In terms of quantity, it would have to be Theodore Roosevelt, but I think Abraham Lincoln was undoubtedly the best pure writer of any of the Presidents, no matter if we’re talking about public papers or private communication, especially when you consider the extent of his education and the era in which he lived. Stylistically, much of the writing (official and personal) of our 18th, 19th, and even early 20th Century Presidents has a formality that can make it a chore to read. There’s certainly an art and a beauty to some of that writing, as well, but it rarely feels natural. Nearly all of the early Inaugural Addresses read more like royal proclamations than the initial public speech by the democratically-elected leader of a free republic.
Lincoln’s writing always felt natural — whether we’re talking about public messages or private correspondence. I always get the sense that Lincoln wrote with the people hanging out at the post office in Sangamon County, Illinois, or the bars in Chicago in mind rather than Ivy Leaguers or the editors of newspapers in New York and Boston. Lincoln seemed to write with the thought that everything he released would be read out loud. I think that came from his love of the theater, and the fact that his reading tastes ranged from Shakespeare to Artemus Ward. Lincoln’s reading lists weren’t wholly dominated by Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and he was one of the first American Presidents to realize that the vast majority of the rest of the country — including the voters — had similar tastes and experiences. That’s not to say that Lincoln ever dumbed himself down to the American public as some Presidents have (I’ve previously written about the long history of anti-intellectualism in Presidential politics). Instead, he was one of the first Presidents who actually knew how to talk to people. Quite frankly, he’s still one of the few Presidents who had that ability.
Another President whom I believe was a great pure, natural writer might surprise some of my readers — Ronald Reagan. It’s always difficult to discern which words belong to modern Presidents because we live in an era where every politician has a staff of speechwriters and even their autobiographies are generally the work of ghostwriters. Reagan had one of the great Presidential speechwriters of all-time in Peggy Noonan, and his delivery of important speeches was usually so on-point that he deservedly earned the nickname of “the Great Communicator”. But with President Reagan, we have two paths of insight that illuminate the fact that he was not simply a Great Communicator of other people’s words, but that he was a wonderful writer himself. First of all, Reagan kept a diary as President that was released after he died — edited to one volume by the great historian Douglas Brinkley and available unabridged, as well. Reagan’s diary is mostly short daily recaps of what happened each day while he was in the White House, but from time-to-time, there are surprisingly candid reflections about his family life — no earth-shattering revelations, but an almost stunning candor from a genial man who also happened to be completely opaque to everybody he every knew except for his wife, Nancy. Clark Clifford once referred to Reagan as an “amiable dunce”, but his diaries make it clear that he was anything but. Ronald Reagan may have been an actor — a professional at reading other people’s lines — but he was also a thinker and, right or wrong, an idealist with ideas of his own.
But the diary that Reagan kept during his Presidential years isn’t the best example of his talent as a writer — it’s his personal correspondence. Now, again, most Presidents have secretaries, speechwriters, and interns in charge of their correspondence — in fact, there is literally an “Office of Presidential Correspondence” in the White House. President Obama (another very good pure writer as displayed in his first book, Dreams From My Father) reads a number of letters from the American public every week, but other Presidents have done something similar in an attempt to sample the pulse of life outside of the White House bubble. Reagan was no different and, as I wrote in "Ronald Reagan’s Private Correspondence With America", not only read letters from the American people, but he personally responded. His instantly-recognizable handwriting and simple style set Ronald Reagan apart from the usual form letters and cautious responses of normal Presidential correspondence — much to the chagrin of his political advisers, and especially his wife when he would send a personal check to a family in need that had asked for his help.
The 2004 book, Reagan: A Life in Letters, is a solid sample of Reagan’s skill as a writer and includes public and private correspondence from before and after he embarked upon a political career. In every instance, Reagan’s writing style is genuine — the mark of any good writer. I gained a whole different level of respect for Ronald Reagan once I began reading his personal writing, and the book that really reinforced that was actually published by Nancy Reagan — I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan. What really sets that book apart, again, is the candor. There’s nothing contrived about the letters in that book. They are love letters, pure and simple. I saw some of them on display at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and was astonished at the beauty and simplicity of the writing. Reagan had no expectations that the letters would ever be read by anybody but the love of his life, and I think that is what makes them so powerful. It’s difficult to fake humanity and love and determination, and that’s what makes Lincoln and Reagan such great writers.
