Lots of people are complaining that Edmund Morris is a biographer who likes to make things up. In his new biography of Reagan, Morris has invented not just one but several characters who interact with Reagan at various stages in his life. Isn’t this ironic? Reagan himself was accused throughout his career of failing to distinguish between fact and fiction. Yet I think Morris’ technique can be defended if it helps us understand Reagan better. Unfortunately, it does not.
As a Reagan biographer myself, I can testify that Morris is right: Reagan was a complex, mysterious man. Many Americans who saw him on television every day thought they understood him, but they kept forgetting that he was an actor. A C-student who graduated from Eureka College, Reagan was in many respects an ordinary man. Yet extraordinary things happened in the 1980s: the taming of inflation, the revival of economic growth, the technological revolution, the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
So did Reagan do these things? And if he did, how did such an ordinary fellow perform such extraordinary feats? Morris’ biography contributes little to our understanding of this large issue. He gives Reagan credit for his force of will, but he does not credit Reagan’s force of intellect. Reflecting the prejudices of the intelligentsia, Morris in his book and in interviews has described Reagan as “ignorant,” an “airhead,” and a “yahoo.”
Yet it was this very yahoo who in the early 1980s repeatedly predicted the fall of communism. He did this at a time when there was complete agreement among the sophisticated class–Republican and Democrat, hawk and dove, conservative and liberal–that the Soviet empire was permanent. So how did Reagan know something about the vulnerability of Soviet communism that all the learned pundits, including the entire Soviet Studies community, did not know? Morris’$2 800 pages brings you no closer to understanding why, on this immensely important question, the wise men proved to be wrong and the dummy proved to be right.
Here’s another question. Why did the computer revolution occur in the 1980s? Why didn’t it happen in the 1970s? Reagan is no more responsible for inventing the Internet than Al Gore. But is it possible that Reagan’s policies such as the tax cuts, deregulation, privatization of government assets, and the celebration of the entrepreneur as the true American hero, created the necessary political and social framework for the silicon revolution? Many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs I’ve spoken to say that without Reagan the computer revolution may have happened, but it wouldn’t have happened as fast as it did. So what does Morris think about this? Nothing. It’s not that he adopts a position I disagree with. He seems unaware that this is an important subject of debate. In the sphere of politics, it is Morris, not Reagan, who comes across looking like an ignoramus.
Unable to fathom Reagan’s public accomplishments, Morris focuses on his personal life. Even here there are no big revelations. Morris speculates that Reagan married his first wife, Jane Wyman, because she threatened to commit suicide if he didn’t. But the source for this turns out to be Reagan’s second wife, Nancy Reagan. All we can learn from this episode is that second wives don’t like to think that their husbands wanted to marry their first wives. Morris also makes much of the fact that Reagan in the mid-’30s considered joining the Communist Party but was turned down because they regarded him as a “flake.” Does this prove that Reagan was a lightweight? On the contrary, it reveals that the Commies were even more inept than previously thought. Reagan would have been an unbelievably good catch, and if he had stayed with this sorry lot, he would have been their best chance to win mainstream acceptability.
Morris’ failure is symptomatic of the failure of the intelligentsia in this country to comprehend Reagan. Perhaps it also reflects an attempt to avenge Reagan’s rout of the intellectual class. We are now living in the world that Reagan made, a world in which entrepreneurs and not intellectuals are directing the nation’s future. So will Morris have the last word on Reagan’s legacy? In the words of one of Tom Wolfe’s characters, fuhgetaboutit. History will remember Reagan as one of the two great presidents of the 20th century. (The other was FDR.) He will be cherished as the man who won the Cold War and revived the American economy and the American spirit. Morris’ book will be a footnote.