The Book Club

Erudition vs. Sense

Dear Alan:

Oh no, we agree! We’ve really got to stop this collaboration across the political spectrum. At this rate, we’ll be singing “We Shall Overcome” before this exchange is over. And what happens to the “culture wars” when people on both sides start laying down their arms? This is terrible. In addition to his other offenses, Edmund Morris is apparently the one we can blame for this alarming development.

Before I resume my trashing of Morris, let me admit that Dutch contains many passages that are beautifully written. As we saw in Morris’ previous book, he can be quite a sculptor with words. And there are occasional flashes of insight. For instance Morris almost casually notes that Reagan was “always happier in the Here and Now. His tendency to reminisce … was not a looking back so much as an eager application of history to today and tomorrow.” This is exactly right, and an apt response to many of Reagan’s critics who have over the years accused him of incurable nostalgia and trying to take the country back to the past that never was. Actually, Reagan could care less about “turning back the clock.” He employed the imagery of the past (e.g. pioneers proceeding West in covered wagons) to construct a kind of imaginative portrait of America; then he worked relentlessly to bend the future (e.g. space exploration and entrepreneurship as the modern equivalent of the early settlers) to his vision and his will.

Morris admires Reagan’s imagination and will; it’s Reagan’s intellect and cultural taste he cannot help but disdain. Sample passage: “Like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, Reagan found himself homeless, middle-aged and loveless as his thirty-ninth year waned. Or, to quote a book he was more likely to have read, there was this passage in Kings Row …” Morris’s book is full of this kind of snobbery.

But once again, let me raise the question of who is the real sophisticate and who is the ignoramus. I don’t deny that Morris is a better connoisseur of wine and literature than Reagan. But when statesmanship requires that the chasm between ideas and action be bridged, Reagan’s genius becomes evident and Morris reveals himself to be, well, a complete idiot.

For instance, here is Morris’ criticism of Reagan’s famous “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall” speech, drafted by speechwriter Peter Robinson and staged before an enthusiastic crowd at the Brandenburg Gate. After a sneering account of Reagan’s remarks that entirely misses their political significance, Morris writes,

What a rhetorical opportunity missed. He could have read Robert Frost’s poem on the subject, ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,’ to simple and shattering effect. Or even Edna St. Vincent Millay’s lines … ‘Only now for the first time I see/ This wall is actually a wall, a thing/ Come up between us, shutting me away/ From you … I do not know you any more.’

Is Morris kidding us here? Or has erudition drowned out all good sense? I suppose Edna Millay would be fitting in this context if Reagan were trying to strike up a romantic relationship with Gorbachev. The Frost example is even worse. Morris seems to have totally missed the point of Frost’s poem, which concludes with the observation that good fences make good neighbors. Would Reagan have been better off saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, good fences make good neighbors”? Thank you, speechwriter Edmund Morris! And now: off to the insane asylum!

Alan, perhaps you and some readers will consider me unduly harsh, but I think I am being duly harsh. Morris may be a wordsmith and an aesthete, but he is politically incompetent to evaluate his subject, a thoroughly political man. And he has missed an opportunity that cannot be recovered: Morris had a level of continuous access to Reagan that no other writer will ever have. He has abrogated his moral responsibility to history in a manner that is close to unforgivable. Which leaves the big question: Who picked this guy? And why?