The Book Club

Hook, Line, and Sinker

Dear Dinesh,

Like you, I find Morris’ book extraordinarily disappointing–particularly given my expectations. I like his T.R. book very much, and I like him (although I don’t know him well) and consider him an interesting and very intelligent man. But something went badly wrong with this book. I don’t want to psychologize, but clearly he simply found himself unable to manage this large and difficult subject, floundered, and grasped onto a series of unwise devices that derailed the project–of which the fictional narrators are only one, and not the most disastrous.

Like you as well, I find Morris’ view of Reagan as something close to an empty suit inherently implausible. I suspect that spending many hours getting Reagan to talk about the past (which he is astute enough to realize does not mean much to Reagan except as the source of well-worn anecdotes) must have given him an exaggerated sense of Reagan’s detachment from any engagement with the present. My view of Reagan’s powers of leadership is perhaps different from yours. I agree with you that Reagan was a tremendously effective leader–partly because he was attractive and a good speaker; but even more because he was a man of absolute certitude about his core convictions and was able to convey a sense of assurance and self-confidence. Where did that certitude come from? One thing that Morris does convey pretty well, I think, is that Reagan formed convictions fairly early in his consideration of a question and that these convictions then became more or less impervious to challenge from evidence that might contradict them. That did not always make these convictions useful bases for policy or action, but they did make them extremely effective as vehicles for shaping opinion and attracting support. Morris is clearly impressed by those moments when Reagan demonstrated his powers of leadership and persuasion, and he concedes that Reagan had an enormous impact on the attitudes of the American people. But his explanation of where that power came from is at odds, as you note, with his dismissive view of Reagan’s own personality and intelligence.

But my larger problem with Morris is undoubtedly very different from yours. As I noted yesterday, Morris seems to know very little about American politics and American history. And yet he is, on the whole, a completely credulous supporter of most of the assumptions and ideas we associate with Reaganism. I mentioned yesterday his preposterous summary of the history of the welfare state, which sounds like one of Reagan’s uninformed anecdotes about welfare queens and his uninformed analysis of Keynesianism and the New Deal economic order. But the largest example of his credulity in this book involves the part of Reagan’s presidency in which he takes the greatest interest: the Cold War. It is an article of faith among many Reagan admirers that Reagan “won the Cold War.” I do not deny that Reagan’s policies, and his relationship with Gorbachev, were important in shaping the way the Cold War ended. But I don’t think many historians would argue now, and I don’t think many will argue in the future, that Reagan–or American policy generally except in a very large sense–had much to do with the unraveling of the Soviet Union. That had much more to do with the grave internal weaknesses in the Soviet system than with anything the United States did. If there was an event that really precipitated the unraveling, it was not anything Reagan did, but the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan and its aftermath.

Morris, however, selects a few incidents in Reagan’s presidency and attributes to them a historic importance for which there is no real evidence. The “evil empire” speech, for example. Reagan’s use of the word evil, he says, “penetrated the Russian soul as surely as the cadmium poisoning Russian beets.” It produced a shock of self-recognition and, presumably, contributed to the decline of popular legitimacy of the regime. The evidence for this, he says, was gathered over many years–but what evidence does he provide? An interview with Max Kampelman, who was presumably expressing his own anecdotal reactions after conversations with a few Russians; and an article by the author of the speech. Or later, the “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech in Berlin in 1987. Morris may speak condescendingly of Reagan’s language, as you noted yesterday. But he also argues that this speech resonated throughout the Communist world and helped spawn the will to resist that culminated in the revolutions of 1989 and beyond. And what is his evidence for this extraordinary claim? An article by–once again–the author of the speech.

People in the Reagan administration, Reagan partisans, and Reagan himself have had obvious self-serving reasons for making such arguments–for insisting that a major event in world history that arose out of a vast confluence of factors was the result of the policies and the rhetoric of a single man. But what is Morris’ excuse? He has simply accepted the claims at face value, just as he seems to have accepted his views of American domestic policy on the basis of a few rhetorical statements that seem to him plausible. In the end, then, he has done exactly what he (and many others) claim that Reagan often did.

You think the book is a great injustice to Reagan, and in many respects it is. But it is also an injustice to history, because it accepts far too credulously the claims made by Reagan’s admirers about his accomplishments and his influence.