Douglas Brinkley: Reagan was a pragmatic conservative, says historian

Historians in the News

Historian Douglas Brinkley has written on everything from Hurricane Katrina to Jack Kerouac to civil rights icon Rosa Parks, but presidential history has always been one of his passions. He's produced biographies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter as well as a book on presidential hopeful John Kerry's Vietnam War experiences.

The Reagan Diaries is the latest from the prolific Brinkley, who in July joins the history department at Rice University. The 767-page Diaries represents a substantial selection from the daily record Ronald Reagan kept during his White House years. Brinkley was selected to edit it after his 2005 book about the D-Day assault on Pointe du Hoc, France, won the admiration of former California Gov. Pete Wilson and Nancy Reagan. Mrs. Reagan, who's custodian of the diaries, had the final say.

Brinkley, who will sign The Reagan Diaries at Brazos Bookstore today, discussed the book with Chronicle books editor Fritz Lanham.

Q. What are some of the things you learned about Ronald Reagan that you didn't know, some of the things that surprised you?

A. I always knew he was a conservative, but I learned more and more that he was a pragmatic conservative. He had a firm vision of where he wanted to lead the country in regard to fighting communism and cutting taxes, among other things. But he was highly practical in achieving results, meaning he was always willing to compromise with Democrats and negotiate with adversaries.

You see the man who calls the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and says, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," working constantly behind the scenes to try to get sweeping arms reductions with that same adversary. It's across the board. He's very close to Tip O'Neill and Ted Kennedy and personally likes them. He holds no malice toward his adversaries. The only person he really can't handle is (Moammar) Gadhafi of Libya.

Reagan as statesman lives by the adage "never paint your adversary into a corner." I didn't know that about him.

Q. What are some of the things that are left out of the diaries, some of the things you'd like to have known more about and don't find there?

A. I edited my condensed version so that the average Joe can read it like a book, from beginning to end, in a manageable-sized volume. But in 18 months I'm bringing out in three volumes the complete diaries, which will probably be in a boxed set. That will be annotated more heavily and with a larger glossary and will be the definitive diaries.

Q. I was really wondering if there are things that Reagan doesn't address in his diaries that you would like to have seen addressed?

A. He left behind so much writing for a president that it's hard to quibble if something is not there. The truth is I had the opposite problem — so much material, and it's very hard to edit a president who's writing while in power. This is real-time prose. I had to make some severe cuts on domestic and energy policy, for example, just because there wasn't room. I favored Reagan and foreign policy in this volume....
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