Fittingly, the last act of Ronald Reagan’s public life was the release of a letter — handwritten, simple, memorable, and beautifully heartbreaking — in which he announced that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, closing the letter with, “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.” Even in such tragic circumstances, Reagan included a dose of optimism, something that Lincoln also often instilled in his speeches, messages, or correspondence. And maybe that’s what made these two men the best writers to ever serve as President. Somehow, their writing was never about them — even when it was.
In 2003, Edmund Morris, who wrote a brilliant trilogy of biographies on Theodore Roosevelt and a must-read, albeit controversial, authorized biography of Ronald Reagan (Dutch), penned an article for The Washington Post about Reagan’s writing style. Of the personal letters that Reagan wrote during his life — in and out of politics — Morris said:
It’s important to understand that Reagan, unconscious of being anthologized one day (lack of ego, again), addressed almost all these letters to individual people whose reactions were important to him. In that sense, each is a campaign document, even if he had no public office in mind at the time of writing. His weapons are honesty, modesty, and an epistolary style that, while free of literary flourishes or anything resembling an original thought, seems (deceptively) to focus on the recipient. I’ve interviewed many of the owners of these letters, and can testify that they cherish every cliché.”
What really set Lincoln and Reagan apart from other Presidents when it comes to their writing is that it was always meaningful — to them and the reader — but the simplicity and modesty of the writing made its importance also seem effortless. And that’s what makes it feel genuine.
Through the long telescope of history, then, the ground between Reagan and Johnson appears vast, the distance between two opposite visions from two opposite moments in time. And it is the distance, as well, between two opposite types of men. It is hard to think of two Presidents in modern history, after all, who approached the office more differently than Reagan and Johnson. Johnson was among the most hyperactive executives the White House had ever seen, always seeking to put his fingerprints on every last scrap of administration business no matter how large or small…
…That would never be Reagan — an actor learns early the benefits of a good night’s sleep. From his earliest days in politics, Reagan was supremely confident in his own abilities as an executive. He had come to prominence in a career in which he constantly had to give up control — to producers and directors and studio bosses, to makeup designers and camera operators and press agents, to critics and millions of anonymous strangers who would form consequential opinions of him as they watched on distant screens. When he began his political career in the mid-1960s, he took to the disaggregated life of a political candidate quickly. Most first-time candidates struggle to adapt to the existence in which they must surrender control of their lives to other people. Reagan had been doing it for years. He understood an important distinction that Johnson never grasped: being in control and being successful aren’t always the same thing…
Each was a gifted performer and raconteur who could captivate an audience. But they excelled in different settings. Johnson was best in person. He was overwhelming, always, and his conversations hummed with transactional momentum. He told involved and engaging Texas tall tales, but he usually told them in order to drive home a pertinent point. He made use of his large girth and six-foot-three-inch frame. All the clichéd metaphors of politics — glad-handing, buttonholing, back stroking, arm twisting — were things Johnson actually, physically did in order to get his way. His greatest asset was his intuitive sensitivity to human emotion, his unmatched ability to spot people’s highest ambitions and their darkest fears. Even Alabama Governor George Wallace, one of the twentieth century’s most notorious racial demagogues, found himself mesmerized by an impassioned Oval Office conference with Johnson in the midst of a tense 1965 standoff over racial protests in Wallace’s home state. “Hell,” said Wallace afterward, “if I’d stayed in there much longer, he’d have had me coming out for civil rights.”
