Edmund Morris’ Contempt for Ronald Reagan and America
December 1, 1999
Ronald and Nancy Reagan chose Edmund Morris to be the official biographer of President Reagan in 1985. For the last three years and two months of the Reagan Presidency, Morris was given virtually unlimited access to meetings in the Reagan White House. He had access to all papers including Reagan’s private diary. Random House gave Morris a $3 million advance for the book. Those who had read Morris’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Teddy Roosevelt hoped to see the same easy and engaging style applied to Reagan’s life and presidency.
After fourteen years of research, Morris’s Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, finally arrived, and it turned out not to be a biography or even history. Morris has instead produced a fiction in which he is the main character and his life is interspersed with impressions and memories of Ronald Reagan.
The book was released with much fanfare and amidst a din of controversy. Very few favorable reviews appeared. Historian Douglas Brinkley said flatly the work is not a work of non-fiction. George Will described the book as a dishonorable work. Peggy Noonan described the book as a mere entertainment and bad entertainment at that. Charles Krauthammer argued that Morris’s book does Reagan a grave injustice. The work never made it to the top of best-seller lists and began slipping down the lists one week after release. One suspects that Random House won’t be advancing Morris $3 million again any time soon.
The main point I want to make in this review is that you should not buy this book.
In various TV and print interviews Morris has described the difficulty he had in writing an ordinary biography. What he was writing was too dull.
When visiting Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College, in 1992, Morris stumbled on the idea of inventing a fictional character who could observe Reagan from birth throughout his life, as the real Morris had observed Reagan in the last years of his presidency. Thus the fictional Edmund Morris, who is approximately 25 years older than the real Edmund Morris, is invented. The purpose of this fictional Edmund Morris is to give us his impressions of Reagan as he encounters Dutch along the way from his youth, through his life guard days, through his college days, through his radio announcer days, through his Hollywood days, and as a spokesman for GE. As Reagan emerges in 1964 as a Goldwater spokesman, the fictional Morris begins to morph into the real Morris (at which point we are introduced to the fictional Morris’s fictional son, Gavin, a SDS radical at Berkeley who above all hates Ronald Reagan’s America).
Through Morris’s eyes we see Reagan’s eight years as Governor of California, his eight years as President, and, finally, his demise into Alzheimer’s in the 1990s. The fictional Morris never disappears entirely. We see Morris blame Governor Reagan for his fictional son going underground after the riots in Berkeley in the 1960s. And the final fiction of all is reserved for the last few pages as we learn that Dutch Reagan saved Edmund Morris from drowning in the 1920s. It is very difficult to separate the fact from the fiction in the memoir, especially for the first 410 pages or so of the 674 page book.
In interviews, Morris has asserted that this method of writing is an advance in biographical technique. This new technique is necessary it seems because Morris’s method is post-modern, that is, it is fundamentally nihilistic.
In the prologue, Morris writes, “I asked myself who of us, forced so brutally to confront the nothingness from which we have sprung, would not have turned away as he did, knowing it to be indistinguishable from—indeed, identical with—the nothingness that looms ahead.” And in the first chapter Morris writes, “the past is delusion, the future is illusion.” Here Morris’s nihilism is clearly on display.
Elsewhere Morris mocks Reagan’s religious faith as blind. He is shocked that Reagan lacks despair and angst and that Reagan is seemingly unaware of “la tristesse au fond de tout,” i.e., the gloom at the bottom of everything. (Morris treats the reader to a flurry of German and French quotations throughout the book, the upshot of which is that we learn the French word for excrement.)
It is no wonder then that Morris had trouble understanding the ever sunny and optimistic Reagan. Morris can’t take anyone seriously who isn’t haunted by the death of God or the gloom at the bottom of everything. This post-modern insight or dogma informs Morris’s method or technique throughout.
What does this post-modern methodology mean? Given the dark abyss of nothingness and the delusionary character of the past and the illusionary character of the future, it means for practical purposes that there are no facts, there are only interpretations or impressions. Thus the storyteller becomes more important than the story. The impressions of the observer are more important than the thing observed. Thus, as Morris says, he will tell us about “My Reagan” and that the book is about myself, Edmund Morris. This must have been missed in the job interview. It is not surprising then that Morris spends more time describing a dinner he attends with Reagan and other distinguished historians than he does describing any of Reagan’s campaigns for Governor or President, including the 1980 campaign.
