The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com

President Ronald Wilson Reagan (1911-2004) is known as “the Great Communicator” not merely because he had the polished delivery of an accomplished actor, but because he actually had something substantial to say and often said it very well (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”).

Among the tools of effective communication is the employment of suitable quotes, aphorisms and stories to illustrate or drive home a point or to clarify an idea. Mr. Reagan had a sizeable private stash of quotes and quips and jokes that he had accumulated over the decades, all written out by hand on 4” x 6” cards, ready to be accessed as needed. This stack of cards was kept close at hand in his personal desk drawer for easy reference. At his death, the contents of his desk were boxed up and deposited in the Reagan Presidential Library in California. During some renovations in 2010, this stack of hand-written cards was rediscovered, and a selection of them is herein compiled and published.

The quotes, stories and jokes are divided up into nine sections, viz., “On the Nation,” “On Liberty,” “On War,” “On the People,” “On Religion,” “The World,” “On Character,” “On Political Theater,” and “Humor.” These are followed by a “glossary”—really a brief description of named authors quoted—and a topical index.

Many of the quotations are outstanding—I quote a few of the crème de la crème below (having to leave out many very good ones), but unfortunately, none is documented in the book beyond naming the original author. Reagan’s cards did not provide chapter and page references, but the editor should have, as far as he was able, provided documentation.

Occasionally, a quote is unascribed though the author is now known—and famous (in particular, I have reference to an excerpt from Emma Lazarus’ Statue of Liberty poem, “The New Colossus”). Again, a good editor would have added this information. There are also some quotes mis-ascribed. And it should be noted that a number of the quotes do not express Reagan’s sentiments, but are illustrative of an erroneous point of view that he was seeking to expose. Some few of the quotes seemed rather obscure (that is, I couldn’t grasp the point they were intended to make). And, surprisingly, several of the quotations were repeated in the book (more poor editorial work).

It seems that the quotes are reproduced just as originally written by Reagan, which is sometimes unfortunate, since he used a series of abbreviations which are not always readily obvious to the reader (several I had to ponder for a minute or two before I deciphered them); the editor should have spelled these out in full, for the reader’s sake. And I found about a dozen and a half cases of misspellings or misquotes, which if on Reagan’s original cards should have been corrected, or marked [sic] by the editor; otherwise, they are evidence of poor proof-reading on the editorial staff’s part. Some of them completely ruined the intent of the quote. Many of the humorous stories are presented in skeletal form, rather than written out in full.

The 22-page “glossary” of quoted authors is a meager production. Some of the descriptions achieve triteness; others are a bit odd and unbalanced: e.g., regarding Mao Zedong [Tse-tung], the entry ends: “Because his social and political programs also cost millions of Chinese lives, his legacy is controversial.” Controversial?! His slaughter of an estimated 60 million or so Chinese makes him the greatest mass murderer in history, and the best the editor can come up with is to call him “controversial”!

And then there is the blameworthy practice of dating ancient authors with dates “BCE” (“before the common era”), rather than “BC” (“before Christ”). Why avoid the reference to Christ, especially in light of the fact that Reagan was an outspoken committed Christian? Any competent writer with average research and writing skills could have done a significantly better job on this “glossary” without even breaking a sweat.

The “Humor” chapter, while having some good stuff, also has some old stale tales that could have been left out of this selection of Reagan stories and quotes.

While the book, as compiled and edited, has some not insignificant defects, it still has many worthwhile quotes not to be missed.

Some notable quotes from The Notes (with author named, if included)