A conversation with Reagan, on the other hand, was usually pleasant and entirely superficial. In his early days as a politician, supporters would often walk away from first encounters with candidate Reagan disappointed. He’d told funny jokes, they’d laughed heartily, they’d had a ball. But they couldn’t remember much if any substance to what he’d said. The problem wasn’t that Reagan was an empty suit; rather, he struggled to connect with people when they came too close. Even his own children encountered a fog in their father’s eyes when they greeted him in a room. He was friendly, but he gave the impression that he was meeting them for the first time.
He was better with an audience watching him. Better still if they were watching him on a television screen from the comfort of their own homes. In these moments, he was great. He launched his 1966 campaign for governor with a thirty-minute television advertisement in which he pensively strolled around a comfortable living room. It was all so wonderfully familiar and authentic. There were pictures on the wall and a fire in the fireplace; Reagan’s sharp, pithy summation of California’s and the nation’s problems seemed to come to him spontaneously, a kindly father figure opining on issues of the day. None of it was real — the sentences were scripted and the living room was a studio set. But Californians didn’t mind; they were starting to expect their politicians to be great performers on TV.
Television was taking over politics in the midsixties. Anyone who’d lived through the Kennedy years could see that. Johnson could see that, and he worked tirelessly to adapt, but never with much success. As President, he obsessed over his televised press conferences, bringing in a shifting cast of experts for coaching on his diction, his posture, his eyewear. But his problem was fundamental: performing for a TV camera, he could never do what he did in person, he couldn’t see his audience and adapt his personality accordingly. And that introduced a terrifying possibility: that the people watching would see him as himself.
Johnson and Reagan, then, were both stars, but stars of different eras. It is difficult to fit them inside a single picture — when the mind focuses on one of them, the other becomes a blur. Even in the lore of practical politics, where both names have assumed vaunted status in recent years, they inhabit separate realms. Reagan is the President that politicians from both parties publicly say they admire — principled, noble, and strong. But Johnson is the President they secretly long to be — ruthless, effective, a man who got big things done.
With modern medical care, James Garfield absolutely would have survived his wounds. In fact, a case could be made that Garfield would have been better off if nobody even tried to treat him after he was shot. It was unsterilized instruments and dirty fingers being poked into Garfield’s wounds in an effort to find the track of the bullet which introduced the infections that eventually killed him. Of the four Presidents who were assassinated, Garfield’s original wounds were the least severe, and the gunshot wound that Reagan survived in 1981 was less severe than both Garfield’s and McKinley’s. Charles Guiteau shot James Garfield, but it was the President’s doctors who killed him.
Lincoln is a different story. Sure, there’s always the possibility that with an immediate response and modern technology, Lincoln could have remained alive via life support, but he would have been in a vegetative state. But even that is highly unlikely. John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at almost point-blank range. There were powder burns around the wound in the back of Lincoln’s skull, so Booth was very, very close — probably less than six inches away from the President — when he shot him. Also, it’s important to remember that Lincoln was shot with a Civil War-era weapon, so he wasn’t struck with a bullet as we think of bullets today, but a .41 caliber ball from a Derringer pistol. The ball flattened as it passed through the back of Lincoln’s skull and carried bone fragments from the skull as it passed through the full length of Lincoln’s brain. There was no exit wound and the pressure and trauma fractured both of Lincoln’s eye sockets (from inside of his head). The ball probably lodged in bone near or behind Lincoln’s right eye — several attending physicians immediately after the shooting and in the autopsy the next day disagreed about which eye the bullet lodged behind because as they opened up Lincoln’s skull during the autopsy, the ball literally fell out of his head and through the fingers of a doctor. Most believe that it lodged behind the right eye because it was protruding after the shooting.
Lincoln’s wound was fatal in almost every instance in 1865, and it would probably be just as fatal in 2014. He kept breathing until 7:22 AM the next morning, but Lincoln was also known to be a surprisingly strong man physically so his respiratory system put up quite a fight. However, it’s pretty much a given that Lincoln was brain-dead by midnight or 1 AM; the trauma to his brain was too severe — the autopsy showed that the bullet not only passed through the entire brain and carried skull fragments with it, but it also left sharp pieces of bone from his skull in various parts of the brain. The doctors attending to Lincoln acted immediately and did as good of a job as could be expected — in 1865 or 150 years later — but it was a fatal wound.
