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Sincerely, Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan composing a letter. | Photo: Edmund Morris | Ronald Reagan, President, Letters, Alzheimers, Republican,

A President's Private Correspondence With America

Like many modern Presidents, Ronald Reagan received thousands of letters each day from supporters, opponents, lobbyists, fans, nutjobs, regular Americans, and people around the world. Like many modern Presidents, most of those letters almost never reached Ronald Reagan -- but some did. To take the pulse of the American people and try to escape the White House bubble that can isolate even the most down-to-earth of Presidents, Reagan requested that his correspondence secretaries give him a sampling of about 30 letters per month. The letters were carefully screened, but not so one-sided that Reagan didn't hear from people who weren't happy with him or what he was doing as President.

Sometimes, Reagan simply read the letters. Most of the time, he picked up his pen and responded in his instantly recognizable handwriting and simple, smooth prose. Longtime Washington fixture Clark Clifford, a former Secretary of Defense under Lyndon B. Johnson, once memorably called Ronald Reagan an "amiable dunce". Reagan may have been amiable -- although he had no close friends and even his children said that the only person who truly knew him was his wife, Nancy -- but he was no dunce. While exploring the private papers of the 40th President -- personal diaries, notes, correspondence, and love letters to his beloved wife -- one quickly realizes that Ronald Reagan was one of the best pure writers of all American Presidents. The clarity of his writing, his common touch, and, of course, his sense of humor is readily apparent in his private responses to letters from the American people.

In 1984, 13-year-old Andy Smith of South Carolina wrote the President, "Today, my mother declared my bedroom a disaster area. I would like to request federal funds to hire a crew to clean up my room." President Reagan's response was not just funny -- it also contained a subtle sermon on Reagan's small government philosophy:

Your application for disaster relief had been duly noted but I must point out one technical problem; the authority declaring the disaster is supposed to make the request. In this case your mother.

However, setting that aside I'll have to point out the larger problem of available funds. This has been a year of disasters, 539 hurricanes as of May 4th and several more since, numerous floods, forest fires, drought in Texas and a number of earthquakes. What I'm getting at is that funds are dangerously low.

May I make a suggestion? This administration, believing that government has done many things that could be done by volunteers at the local level, has sponsored a Private Sector Initiative program calling upon people to practice voluntarism in the solving of a number of local problems.

Your situation appears to be a natural. I'm sure your mother was fully justified in proclaiming your room a disaster. Therefore you are in an excellent position to launch another volunteer program to go along with the more than 3,000 already underway in our nation -- congratulations.

Give my best regards to your mother,
Sincerely, Ronald Reagan

A year earlier, another child, Rachel Virden of Texas, wrote to the President and mentioned that she was nervous because she was going to have to start wearing eyeglasses. Reagan sympathized and connected with the young girl:

Rachel I know how you feel about glasses. I have been nearsighted all my life and when I was young I felt as you do about wearing glasses but I wore them. Being able to see clearly was more important. Now maybe seeing me on TV or my picture in the paper you wonder where my glasses are. I'm wearing them -- contact lenses. Wear your glasses now and in a few years when your eyes have reached their full size you might look into the idea of contacts. It's very simple and easy to wear them. I've been wearing them all my adult life. But in the meantime don't deny yourself the joy of being able to see things clearly.

Not all of the letters that reached Reagan's desk were from children or easy for the President to digest. In 1982, Gail Foyt of Ohio wrote to Reagan and noted that she had voted for him in 1980 but was regretting her decision because of economic problems that deeply affected her and her family since her husband was forced to find work in another state and leave for months at a time. In her letter, Foyt suggested that the "very wealthy" President didn't care about "people like me -- not rich, nor poor -- worth nothing except to each other". Reagan, who grew up in rural Illinois during the Great Depression as the son of an alcoholic shoe salesman who was once fired on Christmas Eve, took it personally:

I wish I could tell you there is some instant answer to the economic problems besetting us but I can't. However it is my strong belief that we are on the right track and the economy is turning up.

I hope and pray by the time you receive this your own situation is improved and that you are or soon will be united with your husband.

Mrs. Foyt your sentence with regard to my not being able to understand the real world touched a tender nerve. I grew up in poverty, although in a small midwestern town you didn't think of yourself as poor. Maybe because the government didn't come around and tell you, you were poor. But I do understand very well what you were saying. I've been making speeches for about 30 years on the fact that the forgotten men and women in America were those people who went to work, paid their bills, sent their kids to school and made this country run.

You said you'd pray for me and I'm grateful. I have a great faith in prayer and I intend to pray for you.

Sincerely,
Ronald Reagan

President Reagan continued responding to selected letters screened by his correspondence secretaries for the remainder of his Presidency -- something that other Presidents have also done, including President Obama. But Ronald Reagan's most famous letter and almost certainly his most beautiful and touching letter was the last message he ever wrote to the American people. On November 5, 1994, the 83-year-old former President released this handwritten letter on his personal stationery to the American people -- a simple, elegant announcement so raw that, when he made a mistake towards the end, he merely crossed out the word and left it on the page. It was the letter that began Ronald Reagan's long goodbye:

My fellow Americans,

I have recently been told that I am one of the millions of Americans who will be afflicted with Alzheimer's disease.

Upon learning this news, Nancy and I had to decide whether as private citizens we would keep this a private matter or whether we would make this news known in a public way.

In the past, Nancy suffered from breast cancer and I had cancer surgeries. We found through our open disclosures we were able to raise public awareness. We were happy that as a result many more people underwent testing. They were treated in early stages and able to return to normal, healthy lives.

So now we feel it is important to share it with you. In opening our hearts, we hope this might promote greater awareness of this condition. Perhaps it will encourage a clear understanding of the individuals and families who are affected by it.

At the moment, I feel just fine. I intend to live the remainder of the years God gives me on this earth doing the things I have always done. I will continue to share life's journey with my beloved Nancy and my family. I plan to enjoy the great outdoors and stay in touch with my friends and supporters.

Unfortunately, as Alzheimer's disease progresses, the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes, I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.

In closing, let me thank you, the American people, for giving me the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President. When the Lord calls me home, whenever that may be, I will leave the greatest love for this country of ours and eternal optimism for its future.

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.
Thank you, my friends.

Sincerely,
Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan Alzheimer's letter to Americans. | Ronald Reagan, President, Letters, Alzheimers, Republican,

Reagan's official biographer, Edmund Morris, who was never afraid to be critical or controversial about Reagan, probably summed it up best in PBS's American Experience documentary of the 40th President:

"I can't think of anything I've seen that was so transparently honest, courageous, and articulate. The writing had the ultimate quality of good writing which is unblinking acceptance of the truth. I find it very difficult to think emotionally about Ronald Reagan, but that is one thing he did that catches me in the heart -- the courage with which he left his conscious life. The courage with which he stopped. He simply stopped."

President Reagan was rarely seen in public following his announcement in November 1994. The journey that led him into the sunset of his life ended on June 5, 2004, when he died at his home in Southern California at the age of 93. After full military honors, lying in state in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, and the first State Funeral in over 30 years, Reagan was buried at his Presidential Library on a mountaintop in Simi Valley, California -- fittingly, the 40th President was interred in his tomb at sunset.

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Updated Apr 22, 2017 6:00 AM EDT | More details

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