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Editor Douglas Brinkley on Reagan's Incredibly Personal Account

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," May 22, 2007. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: All right, now to your one-of-a-kind experience, a sneak peek into the Reagan diaries. This is the first time the diaries of a U.S. president have ever been released. Historian Douglas Brinkley edited the diaries. Douglas Brinkley is right here with us tonight at the Reagan library. Nice to see you, Doug.

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Nice to see you, Greta.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. So it's very exciting. You got to edit these diaries. How many diaries are there? I mean, what's the volume that you've edited this down to?

BRINKLEY: Well, they're housed here at the Reagan library, and there were five volumes, looked kind of like a half a set of encyclopedias, all maroon, leather-bound, and had Ronald Reagan's name on them. And he never kept a diary when he was governor in California, so he decided, got to keep them as president. And he began them his first day in office, and the last entry is when he's waving goodbye to Washington and heading back out here to California. I had to cut them a lot. We're going to eventually bring out a boxed set with them complete. So this fat book, 800 pages...

VAN SUSTEREN: Fat one, right?

BRINKLEY: ... is just a condensed version. I edited it down, put annotation, a glossary, and tried to make it so it's a book you can read from beginning to end. Other presidents had kept diaries sporadically — Eisenhower, Truman. Some kept them in detail, like Polk, but Polk was only one term as president. But Reagan kept them regularly, and it was the fortitude and the discipline that I found quite amazing.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. So I'm sure this is sort of the plum job for a historian, a presidential historian. Did you get a call from Mrs. Reagan? I mean, how did this happen?

BRINKLEY: Well, as you know, I write books on U.S. history and on presidents. And I did meet with Mrs. Reagan, and she green-lit the idea that I would be the person. Former California governor Pete Wilson thought I might be right, and Fred Ryan, who heads the Ronald Reagan Foundation. I met with Mrs. Reagan for lunch, and we talked and everything kind of came together. And so I just was very honored to be chosen to do this. It's really Ronald Reagan's book, not mine. I just tried to really help the reader along because there's so much material, just so they could really have it in a book they can buy and carry on with them or keep on their shelf.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know what's interesting — I mean, it's very sort of factual, dispassionate, except that you hear this love story that's sort of woven through for his wife, that makes its way on so many pages. I mean, you can feel that, reading the diary entry.

BRINKLEY: You know, the Reagans are fascinating people, and their love story is now part of our national drama. And it comes out clearly in here. There have been love letters that have been published before and other material. But here every day — I mean, here's a president, that if Nancy Reagan leaves for a day, let alone six days, he's staring out the window, waiting for her. There's a great co-dependency and love. It's not about her views on policy in the diaries, just about how much he misses her. And there's a lot of family life information in here. He writes about his children quite a bit also.

VAN SUSTEREN: And the viewers shouldn't be mistaken that the fact that he missed his wife doesn't in any way take away from his ability to do his job. I mean, you don't feel like it's in that way, it's just sort of a woven through, it's a love story.

BRINKLEY: Well, they just didn't like being away from each other. There's one early entry in '81, I believe, when they went over to Canada and to see Mulroney for the first time, the prime — you know, up in Canada. And they were in Ottawa, and they had to stay in separate quarters. And he wrote in the diary, “It's the first time we never shared the same bedroom before in our whole marriage.” And then there was another time she came out here to California and then left him, and he was alone at the ranch, and he wrote in the diary, “I can't stand it, I'm alone for a night at the ranch.”

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, as you go through this, there is one entry, February 21, 1986, in which he talks about how important it is to get along with the Democrats because he says that if you don't get along — that if you don't communicate with the other party, you're going to get nothing done.

BRINKLEY: Well, we used to say about Lincoln, with malice towards none. And Ronald Reagan was like that. He didn't have any malice. And he liked Democrats. He was Democrat for a long time. He voted for FDR every time he ran. But he calls them the Dems or the — you know, and he's warring with them a lot. But personally, he likes a lot of them. Ted Kennedy, Tip O'Neill — these are people he got along with, I think particularly Irish Democratic politicians. He likes swapping some stories, political lore with them. So you don't see him — there's no hatred.

In many ways, in fact, I would say that one of the mistakes people have had on Ronald Reagan, Greta, is thinking that he's a conservative ideologue. He's not an ideologue, he was a pragmatist. And you see in here he's working with people like George Shultz in the administration to get those great arms reductions. And he did it because he was willing to wheel and deal, to talk to people. He was not always stiff and firm on his position. His rhetoric often was, but behind the scenes, he was a diplomat at heart.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, I didn't see one sort of suggestion he hated anybody. I mean, he sort of needled Sam Donaldson at ABC a couple times in the book, but that's about the only sort of needling.

BRINKLEY: Well, there's some. I mean, he got a little bit angry, you might say, that Al Haig seemed to be trying to think he was president a little bit. And when Haig resigned, there's...

VAN SUSTEREN: But not hate. I mean, he might get...

BRINKLEY: No, no.

VAN SUSTEREN: ... annoyed. You don't see that. He's not bitter.

BRINKLEY: No. There's none of that.

VAN SUSTEREN: He might get annoyed, but not bitter.

BRINKLEY: There's none of that. And there's more of an annoyance. He was annoyed at Gloria Steinem and Bob Woodward at different times, you know, because he thought that Woodward hadn't interviewed Casey when he did the book. And he was a little bit angry at Gloria Steinem for saying that he wasn't for women's rights, when he believed he was. And he used the diary to vent some of his real feelings sometimes.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Well, it's selling like hotcakes already. What is it, number four on Amazon already?

BRINKLEY: It is.

VAN SUSTEREN: And this is just today. So if you're going to get one, you better hurry now and go out and get one before there aren't any left. Anyway, Doug, it's a great editing job. It's a great read. Thank you, Doug.

BRINKLEY: Thank you, Greta.

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