Commentary Magazine


Dutch by Edmund Morris

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan
by Edmund Morris
Random House. 874 pp. $35.00

The central argument of this much-discussed and widely denounced book is that Ronald Reagan was an actor, not simply in his occupational background but in his presidency and in his personality. By an actor, Edmund Morris does not, I think, mean a false or contrived man; but he does mean an empty one, someone from whom very little can be expected unless he is on stage. Morris puts it this way:

Reagan illustrated the phenomenon that actors have no real identity unless they have a great role to play. His conversation in private was stultifyingly banal. He had no intellectual interests, no irony, no perceptions. But as soon as he had an audience, he began to emerge. And when he stepped onto the world stage, he was transformed.

Morris says he admired Reagan, but he describes the President’s private talk as filled with “bromides.” Reagan’s mind, according to Morris, was devoid of curiosity, being filled instead with “encyclopedic ignorance”; his pleasures were bland entertainment; his reasoning was confounded with “addled scholarship”; his personality was without depth. He struck Morris as an “apparent airhead,” who would “declaim Dred Scott if asked to” by his staff. But Morris also says that he did not hold Reagan in contempt, and I believe him. To Morris, Reagan was not contemptible, he was mysterious, an unknown kind of person whom Morris had never seen before, at least in close proximity.

The mystery is what led to Morris’s decision to make much of this book depend on fiction. As everyone knows by now, he invented a new figure named Morris, had him grow up like Reagan himself in Illinois (the real Morris was born in Kenya and is, of course, much younger than the fictional one), and used this mythical Morris’s familiarity with Reagan as a way of telling the story of the man who was always an actor, always dependent on an audience, even an audience of one. The result is not a biography in any obvious sense of the word but a work in which there are bits and pieces of a real biography layered onto a work of partial fiction. I say “partial” because, insofar as he has been able to, Morris does use the words of Reagan and his associates accurately; but I add “fiction” because those words have meaning for Morris only as part of the story—the work of literature—he is trying to construct.

All this is puzzling in one who garnered many awards for The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the first volume of a biography of TR. Surely that book demonstrates that Morris is both a historian and a biographer? But no: as Morris says early in this book, “I’m not a historian,” and indeed he is not. He is a writer, a greatly gifted one who obviously spent countless hours fashioning some of the splendid sentences in this book; but these splendid sentences are mostly a revelation of Morris, not of Reagan. Many chapters consist of long, verbatim extracts from Morris’s notes, unchanged by subsequent analysis. Pick a few pages at random, and you will discover that one of the most frequent words on the page is “I.”

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In every part of this book, its author wants us to know that he is trying to understand his subject. I have no doubt that he worked hard at this task, but to me he failed. He failed because he persuaded himself that, if so little of Reagan’s inner personality was publicly on view, there must not be an inner personality. Theodore Roosevelt put his personality amply on view, and left many anguishing letters about the struggle to maintain the purity of his soul. But Reagan hardly revealed himself to anyone except his wife, and Nancy Reagan barely exists in this book. She is described—or at least her appearance and dress are described—and we know how close the two have been as a couple, that Reagan loves her deeply, and that almost the only occasion he broke down was upon learning that Nancy had cancer. But Nancy Reagan did not confide in Edmund Morris, and so we are deprived of the perspective of the person who knows Reagan best.

The problem confronting Morris has not been his alone. Lou Cannon, who has published three biographies of Reagan, recently wrote that he produced a “frustrating interview.” This was, Cannon believes, because Reagan was intent on “preserv [ing] the mystery of leadership by keeping himself to himself.” But the same quality is what has led many of Reagan’s critics over the decades to agree with Morris that Reagan is an airhead. Surely, their reasoning goes, any great leader must have a personality to match, preferably one that combines wide reading, deep curiosity, and intellectual conversation.

Some Presidents, in fact, have had these traits; but as Presidents they happen to present a mixed bag. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton are policy wonks who have taken seriously every detail of their jobs and loved to discourse on the meaning of public affairs. Would either count as a great President, or even a good one? Richard Nixon, an astute and well-informed student of foreign policy, put in place a policy of wary cooperation with the Soviet Union that the supposedly ill-informed Reagan ended with a very different policy that succeeded in destroying Communist Russia. Which of them is the greater President?

Suppose Bill Clinton rather than Ronald Reagan had gone to Reykjavik to confront Mikhail Gorbachev over the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Almost surely he would have agreed with the Soviet leader that research on SDI should be confined to the laboratory; and so the Soviet Union would have endured much longer than it did. (This is not just my opinion, it is Gorbachev’s.) Suppose Jimmy Carter had been asked to speak on the Soviet Union; “evil empire” would have been the last words ever to leave his lips, and demanding that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall the farthest thing from his mind. And so neither Yuri Andropov nor Mikhail Gorbachev would have known how determined we were.

