October 12, 1999 | Commentary on Political Thought
Given the opportunity to write the "authorized biography" of our 40th president and to provide a definitive explanation of Ronald Reagan's unquestioned success as president, Morris offers the hoary cliche that Reagan saw the presidency as one more opportunity to play the star -- "the role of a lifetime."
Consistent with liberal author Garry Wills' theory that Reagan could not distinguish between fantasy and reality, Morris suggests that Reagan got the idea of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) -- which was critically important in ending the Cold War -- from reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' science fiction potboiler, "Princess from Mars," as a teenager.
Indifferent to politics, Morris sums up Reagan's brilliant 1980 campaign -- and Jimmy Carter's monumental inadequacy as president -- in a couple of pages, while ostentatiously crediting a campaign aide for limiting Reagan's "tendency toward gaffes."
Admittedly bored by economics, Morris asks Reagan on his last day in office to list the "seminal" events of his presidency. When the president begins talking about the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, Morris' eyes glaze over, and he lets his Sony recorder do the listening. And yet that legislation ignited an unparalleled period of economic growth in the 1980s and is largely responsible, many economists agree, for our prosperity today.
In his obsession with Reagan the actor, the performer, the star, Morris fails to explore the importance of ideas throughout Reagan's life. In his famous televised address in October 1964 for presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, for example, Reagan said the notion that "government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except the sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man."
You will not find that telling line in Morris' book, but rather a fictional telephone call from the biographer's fictional student son Gavin, who says of the speech that Reagan is full of "merde" (French slang for excrement) but can sure "work up an audience."
You see, in order to portray the "real" Ronald Reagan, Kenya-born Edmund Morris invents an American-born Edmund Morris, who as his contemporary follows "Dutch" Reagan from his near-poverty childhood in Tampico, Ill., to film stardom in Hollywood. Morris' model is apparently James Boswell's "Life of Samuel Johnson," but Boswell was really there with Johnson in the mid-1700s. He did not create a doppleganger to describe Johnson.
The inevitable effect of the fictional Morris and his fictional conversations, letters and even footnotes is to raise questions about apparently real conversations in the Oval Office and events in Reykjavik, Moscow and Berlin. We find ourselves not in the world of James Boswell but of Franz Kafka. "'Dutch' reads like a novel," wrote the clearly disgusted historian Joseph J. Ellis in the Washington Post, "because, well, that's what it really is."
Conservatives expected an in-depth study of the man who ended the Cold War without firing a shot -- but got a book that devotes fourteen often-inaccurate pages to Iran-contra and barely mentions the Reagan Doctrine.
They wanted to read about the great speeches of the Reagan presidency -- "an evil empire" ... "the ashheap of history" ... "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!" But they are subjected to Edmund Morris' banal postmodernist poetry: the one dedicated to "R.R." begins, "These leaves your lips will sink as rot they must."
Conservatives wanted to learn about the influence of F. A. Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom," Whittaker Chambers' "Witness," National Review, and the Washington weekly Human Events on Reagan's words and deeds. But none of them are to be found in the 674 disappointing, deceptive and ultimately dishonorable pages of "Dutch."
I predict a major American publisher will soon announce the signing of a major American historian who will do justice to the man who led Americans to believe in themselves again, to realize they did not need the welfare state to solve all their economic and social problems, and who looked the Soviets square in the eye and saw they were not 10 feet tall.
Lee Edwards, a Reagan biographer and senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author, most recently, of The Conservative Revolution: The Movement That Remade America (Free Press).
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