability of the President of the United States to write his name. While the latter is a constant, the former has changed twenty-six times since the inception of the form.  Each new administration brings its own style to Washington – White House cards help collectors, especially, keep track how.

It didn’t matter, in May of ’83, that Reagan’s poll numbers were soaring: in the Senate, trying to pass his budget, he was still a vote short.  A bill raising taxes, reducing military spending and increasing domestic spending, had squeaked through instead, and Reagan was fit to be tied. But on Saturday, May 21st, he had to leave town, to speak at Seton Hall’s Commencement – and as he writes here, a day away proved a blessing.

In his twenty-eight minute speech, he called for merit-based pay for teachers, prayer in the schools, private school vouchers, and less Federal spending on education: and for this was interrupted, five times, by applause. “Don’t get discouraged with the situation of the world,” he told the graduates, “things are getting better.”

Presidents routinely feel trapped in the White House – and getting away, even on a grey foggy afternoon, to New Jersey, was a pleasure.

Ronald Reagan speaking in front of the Berlin Wall, autographed photo

On Friday, June 12, 1987, Ronald Reagan, standing in front of the Berlin Wall that divided Germany into free and communist sectors, spoke four words that would forever be identified with his legacy. “Mr. Gorbachev,” he demanded,

“Tear down this wall!” 

These are words that Reagan had been saying, in one form or another, ever since he first spoke out against communist tyranny. Both fascism and communism, he felt, were totalitarian evils. Reagan’s persistence in this belief, and his tireless work to effect the end of what he famously dubbed “the Evil Empire”, was the keystone of his career – and the reason for Mr. Gorbachev, ultimately, tearing down that wall.

It doesn’t look good: 10% of U.S. Presidents have been assassinated and 20%, the objects of assassination attempts. These grim statistics, Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr suggests, never leave the collective mind of the men and women charged with protecting the President.

When Agent Parr threw himself in front of a hail of bullets and made a split-second decision to take the seemingly unscathed President to the hospital, only to discover that Reagan had been badly wounded, his first thought was “My God, we’ve lost another one.”  How the Secret Service protects a President; what they did, and why, on the day John Hinkley fired six bullets at Ronald Reagan. This detailed account encompasses the entire dread event. Parr’s exquisite training, and instincts, saved Ronald Reagan’s life – as Ronald attests, at the top of page one.  “Jerry Parr,” he wrote, “is my hero!”