A half-century ago, Lorraine Wagner was a kid with a crush. The object of her affection and considerable attention was a hunky young actor named Ronald Reagan.
She wrote him a fan letter. He responded with an autographed picture, which Wagner was quick to show her friends. "Oh, I took it to everybody that you can imagine," she recalls. "Anyone I knew in my life saw that picture."
As a result, an extraordinary friendship was born. They exchanged hundreds of letters, many of his handwritten, some deeply personal, like one on his failing marriage to actress Jane Wyman:
"Janie is still a pretty sick girl in mind," Reagan wrote, "but I'm hoping things will be different when she gets over this nervousness. So don't listen to the things you hear, please know she loves me even though she thinks she doesn't."
His letters are an extraordinary window on his evolution from actor to president, from liberal to conservative.
This 1948 letter celebrates the election of Harry Truman:
"Yes, indeed I was happy about the election … I'm sure Truman with a Democratic Congress will do lots to make things better in every way."
Reagan Expresses Personal Insights
A dozen years later, Reagan had become a conservative icon. At the end of this 1961 letter, he drops this tantalizing bit of news:
"P.S. I've been asked to run for governor and while I'm highly honored I don't think I'm right for the part."
In later letters, he tells her of his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and Medicare: "To be blunt about it we can no more have partial socialism than a person can be a little bit pregnant."
The letters grow less frequent after he was elected governor, and fewer still when he was president. But he kept writing, and he even complained in one of the letters that he has so little time.
The letters are always upbeat. In June of 1990, Reagan wrote, "My visit here with Gorby was short but, as usual, good. He's having some problems back home with the zealots who don't want to tone down communism. I hope he wins."
A friendship that started with a fan letter led to invitations to his inaugural and visits to the Oval Office, or the "Oval O," as he called it. In the end, it was a long journey, as he noted in February of 1992:
"I'm happy you added up our years of friendship. It's been a happy 48 years and that makes it more than half my lifetime."
That's a lifetime Lorraine Wagner, and the nation, celebrates today.