SHELF LIFE: Reagan's Thinking Points - Reagan: A Life in Letters - Evil: An Investigation - Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News - Samuel Johnson's Dictionary: Selections from the 1755 Work That Defined the English Language - Book Review
Ronald Reagan, even at this late date, continues to amaze. A massive new book, Reagan: A Life in Letters (Free Press, 934 pp., $35), edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, contains about 1,000 of the letters he wrote from age 11 until age 83, when Alzheimer's disease forced him, finally, to lay down his pen. This anthology amounts to an encyclopedia of Reagan's thought on matters public and private, political and religious, moral and aesthetic -- in short, on everything.
Reagan's letters are remarkable for their candor, and for their dogged grappling with matters of principle. Political discourse has long been dominated by the use of "talking points" -- the three or four most succinct, most mnemonically effective arguments for any given position. What we see in this book are not Reagan's "talking points," but what we might call his "thinking points": the insights that really made him act the way he did, as man and politician. Some of the most interesting letters in the book are addressed to William F. Buckley Jr.; with WFB, a friend of many decades' standing and an ideological soulmate, Reagan could presume on a foundation of shared belief -- and build up on it a highly intelligent rationale for some of the policies that troubled Buckley and other conservatives.
One important instance is a 1987 controversy over arms control: Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger co-wrote an article -- their first public collaboration since leaving office -- warning that Reagan's proposed elimination of medium- and short-range nuclear forces in Europe would give the Soviets a dangerous advantage in conventional forces and put Europe at risk. Buckley sent his old friend an advance copy of National Review, which included the Nixon-Kissinger article, along with other commentaries critical of the president's policy. Reagan responded with what he took pains to point out was "a personal letter and not a letter to the editor." He began by reassuring Buckley in broad terms, saying that "the essays on possible arms agreements with the Soviets overstate the risks and understate my own awareness of the Soviet conventional weapon threat." Then he got down to specifics: "Bill if we can get an agreement on both long-range and short-range missiles in both of which the Soviets have a sizeable edge we'll still have more than 4,000 nuclear warheads in Europe of the very short range including tactical battlefield weapons and bombs. Any reduction of these would have to be tied to conventional weapons on their side." Events would soon remove, entirely, the threat of Soviet forces, conventional or otherwise; what remains in this letter is a picture of a president closely engaged not just with his ideals, but with the very specific policies of the administration he led.
Also evident in the book is the man's preternatural charm. In 1971, Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown asked Reagan, then governor of California, to "jot down . . . the nicest thing a girl ever did for me." Reagan responded: "The nicest thing a girl ever did for me was when a girl named Nancy married me and brought a warmth and joy to my life that has grown with each passing year. I know she won't mind if I say the second nicest thing was a letter from a little fifth grade girl last week. She added a P.S. 'You devil you.' I've walked with a swagger ever since." That's Reagan all over: the uxorious conservative, with a streak of very sweet rebelliousness. Meet him, in this fine and important book.
-- Evil: An Investigation (Basic, 276 pp., $24), by Lance Morrow, is a sober examination of a serious topic. Morrow is one of America's best essayists, and he treats his subject with the necessary sensitivity and openness to paradox. "Evil," he writes, "is a strange, versatile, and dangerous word that can be used to describe a genocide or to incite one ('Let's kill all of the -- -- s. They are evil.')." Evil cannot finally be understood, he concludes, but wisdom helps us deal with it: "The task is to recognize evil for what it is, and yet to respond to it with discernment. See comprehensively, as a hedgehog does, but respond discriminately, flexibly, as a fox does, without the dogmatism that makes zealots stupid and prompts them, from time to time, to burn people at the stake."
In this book, Morrow demonstrates repeatedly the acuity of his own discernment. For example, he quotes Slobodan Milosevic as follows: "There is no Serb aggression. . . . We are merely protecting ourselves." Morrow comments: "This is the invariable formulation of evil. Evil portrays itself, almost without exception, as injured innocence, fighting back. . . . I had wondered for months how, in the face of the world's condemnation and disgust, the Serbs could keep up a war conducted by rape, murder, and the starvation of whole cities. . . . The found a remarkable solution: They felt sorry for themselves. They marinated in self-pity; self-cherishing, they fairly caramelized themselves in sentimentality. They solved their formidable moral problem by declaring themselves the injured party. . . . Being a victim is the Rolls-Royce of self-justifications, a plenary indulgence."
In the U.S., the word "evil" is rarely hurled at political opponents. The conspicuous exception is Joe McCarthy, who still serves as a useful avatar of evil in today's rhetoric. Morrow draws the conclusion that McCarthy was fighting a genuine evil -- Soviet Communism -- but that his alcoholism destroyed his efforts: "Whittaker Chambers judged that Joe McCarthy was ultimately an enemy to the cause of anti-Communism, and Chambers was right. . . . I do not judge McCarthy to have been evil. He was history's equivalent of a drunk driver." This is a judicious statement, in a measured, intelligent, well-written, and -- in the end -- hopeful book.
-- Tucker Carlson may look too young to have written a memoir, but we can be glad he did. Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News (Warner Books, 208 pp., $24.95) is perhaps the funniest political book of the year -- and I mean laugh-out-loud funny. A number of times, while reading this book, I practically gasped: Doesn't he know he's not allowed to write this stuff? What makes Carlson such a valuable conservative voice on CNN is his courageous willingness to resist all forms of political correctness -- conservative as well as liberal. When he defends Gary Condit as a victim of the media's "sexual snobbery," and a man "deeply wronged -- by the press," it becomes impossible for lefties to dismiss his scathing criticism of (say) Bill Bradley's speeches as merely the predictable squawking of a partisan hack. This book is strongly recommended for anybody who likes politics -- or just likes terrific stories, engagingly told.
-- The wealth of English, along with the genius of one of its greatest writers, is on vibrant display in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary: Selections from the 1755 Work That Defined the English Language (Walker & Co., 646 pp., $39.95). Edited by Johnson scholar Jack Lynch, this handsome volume offers a generous and highly entertaining sampling of the original work. It's a vivid snapshot of the vocabulary and culture of two and a half centuries ago. "Orgasm," for example, is defined by Johnson as "sudden vehemence." (I am given to understand that this definition, while still accurate, has been narrowed somewhat in recent usage.) An "abbey-lubber" is "a slothful loiterer in a religious house, under pretence of retirement and austerity." A "harridan" is "a decayed strumpet." A "smellfeast" is "a parasite; one who haunts good tables." A "stateswoman" is "a woman who meddles with publick affairs." Johnson is skilled in finding illustrative quotations. For "blockhead," for example, he quotes a couplet of Alexander Pope: "A blockhead rubs his thoughtless skull, / And thanks his stars he was not born a fool." Macaulay called Johnson's "the first dictionary which could be read with pleasure" -- and while the language has changed, the pleasure remains.