Let me say I'm very lucky and the Lord really had his hand on my shoulder. Literally, a sequence of minor miracles strung together to help me have a recovery that is complete . . .
Letter of June 15, 1981
On Tuesday morning, January 20, 1981, in a sun-filled ceremony on the west side of the Capitol, Chief Justice Warren E. Berger swore in Ronald Reagan as the fortieth President of the United States. Nancy Reagan held the Bible used formerly by the President's mother, Nelle. Wearing a charcoal-gray coat, striped trousers, gray vest and tie, Reagan, called by some columnists the "Cowboy Hero," became at age sixty-nine the oldest man to assume the presidency. Thousands of invited guests, including columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., and singer Pat Boone, along with 150,000 citizens witnessed the start of the Reagan presidency and joined in singing "America the Beautiful."
Brimming with optimism, the Reagans welcomed the opportunity to begin an era of national renewal and religious dedication. Earlier that morning they had gone to St. John's Episcopal Church near Lafayette Square and listened to sermons by the Reverend Donn Moomaw, their pastor at the Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, and another favorite minister, the Reverend Billy Graham.
Time magazine's "Man of the Year" entered the presidency at a time of intense national frustration. For fourteen months, American hostages (President Reagan called them prisoners of war) had been held in Iran; the American economy was depressed and unstable, with high unemployment, numerous business bankruptcies, and a national debt exceeding $900 billion and climbing. Reagan enjoyed the boost in national optimism soon after his inauguration when the Iran hostages were released.
During the first ten weeks of his presidency, Reagan began deciphering the codes and intricacies of Washington's power structure. He told Time reporter Laurence I. Barrett in early February that White House business was not that much different from Sacramento's business. Maybe his early estimate was a hope rather than a reality, for the President had not yet experienced many of the complex machinations in the district. He also told Barrett he did not have a moment for pleasure reading, that he dreaded the uproar of complaints about budget cuts, and that he found that complex issues had positive values on both sides.
Each weekday morning he went to the Oval Office at 9 a.m. and gave his secretary, Helene van Damm, a folder of papers he had read and signed the night before. During Cabinet Room meetings, with treasury secretary Donald Regan and budget director David Stockman, he discussed various ways to lower federal spending and methods for reducing taxes. Other Oval Office meetings with National Security Advisor Richard Allen, White House Counsel Edwin Meese, and Chief of Staff James Baker, reporters, and occasionally foreign ministers filled the afternoons until 5 p.m.
During the early months of his administration, Reagan answered many of the letters from correspondents with a recording machine rather than handwritten letters. In the twelve months after mid-February 1981, he filled twenty-five minicassettes. As the year unfolded he gradually shifted to handwritten replies. He had various staff members, such as Mike Deaver, Deputy Chief of Staff, check complex questions posed by writers and also answer ordinary requests and invitations. Reagan's dictated replies during the early months thanked writers for their encouragement and support: the President's favorite phrase was "your letter brightened the day for many of us." To his friend and astute columnist Lieutenant General Victor "Brute" Krulak, Reagan dictated that he was battling those who forget the last forty years and seem to think that all troubles came about in the last four months. Moreover, he promised the general that he would not whittle back defense and would fight to the "last pop gun" before giving in: "In fact, I won't give in. They'll have to do it over my carcass if that's possible." To another writer he replied that the President did not cause inflation, it was started by Washington, D.C. And the person who sent a shamrock from County Tipperary received a grateful dictated acknowledgment.
As in every first One Hundred Days, Washington welcomed the new President; and he, like his predecessors, basked in the friendly reception. An astute politician, Reagan quickly selected the right invitations. In late January, on a Saturday afternoon, he went to the Alibi Club on I Street and visited with fifty of the district's power brokers. That evening he joined six hundred members of the Alfalfa Club, and after speeches by Senator John Glenn and Henry Kissinger, he spoke briefly and included jokes about his age. In his first press conference on January 29, he promised to lower the inflation rate, set a sixty-day freeze on government regulations, restrict federal hiring, and to eliminate all price controls on domestic oil. On national television on February 5, he spoke to the nation about the economy, announcing sobering numbers: 7 million persons unemployed; double-digit inflation back to back for the first time since World War I; a national debt of $934 billion. He predicted that unless taxes and spending were reduced, the nation faced a huge economic calamity.
