The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library today revealed that it has found the "Rosetta Stone" of the Gipper's political life: His neatly written and organized collection of speech and joke note cards.
"It rivals the Reagan diaries themselves," says John Heubusch, executive director of the Reagan Foundation. "This is what speechwriters and his top aides have been talking about for a very, very long time," says Heubusch, who helped to find them. "It was like finding buried treasure, a little bit like winning the lottery."
The foundation disclosed the discovery as it unveiled a book devoted to the hand-written note cards called The Notes: Ronald Reagan's Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom. The foundation expects it to be a bestseller.
In all, the foundation staff discovered 46 note cards, double-sided, with speech quotes scribbled on them from sources as varied as Lenin and Cisero. They also found 45 cards on which Reagan wrote jokes and one-liners that were his favorites to insert into speeches spanning his long political career. [See photos celebrating Reagan's 100th birthday.]
The discovery was simple luck, says Heubusch. It began about two years ago as the Reagan library was being renovated. To celebrate the new, high-tech look and Reagan's 100th birthday, "We wanted to scour the archives for something," he says.
While the National Archives keeps most of the Reagan documents and artifacts from his presidency, the foundation has a "very small" collection it keeps in the basement, and Heubusch's staff opened every box on the basement shelves.
At some point, they came across a simple cardboard box that had "RR's Desk" scribbled on the side. "The box was plain old cardboard," says Heubusch. "It wasn't something with a presidential seal, but literally like a Bekins movers box."
It was brought up to Heubusch's office and opened. He found what amounted to the contents of Reagan's White House desk: pencils, paper clips, rubber bands. Then, under that collection was a leather-bound photo album. Inside, carefully placed in the plastic photo sleeves, were the 4X6 note cards of speech quotes. Also in the box: a stack of 3X5 joke cards.
On the yellowing speech cards, Reagan wrote the author at the top and the appropriate quote in very small type. For example:
"Thomas Jefferson, If a nation expects to be ignorant & free in a state of civilizations, it expects what never was & what never will be." Or: "Vladimir Lenin, As long as capitalism & socialism exist, we cannot live in peace. Socialists without ceasing to be socialists cannot oppose any kind of war."
Biographer Douglas Brinkley, who edited The Notes, writes in the introduction:
All of the notes were handwritten. When Reagan was recopying various quotations, he was especially neat. His scrawl is impeccable—seldom does he employ a cross-out or correct a mis-start. Clearly, legibility was a high priority to him. Sometimes he uses an asterisk or makes a hearty underline for emphasis. Shorthand is often the order of the day. The reader gets the impression that Reagan is a redwood tree and these are the decorations of his own philosophy, the ammunition he will need to survive the hustings ahead.
Heubusch says speechwriters recall how drafts would come back with quotes or jokes inserted from his collection.
"You can't come away from this without realizing that he was one of the most well-read presidents in history," he adds.
While his jokes don't touch on his political philosophy, they do give a taste of his humor. A couple of examples: "Those congressmen who worry about being bugged by the FBI—you'd think they'd be glad someone was listening to them," says one card. "Simple diet—if it tastes good spit it out," says another.