Reagan was very lucky for the quick reaction of the Secret Service. At the Washington Hilton, the lead agent, Jerry Parr, quickly shoved the President into the limousine as shots rang out and Tim McCarthy did exactly what the Secret Service is supposedly trained to do — he instantaneously turned towards the gunman, made himself a bigger target, and literally took a bullet for the President. If Parr hadn’t shoved Reagan into the limo when he did, Reagan likely would have taken a bullet to the head; instead, two bullets hit the limousine and one of them ricocheted off the side and struck Reagan. If it wasn’t for the quick reaction of the Secret Service during the shooting and immediately afterward when Parr diverted the limo to the hospital instead of the White House, Reagan would have died from either a more direct shot or from the massive blood loss that he was suffering from. The doctors at George Washington Hospital believed Reagan would have died if he had arrived at the hospital even just a couple of minutes later. It also helped that Reagan was in really good physical shape for a 70-year-old man. But if Reagan had been shot in 1881 instead of 1981; he’d have ended up with the second-shortest Presidency in history. And if Garfield had been shot in 1981 instead of 1881, he wouldn’t be the guy holding that record.
"But from the front of the room, these squabbles in the crowd, even the crowd itself, were probably all a blur. Reagan never looked too closely at his audiences. Since childhood, he’d been frightfully nearsighted. His parents paid for thick eyeglasses, which he wore dutifully, but without them, his visible world was mostly blotches of color and drifting shapes. He had adapted without much questioning, the way that children can, forgoing baseball for football, a sport in which you didn’t have to see well enough to hit a tiny ball, only well enough to hit another player.
He’d started his show business career on radio, where his audience was invisible. At the audition for his first job at the Davenport, Iowa, station WOC, the Scottish-born program director had explained how things worked. ‘That’s the mike in front of ye,’ he said. ‘Ye won’t be able to see me but I’ll be listenin’. Good luck.’
In Hollywood, too, seeing had never been that important. Arriving in Southern California in the late 1930s, he’d looked up Joy Hodges, an acquaintance from back home who was working as an actress in the film colony. ‘I have visions of becoming an actor,’ he confessed to her. ‘What I really want it a screen test.’ Hodges looked at the man in front of her — dressed like the Midwest, unsophisticated in the ways of the world, but tall, broad-shouldered, and undeniably handsome. ‘I think I might be able to fix something,’ she said. ‘Just don’t ever put those glasses on again.’
So he’d learned to get by without seeing things too closely. In time, it became the habit of his life. Eventually, he’d gotten contact lenses. Though they could correct his vision, their effect was strangely limited. His children, rushing into a room at day’s end to greet their father, would find him looking puzzled, as if they were strangers. Have we met? It was as if, after all the years of seeing ill-defined blotches, the part of his brain that processed the particulars of a person’s face had corroded irreparably due to lack of use. Or maybe it had never been there at all. Once, at his son Michael’s high school graduation, where he was the commencement speaker, he’d greeted a line of graduates. ‘My name is Ronald Reagan,’ he said to a grinning boy in cap and gown. ‘What’s yours?’ The graduate removed his cap. ‘Remember me? I’m your son, Mike.’”
—From Landslide: LBJ and Ronald Reagan at the Dawn of a New America by Jonathan Darman (BOOK | KINDLE), available from Random House on September 23rd
I have read Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (BOOK | KINDLE) and it is a fantastic book — one of the best books of 2014, in my opinion.
I’ve really liked all three of Perlstein’s books so far. The previous two books, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (BOOK | KINDLE), and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (BOOK | KINDLE), were damn good reads and I think The Invisible Bridge is even better. Highly recommended.
