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The Gospel in Words: ‘Reagan I Knew’ offers intimate look at former president

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"THE REAGAN I KNEW," by William F. Buckley Jr., Basic Books, 240 pages, $25

How timely that "The Reagan I Knew" should be released just when Reaganism is being pronounced dead.

In a column in "The Week," apocalyptically titled "End Times for Reaganism," Gore-Lieberman/Kerry-Edwards chief strategist Robert Shrum proclaims "that the Reagan playbook's time has come and gone."

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is likewise dismissive: "Reaganism has outlived its very short usefulness and ought to be junked."

It is useful then to be reminded by the conservative philosophical colossus William F. Buckley Jr. of who Ronald Reagan was, where he came from and the consequences of his time on history's stage.

Interestingly, the political rise of Ronald Reagan began during the Goldwater debacle in 1964. It was during the 1964 GOP convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco that Reagan entered the national political stage with what became known as simply "The Speech."

The 1964 election was seen by the leading pundits of the day as the burial of conservatism as a serious governing political philosophy. Steven F. Hayward, Reagan historian, sums up the political annihilation of Barry Goldwater: "The election seemingly confirmed ... the presumptive right of moderate liberals to rule America. 'Johnson's sweep,' political scientist Samuel Lubell wrote ... 're-established the (New Deal) majority, releasing a new push of revolutionizing political change."'

The death and burial of conservatism was short-lived, however. Four years later, the somewhat conservative Richard Nixon was elected. And more importantly, after a Watergate-inflicted diversion and after eight years as governor of California, Reagan was elected president.

In this slim, often intimate, sometimes poignant book, Buckley, who died last February, chronicles the rise of Reagan, his governorship, his presidency and his sunset years.

The book is largely a collection of correspondence between Buckley and Nancy and Ronald Reagan, stitched together by Buckley's brief historical vignettes. In all, the correspondence comprises about half of the book.

The letters from "Ron" Reagan are warm and clearly demonstrate his friendship with Buckley. However, they provide little insight that is helpful in the never-ending quest to penetrate Reagan's carefully constructed exterior defenses and to peer into his soul's inner sanctum. The correspondence between Buckley and Nancy, on the other hand, is surprisingly intimate. Clearly, these oddly intimate exchanges are mostly tongue in cheek, but they reveal a very deep and warm friendship.

Buckley was not aiming at a historical treatise. It's a book "in which the large scale of things is quite intentionally diminished or, better, maneuvered around, to make way for the cultivation of a personal curiosity about someone who became a good friend."

Buckley and Reagan first met in January 1961. Reagan was scheduled to introduce Buckley at a speech in a high school auditorium. Buckley's anecdote is revealing and emblematic of Reagan's approach to life.

The microphone was dead and no one could figure out how to turn it on. The control room was locked. While everyone was standing around wondering what to do, Reagan "walked to the side of the hall and peered through a window at the parapet running the length of the building, two stories above the traffic. His diagnosis seemed instantaneous. He was out of the window, his feet on the parapet, his back to the wall, edging his way to the control room window. Reaching it, he thrust his elbow, breaking the glass, and disappeared into the control room. In a minute there was light in the upstairs room, and then we could hear the crackling of the newly animated microphone."

Numerous other anecdotes chronicle Reagan's life. For example, we learn that Buckley played a role in arranging what came to be Reagan's genuine regard and affection for Truman Capote. We also learn the mystifying history of how the conservative Reagan chose Richard S. Schweiker, the relatively liberal senator from Pennsylvania, to be his running mate in the 1976 presidential race.

There's lots of background on the famous dispute between Buckley and Reagan over the Panama Canal. (Contrary to conservative orthodoxy, Buckley favored ceding control of the canal to Panama.) We also learn why Reagan passed over Robert Bork to nominate Sandra Day O'Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the run-up to the 1980 election, some readers may be surprised to know of Buckley's ardent support for Henry Kissinger. Recognizing that almost no one wanted Kissinger in a new administration, Buckley writes Reagan that he is happy that Reagan "will be meeting in due course with H. K., the better to exploit his extraordinary talents for the good of the republic."

Readers won't be surprised, however, to know that Reagan continued his strong views on the nature of the Soviet empire. In a letter to Buckley he states, "I have not changed my belief that we are dealing with an 'evil empire.' In fact, I warned the General Secretary (Gorbachev) in Reykjavik that his choice was to join in arms reduction or face an arms race he couldn't win."

Buckley sums up his book and his feelings on Reagan's legacy by discussing Communism's collapse. "The 1980s are most certainly the decade in which Communism ceased to be a creed, surviving only as a threat. And Ronald Reagan had more to do with this than any other statesman in the world."

E-mail: cannon@desnews.com