WASHINGTON — Ronald Reagan was known as the "Great Communicator," but in early 1983 one of his press aides didn't think the president's message was getting through.
In a memo released Thursday in a batch of Reagan presidential records, former deputy press secretary Peter Roussel suggested the White House begin "marketing" Reagan's 1983 State of the Union address through a "massive, citizen-oriented surrogate operation" — a "speakers group headed up by the most prominent and influential names we can attract from various groups."
"If we are going to effectively combat the drumbeat of negativism that we are getting through the networks (and which will continue) we have got to battle back through other forms," Roussel wrote in a Jan. 31, 1983, memo to chief of staff James A. Baker III just a week after Reagan's second State of the Union address.
The memo was among 8,000 pages of Reagan presidential papers released at the Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif. The records were supposed to have been released last January but were kept sealed as the Bush administration worked up an executive order to govern release of presidential records from Reagan on.
Still locked up are 60,000 pages of Reagan records and tens of thousands of pages left behind by Reagan's vice president, George Bush.
The boxes unsealed in California included the office files of some of Reagan's advisers, including Baker; Elizabeth Dole, special assistant to the president for public liaison and later transportation secretary; and press secretary Marlin Fitzwater. The papers addressed subjects as diverse as politics, energy deregulation, labor.
In one memo, adviser Lyn Nofziger complains the Reagan White House was too supportive of liberal AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland. "When are we going to quit trying to be nice to Lane Kirkland?" Nofziger asks in his July 1, 1981, memo to Baker.
The Presidential Records Act kept the 68,000 pages of records closed for 12 years because they contained confidential internal advice and deliberations among government officials.
That wait ended in January 2001. Because the Freedom of Information Act contains no provision to keep the records secret any longer, they were scheduled for release.
The Bush White House, however, delayed opening the files for a year so it could review them and work on an executive order Bush issued Nov. 1. It gives former presidents more authority to withhold certain papers and the sitting president the authority to overrule his predecessor.
The White House said Thursday it expects to finish reviewing all 68,000 records by the end of the month. Duke Blackwood, director of the Reagan library, said the rest of the records should be available to the public by spring.
"Assuming Bush administration officials have opted not to be overly restrictive in their decisions of what to release in these pages, there is a fascinating story about how President Reagan chose to use or ignore the confidential advice of his key lieutenants," says Bruce Craig, director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History.