Bill and Ron

Steven F. Hayward reviews The Reagan I Knew, by William F. Buckley Jr.
F. K. Weyerhaeuser
Steven F. Hayward

There are layers of bittersweet melancholia in Bill Buckley's memoir of his 30-year friendship with Ronald Reagan. The Reagan I Knew is Buckley's final book; indeed, he was working on the finishing touches the day he died in February. The memory of Reagan, and especially the élan of ascendant conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s that Buckley's memoir rekindles, burns hotter now that conservatives find themselves in the political wilderness again. And there are finally the sentimental qualities of both men--the talent for happiness and friendship along with a leavening of wit and a fitting sense of self-deprecation--that are exceedingly rare among great men in public life today.

The Reagan I Knew is equal parts memoir and a collection of the personal letters that passed between Buckley and both Nancy and Ronald Reagan starting in 1965. In fact the first communiqué came from Nancy, a thank-you note for a Christmas plant Bill had sent. One startling aspect of their friendship is that Buckley seemed to have been as close personally to Nancy as to Ronald, and perhaps closer given Ronald's famous reserve. Had Kitty Kelley seen any of the letters between Buckley and Nancy, she would no doubt have twisted their playful expressions of affection into a tawdry tale in her execrable biography of Nancy. "Longing to see you," Buckley wrote in one typical chatty missive, most of which were concluded with a running joke about meeting Nancy in Casablanca. Nancy could be equally affectionate in her replies: "I thought you had dropped out of my life completely!" she wrote Bill after a ten-month hiatus in contact in 1969. "I won't mention the months and months you've neglected me terribly and the awful effect this can have on a girl." The depth of their affection was not unnoticed by Ronald Reagan; he ended one letter to Bill: "Nancy sends her best (though she used a different word)."

The political connection between Reagan and Buckley is the dominant attraction of the book.

While Buckley's memoir is silent on the Reagans' marriage and the frequently repeated theme of Reagan's supposed personal remoteness, he does lift the curtain on a few intimate details of the Reagans' family life, chiefly the difficulties with their two younger children. Buckley laments the atheism of Ron Reagan and the politics of Patti, even as he displays his typical generosity by celebrating their talents and personalities. (Included are a few letters from Buckley to a teenage Patti, praising her poetry.) Buckley offers a mild reproach of the Reagans' parenting: "The withdrawal, by Ron Jr., of any interest in spiritual life illuminates a study of him as well as of his parents. . . . What efforts were made--if any--to acquaint the boy with the historical and philosophical role of God in history?" The Reagans enlisted Buckley to the role of surrogate parent in one crucial matter: Ron Jr.'s decision to drop out of Yale to pursue a career as a ballet dancer. When the effort at dissuading Ron from his rash decision failed, Ronald Reagan cut off all financial support for his son: "Ronald Reagan was as determined to subject his son to poverty as Ron Jr. was to live in it."

Then there was the "endless matter" of Patti, "an unsilenced and evidently unsilenceable liberal." Throughout the 1980s Patti seemed determined to exploit every opportunity to repudiate her father's politics and embarrass her mother, culminating in an appearance in Playboy. The reader winces when Buckley records a tearful Nancy telling him, "I love my children, but I don't always like them."

The political connection between the two men is the dominant attraction of the book, however, and while Buckley's memoir is spare in its interpretation of Reagan, his retrospective account does contain a few revisions and revelations about his perception of Reagan. Buckley first met him in 1961, before Reagan's political career had begun in earnest, and like many others Buckley initially underestimated his political potential. But not for long. The book includes a long excerpt from Reagan's first appearance on Firing Line in 1967, where Reagan displayed thoughtfulness toward governing and a principled grasp of federalism. At this early moment it was clear to any unbiased observer that Reagan was no lightweight.

Buckley writes at the outset that he views himself as having been a "tutor" to Reagan, and recalls that after Reagan won the 1980 election he considered changing his occupational designation in Who's Who to "ventriloquist." Although Reagan gave Buckley and National Review some credit for his having become a Republican, there are subtle traces in Reagan's letters of his independent, self-taught mind. Buckley surely knew this, and it explains why he resisted the obvious temptation to send Reagan a constant stream of thoughts during Reagan's Oval Office years. (Buckley had the special address code to get letters directly to the president's desk.) Buckley was content to allow National Review to be the chief vehicle of communication with Reagan on political matters, and only occasionally wrote directly to Reagan about pressing political topics. He recalls some disagreements and anxieties he had about Reagan's course in the Oval Office, but the pattern of how each man dealt with the other had been established by their most significant disagreement, which Buckley records at length: the Panama Canal treaty of 1977.

