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Book Review: The Notes of Ronald Reagan

Students and admirers of President Ronald Reagan, and his speeches, should rejoice at the publication of this slim volume of Reagan’s favorite aphorisms, jokes, quotes and political wisdom. Taken directly from his personal collection of 4-by-6 note cards, it is truly the Rosetta Stone -- the key to the previously undecipherable mystery of how, through thousands of speeches and talks, Reagan held to a consistent set of principles illustrated and driven home by engaging stories that evolved, but never really changed, over his long public career.

Among longtime associates, Reagan’s collection of note cards was known to exist (and was allegedly dreaded by some White House staff that feared he would substitute his own thoughts for their carefully footnoted and focus group-tested wisdom), but no staffer apparently ever saw or had access to the collection. It was Reagan’s personal and private "mental exercise room" where he kept notes on what really mattered and stuck with him throughout his career.

It is believed by the scholars at the Reagan Library that he began the collection sometime during the years 1954 to 1962, when he served as a corporate spokesman for General Electric and traveled the country giving speeches to the company’s employees. Reagan maintained and updated his notes right through his time as Governor of California and his two terms as President. However, in the twilight of his life, when he was no longer able to speak in public, the ring binder with its 4-by-6 cards lay forgotten in his desk and was in the end packed away in an obscure box in the archives of the Reagan Library.

Fortunately, archivists looking for exciting new material to put on display at the Reagan Library to mark the February 6, 2011 Reagan Centennial stumbled across the binder in which the notes were kept, and the decision to publish them in book form was quickly made.

Divided into nine topics, from the Nation to Humor, anyone who heard a Reagan speech during his three campaigns for President will quickly recognize a favorite story, joke or quote as they leaf through The Notes.

But as enjoyable as that exercise may be, The Notes is much more important as a guide to how Reagan’s thinking developed. The breadth of topics covered and who, from Pericles, to Thomas Jefferson, to Bastiat, to long-forgotten figures of the early Twentieth Century, influenced his thinking or reminded him of a key point is stunning and well-illustrates Ronald Reagan’s omnivorous intellect.

As noted above, some of the cards make reference to now-obscure public figures. Fortunately, Editor Douglas Brinkley includes a good biographical glossary of those individuals referenced in The Notes, and part of the joy of reading The Notes is coming across such gems as Reagan’s note on California Governor and Senator Hiram Johnson’s blistering critique of L.A. Times founder and editor Harrison Gray Otis and wondering if it ever made it into a Reagan speech -- or if it merely served to remind him of some larger point about the media.

Speech writers and candidates for public office looking for easy material to crib may be a little disappointed in Brinkley’s presentation of the note cards in their original text. They are occasionally in a condensed or summary form that may have been clear to President Reagan, but it sometimes takes some considerable effort on the part of the reader to tease out the meaning. However, as Reagan recorded in one of his notes, “He who would have nothing to do with thorns should never attempt to gather flowers” and teasing out the meaning of the few obscure parts of The Notes is well worth the effort.

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