  • Unnamed former Australian Prime Minister: “I wonder if anybody has thought what the situation of the comparatively small nations of the world would be if there were not in existence the United States—if there were not this giant country prepared to make so many sacrifices.” p.8
  • Thomas Jefferson: “The germ of the dissolution of our Federal government is in the Federal judiciary, an irresponsible body working like gravity, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief over the field of jurisdiction until all shall be usurped from the states and the government of all be consolidated into one.” p. 11
  • Winston Churchill: “Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse pulling a sturdy wagon.” p. 15
  • FDR: “The Federal government must and shall quit this business of relief. Continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” p. 16 [Entirely true, as we are now experiencing; on this point, FDR was better in theory than in actual practice]
  • John Kennedy: “Our true choice is not between tax reduction on the one hand and the avoidance of large Federal deficits on the other. Our economy stifled by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenue to balance the budget. Just as it will never produce enough jobs or enough profits.” p. 17
  • Frederick Bastiat: “The government offers a cure for the ills of mankind. It promises to restore commerce, make agriculture prosperous, expand industry, encourage arts and letters, wipe out poverty, etc., etc. All that is needed [they claim] is to create some new government agencies and to pay a few more bureaucrats.” p. 19 [spoken in 1849!]
  • Bastiat: “The state is the fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.” p. 20
  • Leonard Hand: “Inflation is a device for siphoning government [sic, read “private”] property into the coffers of government. Successful hedging would require finding a form of property that cannot be confiscated. It does not exist. Pare government back to size; that is the only way to protect private property.” p. 21
  • “When the courts substitute their will for that of the legislature, appealing to what ought to be law when they can find no law and what ought to be the Constitution when that document itself gives not the slightest justification for asserting the new principle then we have reached the end of the road.” p. 26
  • Thomas Jefferson: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and what never will be.” p. 35
  • “The real American idea is not that every man shall be on a level with every other, but that every man shall have the liberty without hindrance to be what God made him. The office of government is not to confer happiness but to give men the opportunity to work out happiness for themselves.” p. 38
  • Winston Churchill: “Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, the gospel of envy. Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” p. 39
  • Woodrow Wilson: “Liberty has never come from government. The history of liberty is the history of limitation of government power, not the increase of it.” p. 41
  • Bastiat: “Heavy government expenditures and liberty are incompatible. Woe to the people that cannot limit the sphere of action of the state. Freedom, private enterprise, wealth, happiness, independence, personal dignity—all vanish.” p. 43
  • Calvin Coolidge: “Of all the forms of government, those administered by bureaus are about the least satisfactory for an enlightened and progressive people. Being irresponsible, they become autocratic and being autocratic, they resist all development. Unless bureaucracy is constantly resisted, it breaks down representative government and overwhelms democracy. It is one element in our institutions that sets up a pretense of having authority over everybody and being responsible to nobody.” p. 44
  • Nikita Khrushchev: “Despite the difference between the stages of communism and socialism, no wall of any kind exists between them; … communism grows from socialism and [is] its direct continuation.” p. 49
  • “Freedom rests and always will on individual responsibility, individual integrity, individual effort, individual courage, and individual religious faith.” p. 52
  • “We must pay a price for freedom but whatever the price, it’s only half the cost of doing without it.” p. 52
  • Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Strike for the jugular. Reduce taxes and spending. Keep government poor and remain free.” p. 59
  • Lincoln: “The people are the rightful masters of both Congresses and courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.” p. 60
  • Churchill: “Still if you will not fight for the right when you can win without bloodshed, if you will not fight when your victory will be sure and not too costly, you may come to the moment when you’ll have to fight with all the odds against you and only a precarious chance of survival. There may even be a worse case. You may have to fight when there is no chance of victory because it is better to perish than to live as slaves.” p. 69
  • John Kennedy: “There can be only one possible defense policy for the U. S. It can be expressed in one word—the word is ‘first.’ I do not mean ‘first when’; I do not mean ‘first if’; I mean ‘first,’ period.” p. 70
  • Sydney Harris: “One way to distinguish truth from all its counterfeits is by its modesty: truth demands only to be heard among others while its counterfeits demand that others be silenced.” p. 150
  • “Anyone who thinks he’s going to be happy and prosperous by letting government take care of him should take a good look at the American Indian.” p. 223
  • “Prosperity is something created by businessmen for politicians to take credit for.” p. 227
  • “Inflation—that’s the price we pay for those government benefits everybody thought were free.” p. 228
  • “The best substitute for experience is being seventeen years old.” p. 239
  • “Politics has gotten so expensive that it now takes a lot of money just to get beaten.” p. 244
  • “Adam and Eve must have been Russian—they had no roof over their heads, nothing to wear, only one apple between them and they called it ‘paradise’.”

I think everyone should compile his own treasury of notable quotes and stories, with proper documentation as well, either kept in a notebook, computer file or card file (one of my preacher friends has a notebook for quotes that is now well past 100 pages long). I didn’t begin to do this until in my late 30s or early 40s, after searching in vain, literally for years, for some quotes that I remembered from my college and seminary reading, but never was able to locate or document, at least not until decades after I first began to search for them. Most of the quotes I find particularly notable make their way into the pages of As I See It.

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