A historian, as opposed to a writer, might have taken such comparisons among Presidents more seriously. Reagan often said how much he admired Dwight D. Eisenhower and Franklin D. Roosevelt, two figures who also had something not easily described as a “personality.” Liberals detested Eisenhower because of his clumsy speeches, and conservatives loathed Roosevelt because of his imperious ways. But Eisenhower’s speeches were clumsy not because of his mind but because they were often a deliberate effort to conceal his thinking. Roosevelt had a second-class mind, not much given to reading and hardly worthy of study; but he had a remarkable temperament.

George Washington, too, was a consummate actor—one devoted, as Richard Brookhiser has shown in his recent biography, Founding Father, to spectacles and shows of every kind, especially those in which he got to wear an elegant uniform. Washington was thought by his contemporaries to be badly educated, and when he commissioned someone to write his biography the man failed, leaving behind only a few glimpses of Washington in military action. Thomas Jefferson, who admired Washington, opined that “he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation”—this, of a man who possessed a sizable library and sometimes wrote letters to the authors of the books in it. But Washington’s life was governed by the impression he made as an actor in a play, the play being the founding of the United States.

And that brings up another point of comparison that a historian might have pursued but Morris does not. For if Reagan was an actor all his life, others in the presidency have been at least his equal. Bill Clinton is able, at a moment’s notice, and under the guidance of his daily pollsters and his political instincts, to soothe the public with consummate skill. Indeed, Clinton may be a greater actor than Reagan: he has always spoken from a script, but today’s script can completely contradict yesterday’s, or tomorrow’s. (Recall Clinton saying that the “era of big government is over”—just after, and just before, calling for dramatic expansions in the scope of the federal government.) Reagan was very different: he spoke from a single script, one that he himself had written and that never changed. Surely that difference, much more than any contrast in personality, is the difference that counts.

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George Washington was suited to his times, as Reagan was to his. What a new nation needed from Washington was stability, gravity, and legitimacy; what an old nation needed from Reagan was a restoration of public confidence, an end to economic retreat, and the defeat of the Soviet Union.

It got all three, though Morris speaks in detail about only the last. He scarcely mentions the ending of inflation, as Reagan watched calmly while Paul Volcker, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, wrung rising costs out of our price system by letting interest rates soar. Perhaps Morris thinks that this dramatic story properly belongs in a biography of Volcker. But we know from experience (think of the struggles of Harry Truman) how a popular politician can bend the Fed to his will. Reagan, by contrast, let Volcker do the necessary work, even though it cost him heavily in public support. As for the high level of public confidence in himself as President that Reagan evoked after the end of high interest rates and rampaging inflation, Morris refers to this only occasionally, and scarcely at all to the upward tick in the level of confidence people showed in government as a whole.

That leaves the best parts of Morris’s literary work (let us not call it a biography): his vivid accounts of Reagan’s dealing with Gorbachev in Geneva. These are vivid because Morris was there and writes beautifully about what he saw and heard and thought. But no other voices are heard. We know that major administration figures like George Shultz, Robert McFarlane, Paul Nitze, and Donald Regan, among others, were all in Geneva at Reagan’s side; but we never learn how they viewed what happened there. They become, in Morris’s account, little more than props in the play—a play with, apparently, no director, no bit players, and no stage managers, only the actor and the critic.

Morris also gives compelling portraits of John Hinckley’s attempt to kill the President; the fateful movement of U.S. Marines to Lebanon and the disaster that followed there; the origins of the “evil empire” speech; the American reaction to the Soviet destruction of a Korean civilian aircraft (flight 007); and Reagan’s ill-starred speech at Bit-burg, Germany, where he spoke in the same breath of Nazi military dead and Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust These portraits are “compelling” because they are lit up with revealing detail. But are they entirely accurate? I cannot say; once again, hardly any voices are heard other than those of the actor and the critic.

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So what, in the end, are we to make of Morris’s vain search for Reagan’s character? (The longest section but one in the index to this book is labeled “Character and Personality”) Those who think Reagan was an airhead will have to come to grips with the fact that, according to Morris’s testimony, he wrote his own major speeches “in page after legal page of reasoned prose,” that his diary was from first to last a lucid and coherent whole, that at Geneva he largely ignored the incessant briefings and staff papers and conducted business with Gorbachev alone and on his own, and did so successfully.

The real measure of Reagan was taken by powerful statesmen who had to deal with him close up. Although they certainly agreed that he could go on forever with his Hollywood jokes, they had a different view when it comes to what mattered. François Mitterrand, the French premier, averred that Reagan was “a man without ideas and without culture, . . . but beneath the surface you find someone who isn’t stupid, who has great good sense and profoundly good intentions. What he does not perceive with his intelligence, he feels by nature.” Gorbachev, with whom Reagan argued bluntly and endlessly, had a similar impression. Reagan is “authentic,” he told Morris, who asked through an interpreter what the word, “lichnost,” connoted in Russian. It connoted more than personality or stature, Gorbachev replied; it meant that Reagan was “a man of great character who rings true, all the way through his body and soul.”

The American people understood this without translating from Russian or consulting French leaders. To them, as Lou Cannon has put it, Reagan was an open book in whom they had great confidence. It is odd that what was so obvious to ordinary voters should have puzzled a man from Kenya.

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About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.




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