Even though Reagan came close to beating out President Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, he continued to focus on becoming President and I think Reagan would have seen the Vice Presidency as a major step in the wrong direction. If Ford had asked Reagan to be his running mate, I don’t think Reagan would have accepted. I don’t think Nancy would have allowed him to. Nothing could be gained for Reagan by serving as Ford’s running mate. The Vice Presidency was finally gaining influence and significance in the 1970s, but it wouldn’t have done anything to actually further Reagan’s Presidential prospects.
A Ford/Reagan ticket might have resulted in a victory, but Reagan wouldn’t really gain anything from that, either. Ford wouldn’t have been able to run for re-election in 1980 because of the 22nd Amendment (Ford had served more than two years of Richard Nixon’s unexpired term, so he would have been ineligible to be elected again had he won in 1976). But if Ford and Reagan had been elected together in 1976 and the Ford had a rough four years in office, Reagan would have been intimately connected with that Administration, giving his potential 1980 opponent something to strongly use to campaign against him with. He would have been pegged as the successor or as the continuation of that hypothetical Ford Administration. Anything like that would have been a huge risk for Reagan because part of the reason he challenged Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976 (besides believing that Ford wasn’t Conservative enough) was that Reagan was already 65 years old. In 1976! He was older than Nixon and Ford and a full six years older than John F. Kennedy. People forget about that — Reagan was worried, even in the 1970s, about whether his age would be an issue. Even if he had beaten Ford out for the GOP nomination in 1976 and been elected that year, Reagan would have been the second-oldest President ever inaugurated — and that was a full four years before he actually be did become President!
More than anything else, though, President Ford was pissed off in 1976 by the fact that Reagan challenged him (Ford), an incumbent President of the same party, and required Ford to expend energy and much-needed campaign funds just to get a nomination that is usually an automatic for an incumbent President. When Reagan notified Ford that he was going to seek the nomination that year, Reagan said he hoped it wouldn’t be divisive and Ford responded, “How can you challenge an incumbent President of your own party and not be divisive?”. The Ford/Reagan battle in the 1976 primaries really hurt Ford more than anything — even more than Ford’s controversial pardon of Richard Nixon or Ford’s big mistake in the second Presidential debate with Jimmy Carter when he stumbled and suggested that there was not Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. But the GOP primary battle allowed Carter to begin the general campaign with a huge lead over Ford and Ford came extraordinarily close to closing that gap and winning the election — with another week of campaigning, he likely would have beaten Carter. Ford genuinely believed that Reagan (and Reagan’s advisers) were to blame for the fact that Ford had to fight from so far behind against Carter. In interviews embargoed until after his death, Ford admitted, “It burned the hell out of me that I got the diversion from Reagan that caused me to spend an abnormal part of my time trying to round up individual delegates and to raise money.” Ford was also bothered by the fact that even after Ford clinched the Republican nomination, Reagan did very little to help him out during the general election. Recognizing that the focus of Reagan and his team immediately turned towards 1980 following the 1976 Republican National Convention, Ford said, “They didn’t give a damn whether I won or not because they were already planning to run in 1980.”
Gerald Ford was, by all accounts, one of the most good-natured, mild-mannered, polite, reasonable, and loyal politicians in American history. That’s one of the reasons that Congressional Democrats all but demanded that Nixon nominate Ford to fill the vacancy caused by Vice President Spiro Agnew’s resignation in 1973. Ford also knew that he needed a more Conservative running mate in 1976 because he and the Vice President that he had appointed, Nelson Rockefeller, were too moderate for his increasingly Conservative party. Ford dumped Rockefeller in favor of the more appealing (to the far right of the GOP) Bob Dole and, later in life, frequently mentioned that the biggest regret of his life was dumping Rockefeller from the 1976 ticket — not because of any disrespect towards Senator Dole, but because Rockefeller had served him well and Ford was ashamed that he had pandered so much in taking that action. But before he chose Bob Dole at the 1976 Republican National Convention, many Republicans pushed for Ford to choose Reagan as his VP and there was nothing mild-mannered or good-natured about President Ford’s response. When Reagan’s name was mentioned, he bluntly said, “Absolutely not. I don’t want anything to do with that son-of-a-bitch.”
