The Book Club

Reagan for Dummies

Dear Alan:

How I want to like Edmund Morris. How much I have looked forward to his book on Reagan. I’ve heard Morris speak twice at the American Enterprise Institute, where I work. He is urbane and sophisticated, and the model of gentlemanliness and charm. When I enrolled at Dartmouth as a foreign student from India, I met professors who exuded learning and grace and wit. I wanted to be like that. Edmund Morris is one of them. And, let me be candid, Ronald Reagan is not. Yet frankness also compels me to acknowledge that, at the end of the day, Reagan succeeded in his great enterprise and Morris failed. Reagan was an ordinary man who became an extraordinary leader. Morris is an educated man who has written a profoundly foolish book.

One reason Dutch is so disappointing is that it gives no vivid sense of the situation in America when Reagan was first elected. When Reagan entered the Oval Office, the landscape looked dismal, both at home and abroad. Inflation was in double digits, eroding pension plans and savings accounts; interest rates had reached 21 percent, the highest since the Civil War; the Soviet bear was on the prowl, having gobbled up 10 countries between 1974, when South Vietnam fell, and 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. There was an energy crisis, with long lines at the pump and talk of gas rationing. And who can forget the hostages in Iran, held captive by mullahs who denounced America as a “great Satan”?

Reagan promised to bring inflation down, and he did. He cut taxes to energize economic growth, and after the recession of 1982 the economy went into a juggernaut of growth that has still not abated. Interest rates fell, so that new businesses could get loans and families could buy houses again. Reagan decontrolled gas prices, and the energy crisis disappeared. The technological revolution accelerated in part due to the explosion of venture capital that became available in the 1980s. No more real estate fell to the Soviets under Reagan’s watch. Indeed the Soviet empire itself came under unendurable strains and began to collapse. The Soviets pulled out of Aghanistan. In 1989, the year Reagan left office, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

Not many presidents, it’s safe to say, can claim a comparable record of achievement. The 1990s have been peaceful and prosperous, to be sure, but Clinton inherited a growing economy and a global environment rid of the Soviet menace and open to American multinationals. Of course, Clinton deserves some plaudits for preserving Reaganism (this is his true legacy), but Reagan deserves the lion’s share of the credit for turning the country, and the world, around. Moreover, Reagan articulated a moral vision of what it means to be an American that I, for one, sorely miss in the 1990s.

Morris dimly perceives that Reagan is implicated in these huge events, but he has no idea how or why they happened. Hence the schizophrenia that is manifest throughout his book. Like some of the petulant letter-writers who have been weighing in on our exchange, Morris’ premise seems to be that Reagan was, as Clark Clifford once put it, an “amiable dunce.” So Morris tries to apply the premise to the astonishing turnaround of the 1980s. And it doesn’t fit. How could a dunce enjoy the continuous successes that Reagan did? Maybe Reagan got lucky once or twice, but could luck account for Reagan’s triumphs in the multiple ventures he pursued and the multiple policies he enacted? Did luck account for how Reagan got elected governor of California, and then re-elected? After Reagan became president, is luck the true reason that the seemingly invincible inflation dragon was slain? Reagan wanted a world in which the market, not the government, runs the economy; by the time he left office such a world was in the making: more luck?

Morris knows this is ridiculous, but he cannot figure it out; he becomes confused. He goes into a long depression. He suffers from writer’s block. Then he “solves” the riddle: Reagan was a dunce with incredible imagination and will. Never once does Morris question his premise. What if Reagan was not the dummy that his critics made him out to be? What if Reagan was intelligent and perceptive, far more imaginative than all his critics put together, infinitely more resourceful in implementing his agenda, eerily indifferent to much of the acrimony and pettiness around him, resolute and far-sighted in keeping his eye on the long ball of history?

Suddenly the events of the 1980s make sense; Reagan did them. Morris senses Reagan’s involvement, but he does not understand it. He compares Reagan to a glacier that carved a deep valley. But he is too captive to his original “dummy” hypothesis to question it and abandon it when it does not fit the facts. This is why, despite his strenuous efforts, Morris finally fails to make sense of Reagan and the effects of Reaganism.

The people around Reagan, like Michael Deaver, who picked Morris, seem to have assumed that because Morris admired a rugged outdoorsman like Teddy Roosevelt, the subject of Morris’ previous book, Morris would also like Reagan. But TR was an intellectual and a polymath. He invited zoologists to the White House to discuss the fine points of botany. TR was well-bred and self-conscious. He wrote books and quoted poetry. By contrast, R.R. was a simple guy, self-made, with ordinary interests and no intellectual pretensions. Visit the Reagan ranch near Santa Barbara, recently purchased by the Young America’s Foundation, and look over Reagan’s bookshelf. No Plutarch, no Shakespeare, not even Whitman or Frost; just Louis L’Amour westerns and books about horses and copies of Arizona Highways. Morris, who fancies himself a cultural sophisticate, is obviously appalled. His suspicions about Reagan are confirmed: Reagan strikes him as a brainless yahoo. And so Morris finds himself set on his disastrous course that takes up a decade and a half of his life, ruins his reputation, and does a grave injustice to Reagan and to history.