Morris has been asked several times since the book appeared whether he admired President Reagan. In those interviews, Morris has always responded in the affirmative. In the book when (the real or the fictional?) Morris is asked whether he admires Reagan, he says: “I don’t know.” In interviews, Morris gives Reagan credit for two great accomplishments: overcoming the despair and malaise in which the country was mired following the Vietnam War and contributing to the defeat of the Soviet Union. Morris does, in fact, conclude the book with the hope that someday Americans will thank Reagan for what he did.
Reading the book, however, one gets the impression that Morris neither respects Ronald Reagan nor thinks that he is responsible for any grand accomplishment. There are denigrating references to Reagan throughout the book. Morris calls Reagan an “apparent airhead”, he says that Reagan “lacked wit”, wonders “how much did he know”, remarks that he’s “only an actor” and that “we are all audience to his perpetual performance”, calls him “Der Reine Tor”
(The Absolute Fool), says “he does not understand the complexities”, “so ungreat (he) could not possibly handle power”, “he had only a limited supply of RAM, and he wiped it clean whenever he switched to a new application”, “he believed in both true and untrue things if it suited his moral purpose”, “an inability to comprehend the reason that challenges faith”, and he writes in response to one of Reagan’s answers in an interview, “He feels the opposite of what he says.” I could go on ad infinitum ad nauseam.
I don’t mean to suggest that Edmund Morris has absolutely nothing nice to say about Ronald Reagan. I only mean to suggest that the overall impression one gets from the memoir is that Reagan is at best stupid, disengaged, uninterested, and naïve, and at worst cold-hearted, unanchored play-actor, and especially dangerous, because he might act on what he naively believes. Moreover, if any good was accomplished on Reagan’s watch, it was not for the reasons Reagan gives but simply that he was lucky.
The only thing for which Morris has more contempt than Reagan seems to be America, or at least that part of America which hasn’t read post-modern philosophers such as Sartre, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. Edmund Morris is a modern intellectual who can’t believe that anyone could possibly believe what Ronald Reagan so genuinely and simply believed: that America is “a shining city on the hill” and that he, Reagan, could carefully say what he believed to the American people, trusting them as Abraham Lincoln did
before him, assuring them that America’s future is bright so long as America remains true to her principles and her Constitution. Reagan was no mere actor, even though he actively sought the consent of the American people to address the problems America faced. Morris can only say that the more he studied Reagan, the less he understood him.
However, when Morris asked Reagan why it was so hard to understand him, Reagan said he believed that he was an open book. Reagan meant that what he said and what he did, consistently over a period of forty years, was a reflection of what he believed. Morris can’t believe that the surface of the thing can be true. He can’t believe that anyone in the 20th Century could believe what Reagan believed. And Morris can’t believe that what Reagan believed could have any impact on a world so complex and haunting. Thus one searches in vain in Dutch for the high praise which Morris pours on Reagan in TV and print interviews and sees clearly why Morris couldn’t understand Ronald Reagan.
The only two people in the book who are accorded unqualified high praise are Dick Darman and Mikhail Gorbachev. Darman is described as the smartest man in the Reagan Administration and Gorbachev is described as brilliant throughout. His praise of these two shows how Morris gets the Reagan Presidency completely wrong.
In Reagan’s mind, as Edwin Meese has shown so clearly in his book, With Reagan, Reagan had two big ideas which he hoped to implement as President: an across the board cut in marginal tax rates and an increase in defense spending. These aims were inter-related in Reagan’s mind.
Reagan wanted to implement an across the board cut in marginal tax rates in order to liberate the private economy from the Keynesian assumptions that had dominated fiscal and monetary policy for so many years. Four months before Reagan’s tax cuts went into effect in January 1983, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 777. Today, seventeen years later, the Dow stands at approximately 11,000, and the budget is in surplus. Reagan believed that the economy would explode if supply-side tax cuts were implemented and the economy did explode.