This clash illustrates several traits of both men. Reagan showed his resolution and imperviousness to criticism even from a close ally, while Buckley showed his gentleness in opposing his favorite politician. Both displayed their playful sides in the aftermath: Before Buckley arrived for a visit, Reagan put up signs in his driveway, Burma-Shave style, reading: "We Built It . . . We Paid For It . . . It's Ours!" For the next decade Buckley ended many of his letters to Reagan with a mock warning against giving away the Erie Canal, alternating with a running jest about being Reagan's ambassador to Afghanistan and directing the anti-Soviet effort there.

Fully appreciating Reagan's independence of mind, Buckley engaged Reagan selectively and with finesse during his presidency. In the early 1970s Buckley had advised Reagan to come out against détente, and recommended that he consult Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson's staff ("the best pool of young men around"), many of whom would later join Reagan's administration. Yet by 1980 Buckley was a go-between in establishing a détente between Reagan and Henry Kissinger, who had been a major target of Reagan's attack on détente in 1976.

Buckley fretted to and commiserated with Reagan about personnel appointments, about hanging tough with his economic program during the grinding 1981–82 recession, about David Stockman's defection, about China policy, about the ruckus over Reagan's visit to the Bitburg cemetery in West Germany in 1985, and about many other topics. Buckley watered down some criticisms of Reagan that appeared in National Review, and on a few occasions suppressed contemplated criticisms, above all assuring Reagan that "no personal criticism, i.e., questioning your motives, will be published."

In a 1984 letter, Buckley wrote Reagan: "I can't pretend I swing with all your decisions, but with most of them I do most heartily." But in the second term Buckley told him he was increasingly worried that the president "seemed to me and to many conservatives to come perilously close to trusting the Soviet Union." This anxiety crystallized with the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 1987. Buckley joined Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and a large cast of conservatives in opposition to the INF pact. Reagan defended himself stoutly in his private replies to Buckley, leaving Buckley to repair to their friendship and agreeing to disagree. "Damn I wish I could be on your side on that one," Buckley wrote to Reagan in January 1988. "Haven't had a significant difference with you since the Panama Canal."

Recalling this chapter in the Reagan story leads to Buckley's one significant revelation and revision: the doubt that, had the Soviet Union launched a nuclear attack, Reagan would have ordered a retaliation. Buckley reprints the moving speech he gave at National Review's 30th-anniversary gala dinner in 1985, with Reagan present, where he explained that the West's existence depended on our willingness to sacrifice it in an instant if necessary. "Twenty years after saying that, in the presence of the man I was talking about, I changed my mind," Buckley wrote.

Reagan's sincere anti-nuclear pacifism is not a new theme among the writers who have studied him, but it is still amazing to contemplate. That Reagan largely concealed his probable dereliction from the pre-programmed duty of Cold War presidents was of a piece with his personal reserve, and must be closely related to his drive for the end of the Cold War by supremely Machiavellian means. It suggests new dimensions of Reagan's remarkable political character. It would have been good to hear more from Buckley about this tantalizing aspect of the Reagan story, given that the Cold War was the central preoccupation of Buckley's career.

Despite this revision, the conclusion of Buckley's 30th-anniversary meditation holds up as strongly today as it did that night in 1985, and serves as a fitting coda for both of our deceased heroes: "I pray that my son, when he is sixty, and your son, when he is sixty, and the sons and daughters of our guests tonight will live in a world from which the great ugliness that has scarred our century has passed. Enjoying their freedom, they will be grateful that, at the threatened nightfall, the blood of their fathers ran strong."

Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


Steven F.
  • Steven F. Hayward was previously the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI. He is the author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends, and the author of many books on environmental topics. He has written biographies of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and of Winston Churchill, and the upcoming book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents. He contributed to AEI's Energy and Environment Outlook series. 

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