So, to answer the rest of your question, yes, Ford likely would have been re-elected if Reagan had been his running mate. However, he likely would have been re-elected if Reagan hadn’t forced him to spend the spring of 1976 fighting for the Republican nomination even though he was the incumbent President.
And, yes, Ford was extremely depressed about losing the 1976 election, but he wasn’t suicidal. It was an understandably devastating defeat — George H.W. Bush has spoken of how devastated he was, too, upon losing the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. General Colin Powell recalled a conversation with Bush at Camp David after the 1992 election where Bush 41 was nearly in tears while telling General Powell, “Colin, it hurts. It really hurts. I just never thought they’d elect him.” It’s an unimaginable sadness for anyone who hasn’t actually been the most powerful person in the world and then had hundreds of millions of people decide, “No, we don’t want you anymore.” But Ford was not suicidal. Some people have suggested that he was in a dark place because it was his wife, Betty, who read Ford’s concession speech in 1976, but in actuality, Ford had been making non-stop campaign swings during the last days and hours of the ‘76 campaign and had completely lost his voice, so that’s why Betty Ford gave the speech as he stood nearby.
40th President of the United States (1981-1989)
Full Name: Ronald Wilson Reagan
Born: February 6, 1911, Graham Building, 111-113 Main Street, Tampico, Illinois
Political Party: Republican
State Represented: California
Term: January 20, 1981-January 20, 1989
Age at Inauguration: 69 years, 349 days
Administrations: 49th and 50th
Congresses: 97th, 98th, 99th, and 100th
Vice President: George Herbert Walker Bush (1981-1989)
Died: June 5, 2004, 668 St. Cloud Road, Bel-Air, Los Angeles, California
Age at Death: 93 years, 120 days
Buried: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley, California
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 15 of 43 [↓2]
There are many aspects of being President of the United States. First and foremost is the President as a political leader, Commander-in-Chief, chief executive of the federal government, and administrator of all of the departments which make up the Executive Branch. Yet, there is also the public relations role. A role which sometimes calls for inspirational leadership, motivational leadership, the skills for challenging Americans to be their best that is almost like the skills required of a great athletic coach. This part of the Presidency is almost a paternal role, and it is best exhibited in trying moments like the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger or the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut. No one was better at this part of the Presidency than Ronald Reagan, and that means something in these rankings because it is indeed an important part of being President. Reagan wasn’t the best manager/administrator, but he was a rock star politically and, when the nation needed their President to make them feel like everything would be okay, Ronald Reagan was usually there to say the right things with his comforting voice and warm easy smile. That may not make you the best President and the metrics may not put him in the top tier, but something is to be said for someone who makes Americans feel good and strong and safe.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: Not Ranked
1990: Siena Institute: 22 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 25 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 11 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 6 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 6 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 10 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 18 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 8 of 40
Basically, anybody who traditionally voted Democrat — usually white, blue-collar Democrats and mainly in the Northeast and Midwest — that supported Reagan in the 1980s and went back to supporting Democratic candidates after Reagan’s Presidency. A lot of them continued supporting Democrats in state and local elections, but voted for Reagan in Presidential elections. There were some Reagan Democrats during the 1980 campaign, but more of them began popping up after Reagan became President. Reagan Democrats were a large reason why Reagan won 49 out of 50 states in the 1984 election.
Some Reagan Democrats supported George H.W. Bush in 1988, but not enough to make a huge difference and most traditional Democrats were back supporting Democratic Presidential candidates soon after Reagan left office. Reagan Democrats also had an effect on President Reagan’s legislative success. The Democrats had majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives throughout Reagan’s Administration, but the fact that a significant group of the electorate supported Reagan’s agenda and were the type of voters that usually made sure to make it to the polls on Election Day led a lot of conservative and moderate Democrats in Congress to support Reagan rather than have to face the possibility of having the popular President show up in their districts to campaign against them and endorse their opponents.