On February 18, in his State of the Union Address to Congress, Reagan spoke for thirty-four minutes about his economic program and called for $467 billion less federal spending together with $709 billion in reduced taxes. He believed the federal government must make over $41 billion worth of budget cuts in fiscal 1982 and $123.8 billion in cuts by fiscal 1986. His blueprint for economic recovery numbered 281 pages; only defense spending escaped cuts; rather, it would be increased. Eighty-three federal programs would have their budgets reduced; states and cities would have more control over federal allotments. Although his remarks were greeted with numerous standing ovations, critics soon tore into his speech. Eighteen members of the Congressional Black Caucus accused the administration of making the poor "hungrier, colder, and sicker." Democrat congressman Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts promised "We're not going to let him tear asunder programs we've built." Congressional and public debates quickly focused on Reagan's national renewal program: A Washington Post survey reported in early March that Americans favored the program to cut taxes and slash the budget three to one. Although those statistics encouraged the President, difficult months lay ahead.
Also during these first months, Reagan welcomed to Washington Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from Great Britain, Foreign Minister Jean Francois-Poncet from France, and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir from Israel. Thatcher became his favorite foreign leader, and she, along with her husband, Denis, were guests of honor at the first State Dinner during the Reagan presidency. The Soviet threat continued as the primary foreign policy issue. On the day of Reagan's inauguration, Leonid Brezhnev, president of the Soviet Union, in a broadcast over Moscow Radio, called for improved relations between the Soviet Union and America. However, in an early February press conference, Reagan said he knew of no Soviet leader since the Russian Revolution who did not pursue the goal of world revolution. Moreover, the Soviet leaders lie, cheat, and commit any crime during their pursuit. Despite Reagan's rhetoric, in a speech to the Soviet Communist Party Congress several weeks later, Brezhnev suggested a summit meeting between Reagan and himself. He also expressed a willingness to talk about arms control and about notifications by Warsaw Pact countries and North Atlantic Treaty countries on military maneuvers and troop moves. Reagan's response called on the Soviets to halt arms shipments to leftist guerrillas in El Salvador before a summit could be considered. The March assassination attempt on the President in Washington, D.C., halted all progress for improved relations with the Soviet Union.
In the midafternoon of March 30, John W. Hinckley, Jr., shot President Reagan as he was entering the presidential limousine outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington. The bullet tore into his lung and lodged within an inch of his heart. The limousine sped to nearby George Washington Hospital in less than four minutes. Reagan, determined to walk into the emergency room, collapsed as he entered. The medical staff, at first puzzled by the President's fragile condition and thinking he had had a heart attack in addition to being shot, finally found a narrow bullet wound below the left armpit. The wound caused the loss of half of Reagan's blood volume.
A shocked nation followed the televised medical bulletins. As his recovery grew stronger, newspapers reported he quipped to doctors before his surgery "I just hope you're Republicans"; and in the recovery room he repeated heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey's comment to his wife after he lost the championship fight to Gene Tunney: "Honey, I forgot to duck." He also told one of the nurses the old comic W. C. Fields's lines: "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." On April 11 a pale Reagan, showing typical determination, rejected the offer of a wheelchair and walked slowly and stiffly out of the hospital.
During the two months before the shooting he wrote more than eighteen letters to friends and the general public, but during his recovery in April he wrote only four. Among the most important handwritten letters during 1981 were the ones addressed to the Soviet president, Leonid Brezhnev. Both were classified top secret and not declassified until 2000.