Morris follows Dick Darman (and David Stockman) in believing that the primary result of the Reagan tax cuts would be exploding deficits. Morris fails to note how revenues to the federal government almost doubled in the Reagan years and how, at the same time, spending by the federal government increased even faster. It was increased spending, especially increased domestic spending, which was responsible for the exploding deficit.
When Morris asks Reagan what are the seminal moments in his Presidency, Reagan says first his tax cut and second his battle with the evil empire. In response, Morris writes: “Reagan …believed the way a child believes. … He believed in Reaganomics; Reaganomics had to be. God had saved him from death; therefore God wanted him to do the things he had vowed to do. And so he committed the American economy to eight years of self-compounding deficits, and a trillion-dollar shortfall, greater than the entire debt of the past two centuries.”
In this Darmanesque interpretation of the Reagan tax cuts, Morris fails to see the connection in Ronald Reagan’s mind between his tax cuts and the exploding economy to come. Morris seems completely unaware of the supply-side argument so ably argued in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and other conservative publications, including Reader’s Digest.
Morris also fails to see the connection between Reagan’s first and his second major policy initiative, increased defense spending. Through increased defense spending Reagan expected to spend “the Soviets to death” and thus send “the evil empire” to the “ash-heap of history.” In Reagan’s mind increased defense spending would bankrupt the Soviet Union. Reagan confronted the Soviet Union at the economic, tactical, strategic and moral levels. Just as the U.S. economy exploded, so the Soviet Union imploded.
Reagan saw his ability to spend the Soviets into bankruptcy as dependent on his political economy and he saw his policy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Western Europe and elsewhere as various pieces of the same strategic puzzle of statesmanship.
In Morris’s interpretation, the Cold War ended when Yuri Andropov came to power in 1982, with his brilliant protégé Mikhail Gorbachev at his side. Morris writes that few Americans knew how decrepit the Soviet Union was and how close to collapse the Soviet Union was.
Morris implies that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable because it was an economic basket-case and that it would have collapsed regardless of what America did. No one noticed this early end of the
Soviet Union except Morris and a few intellectuals.
Thus in Morris’s mind, Reagan’s military build-up and rhetoric of moral absolutism of the “evil empire” were dangerous because they might frighten the bear to action and also because they caused the deficits. In Morris’s mind, it was not only unnecessary but also dangerous to push the Soviet bear from the outside.
The character of Morris’s misunderstanding of Reagan’s foreign policy is most clearly seen in his dismissive and mocking attitude toward the invasion of Grenada and in his interpretation of the Soviet Union’s shooting down a Korean Air Liner flight which had strayed into Soviet Air Space. Two-hundred-sixty-nine passengers were killed as a result. Morris virtually blames Reagan for the downing of the Korean Air Liner, “for what was Andropov’s increased alert along Soviet borders but a
reaction to Ronald Reagan’s military build-up, and deliberately provocative rhetoric.”
And finally, Morris saw in Gorbachev a reasonable intellectual while in Reagan he saw a dangerous ideologue: “Dutch is more of an ideologue than Gorbachev—who at least acknowledges the derelictions of his system. Perhaps that’s what we all privately fear: not
godless Communism but practical Christianity, that blind belief in which Dutch acquired at age eleven and has never so much as questioned since.”
In response to an interview by Morris, Gorbachev says the Cold War was won at the Reykjavik Summit. At Reykjavik, Reagan had refused in the face of an offer to destroy all nuclear weapons to give up the Strategic Defense Initiative. For Morris, the Strategic Defense Initiative was a fantasy discovered by Reagan in his youthful reading of science fiction novels. In Reagan’s mind, SDI was the proper policy to get us away from the
insanity of the policy of Mutally Assured Destruction so that we could defend rather than only avenge ourselves. To Gorbachev it was the straw that broke the bear’s back.
While the lifeguard Dutch Reagan saved the life of the fictional Edmund Morris, the real Edmund Morris has tried to drown Ronald Reagan in his impressionistic sea of post-modern interpretations. Ronald Reagan’s shadow, however, is long. Nearly twelve years after
he left office, Republican candidates for President, including George W. Bush, vie to be the true heir to the Reagan Legacy. The world is freer and more prosperous as a result of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Ronald Reagan’s place in the history of America and the world is secure. It still awaits, however, a good official biographer.
Mickey Craig is the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.