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Jewish World Review Aug. 13, 1999/1 Elul , 5759

Larry Elder

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Econophone

The Gipper Gets No Respect

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- RONALD REAGAN gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield.

On July 22, 1999, the Associated Press published a story: "Letters Shed Light on Reagan's Life." Lorraine Wagner, a Philadelphia woman, maintained a 50-year- long correspondence with Ronald Reagan. As a 13-year-old, Wagner wrote to the then 31-year-old actor, Ronald Reagan, one of her favorite Hollywood actors. Much to her surprise, Reagan wrote back, and continued as her pen pal for 50 years. The general public never knew.

During this time, Reagan experienced divorce and remarriage, election and re- election as governor of California, and, of course, election and re-election to the presidency. He wrote about his joys, his sorrows, his hopes and his dreams.

The Associated Press published excerpts, including some revealing and intimate exchanges. (A lengthy article about the Reagan-Wagner relationship appeared in the New Yorker magazine.)

About his first wife, actress Jane Wyman, Reagan wrote, "I know she loves me, even though she thinks she doesn't." Reagan also referred to Jimmy Carter as "a real phony."

What's the issue? Well, Ms. Wagner sold those letters -- 276 of them -- to a dealer who intends to auction them for nearly $400,000. Nowhere does the article suggest that Wagner first offered the letters to Reagan or to the Reagan Library. Did Wagner violate Reagan's trust? Do we assume Reagan indifferent as to the selling and possible publication of these letters? That's the point. The article does not provide this information, and seems unconcerned about it.

Writer J. D. Salinger erupted when he learned that a woman with whom he had a long-standing correspondence decided to sell his letters. A wealthy, sympathetic bidder purchased Salinger's letters and returned them to him. Does Reagan, like Salinger, feel violated? Did the Associated Press even ask?

Isn't whether the Reagans explicitly or implicitly gave permission relevant to the story? But, nowhere in this nearly 15-paragraph story do we learn whether Wagner sought and received permission.

My assistant contacted Ronald Reagan's office, and Nancy Reagan released to him the following statement: "We've never believed that letters should be sold without the permission of the person who wrote the letters." Well, there it is. No, Wagner did not get permission. And, if she sought it, the Reagans declined.

Look again at the innocent-sounding Associated Press headline, "Letters Shed Light on Reagan's Life." Shouldn't the headline have been, "Reagan Pen Pal of Fifty Years Sells Letters Without Permission"? Or, "Unauthorized Intimate Letters of Ronald Reagan Put Up for Sale"? Or, "Reagan Pen Pal Betrays Trust by Selling Letters"?

The Gipper
My assistant also contacted Ms. Wagner, and informed her of Nancy Reagan's quote. To her credit, Wagner agreed to talk. She said that personal circumstances forced her to raise money by selling the letters. She expressed undying appreciation and admiration for Ronald Reagan. She wanted the world to see Reagan's caring and sensitive side, a dimension, she said, few knew. But Wagner conceded that she did not seek permission to sell the letters, and that she now deeply regrets failing to do so.

She somewhat lamely offered the excuse that she thought Nancy Reagan busy, and did not wish to impose. I called her failure to even attempt to reach the Reagans an error in judgment, creating the appearance of violating Reagan's trust and faith in her. Wagner agreed, and, after our talk, she wrote me, saying, "I understood your feelings."

Dissing Wagner is not the point here. Rather, the angle the Associated Press took -- failing to raise questions of trust and privacy -- betrays the media's continued lack of respect for The Gipper.

The media calls the 1980s "The Decade of Greed." What about the '90s, a decade that produced more millionaires, a larger gap between the rich and the poor, and more mergers and acquisitions than during the "mercenary" '80s? Shall we call the '90s the "Decade of the Really, Really Greedy"?

How about the Time magazine article following the 1987 stock market crash: "What crashed was more than just the market. It was the Reagan Illusion ... he stayed a term too long ... [his] dream of painless prosperity has been punctured." (Note the prosperity continues.)

Reagan biographer Dinesh D'Souza points out that the 1992 edition of Bartlett's Quotations contains 35 entries from FDR, 28 from JFK, six from Jimmy Carter, but only three from Reagan. Justin Kaplan, editor of Bartlett's, pulled no punches, "I'm not going to disguise the fact that I despise Ronald Reagan." Oh.

Unconvinced? Remove the name Ronald Reagan from the Associated Press story, and substitute the name of John F. Kennedy. Suppose someone sold, without the Kennedy family permission, a batch of intimate letters by JFK. Would a headline discussing this unauthorized sale lead with the heading, "Letters Shed Light on Kennedy's Life"?

Call me cynical, but somehow I doubt it.


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