Oval Office Dispatches: Presidential Letters

Oval Office Dispatches: Presidential Letters


Love letters written by a young Richard Nixon to his future wife, Patricia Ryan, will be presented to the public for the first time today at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in California, as part of an exhibit celebrating the 100th birthday of the former First Lady.

The letters reveal a surprising tenderness (and corniness) coming from a man famous for a number of callous closed-door sound-offs during the Watergate scandal in the early 70s. Nixon wrote the letters in his mid-20s and called Ryan his “dearest heart.” “Every night I want to see you and be with you,” he wrote. “Let’s go the mountains weekends; let’s read books in front of fires.” He even had a nickname for her—“Irish gypsy.”

The revelation of Nixon’s soft side is the latest demonstration of the way letters give us new insight into the private lives of public figures. Here, a few more epistolary collections from past presidents, and what they say about them.

Friends and Rivals: John Adams & Thomas Jefferson
Fifty years’ worth of correspondence between these two founding fathers come together in “The Adams-Jefferson Letters,” a classic collection. Conversations range from serious debates about philosophy and religion to more intimate commiseration over grief and family issues. While their friendship took a hiatus after Jefferson defeated Adams in the 1800 presidential election (sore loser?), they eventually reconciled and continued to write to each other until 1826, when they both died on July 4.

Jefferson to Adams. Williamsburg, Virginia. May 16, 1777.

[On the state of the American Revolution]

Our people even under the monarchical government had learnt to consider it as the last of all oppressions. I learn from our delegates that the Confederation is again on the carpet. A great and a necessary work, but I fear almost desperate. The point of representation is what most alarms me, as I fear the great and small colonies are bitterly determined not to cede.

Speaking Truth About Power: Ulysses S. Grant
The Civil War hero and 18th President of the United States was an eloquent and prolific writer. “Ulysses S. Grant: Memoirs and Selected Letters” brings together 175 of Grant’s personal letters, many of them addressed to his wife Julia. Combined with his memoirs (written at the very end of his life, while he was dying of throat cancer), this book makes for what historian John Keegan called “perhaps the most revelatory autobiography of high command to exist in any language.” The letters testify to Grant’s military excellence, but they also reveal a passionate, even wistful, side.

Grant to wife Julia. Castle of Perote Mexico. April 24th, 1987.

Just think Julia it is now three long years that we have been engaged. Do you think I could endure another years separation loving you as I do now and believing my love returned? At least commission and all will go in less time or I will be permitted to see the one I have loved so much for three long years. My Dearest don’t you think a soldier’s life a hard one!

The Good Soldier: George H. W. Bush
“All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings” brings together a lifetime of letters, memos and diary entries from the 41st U.S. President. The collection opens with 18-year-old Bush’s letters to his parents while serving in combat in World War II, through his high-profile career in the oil industry, and into his various government roles, as a Congressman, Vice President, and eventually President. Love betters to Barbara, and a grief-ridden note about his daughter, Robin, after she died of leukemia, are among the deeply personal pieces.

Bush to his mother and father

[On serving in the Navy]

The only thing wrong with this place is, they don’t realize the average intelligence. They hand out so much crude propaganda here… Stuff like “you are the cream of American youth.” Some fellows swallow it all. These are the fellows many whom are below average intelligence, 2 of my roommates, for example, get a big kick out of hearing it.

Wartime Correspondents: Franklin D. Roosevelt & Joseph V. Stalin
Amid the global devastation of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph V. Stalin, the dictatorial Premier of the Soviet Union, maintained regular contact through letters. “My Dear Mr. Stalin” presents their complete correspondence. Roosevelt opened the line of communication, expressing sympathy for the U.S.S.R. after an attack by the Nazis, and from there the exchange—by turns contemplative and grave—continued, with the last message sent only minutes before Roosevelt’s death in 1945.

Stalin to FDR. November 4, 1941

Your decision, Mr. President, to grant to the Soviet Union a loan in the amount of one billion dollars subject to no interest charges and for the purpose of paying for armaments and raw materials for the Soviet Union is accepted with sincere gratitude by the Soviet Government as unusually substantial aid in its difficult and great struggle against our common enemy, bloodthirsty Hitlerism.


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