A defense buildup required frequent decisions and analysis from President Reagan during 1981. During President Jimmy Carter's administration, designing the MX missile program had proven to be a sensitive problem for the President and his military advisors. President Reagan also faced complicated questions about implementing this costly defense weapon. A column by syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers produced thousands of letters calling for reevaluating the needs and design for this venture.
The Middle East troubled Reagan, as it had his predecessors. In mid-August two carrier-based F-14s shot down two Libyan SU-22s that had challenged them over the Gulf of Sidra. The assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt during a military parade in Cairo shocked Reagan and his cabinet. Only two months earlier Sadat and his wife had been welcomed warmly at a state dinner in the White House. The Senate approval of the Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) sale to Saudi Arabia, which was opposed by Israel, required considerable presidential pressure on certain senators.
Often notice of domestic problems were conveyed in the mail pouches arriving at the White House. Letters from American citizens described bitter unemployment problems, business bankruptcies, and depressing economic statistics. A few correspondents complained that Reagan had only rich friends; none recognized that most of those friends used their wealth to endow universities, hospitals, and other charitable organizations. Some letter writers accused him of robbing the poor and giving to the rich. Others questioned why he fired the air traffic controllers. His replies explained his actions and perspectives on these topics. His projected tax bill won congressional approval with its provision that individual tax rates would decline by 25 percent over three years. Sobering, however, during his first year was the fact that the annual deficit would run to almost $79 billion.
The President's foreign and domestic travel schedule, though reduced somewhat after April to ensure complete recovery from the shooting, proved formidable. In early March the President traveled to Ottawa and addressed the Parliament. He returned to Canada for the Economic Summit in July, and in his address he noted that the seven countries attending the conference accounted for more than 80 percent of the gross national product of the industrialized world. He attended the North-South Summit in Cancoen, Mexico, in late October. His rigorous domestic travel schedule included over twenty trips, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Antonio. He returned to the locale of the Knute Rockne film, a 1940 movie about the famous Notre Dame football coach: Reagan played George Gipp, Rockne's star player. At the University on May 17 he received an honorary doctorate. There were also nineteen visits to Camp David, where he wrote many of his letters; critical correspondents never knew about his handwritten letters to former Dixon, Illinois, neighbors, classmates at Eureka College, young students, Vietnam and Lebanon veterans and their families, and disabled citizens.
Embedded in the year 1981 and in each of the following years was the President's dedication, expressed in his diary on his return to the White House after the shooting and revealed in his autobiography: "Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can." Restoring the domestic economy and rebuilding confidence in foreign affairs would require much of this dedication.
February 2, 1981
Dear Madame Prime Minister:
I have read the initial news reports of your speech to the Pilgrims' Dinner on January 29, and I wanted to convey my thanks and good wishes for your kind words.
You are indeed right that we share a very special concern for democracy and for liberty. That is the essence of the special relationship between our two countries, and it is similarly an excellent basis for inaugurating an extended period of cooperation and close consultation between your government and my administration.
It is with greatest anticipation that I look forward to your arrival here and to the opportunity for extensive discussions on the broad range of world issues with which we must deal in partnership.
The Right Honorable
Margaret Thatcher, M.P.
Pat Boone, singer, movie and television star, was a family friend. One day in Reagan's second term as Governor of California, Boone brought several Evangelical ministers to Reagan's residence in Sacramento for a prayer service.
March 18, 1981
Thank you so much for your thoughtful letter. Unfortunately, because of the transition, I just recently received it and hope you will excuse my delay in answering.
I appreciate your suggestion about Herb Ellingwood and will give it careful consideration. I know I will need the support of Christian leaders to deal with the problems facing our nation. But, more importantly, I will need their prayers.
Again, thank you for writing, and you and Shirley have my best wishes.
Mr. Pat Boone
Los Angeles, CaliforniaFrom the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Letters from the Desk of Ronald Reagan by Ralph E. Weber and Ralph A. Weber, editors. Copyright © 2003 by Ralph E. Weber and Ralph A. Weber, editors. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.