The Book Club

Who’s the Airhead Here?

Dear Dinesh,

Well, let’s not worry too much about our happy state of agreement. I’m sure we’ll find something to argue about–probably beginning today.

It will not surprise you, I’m sure, that I have never been a great admirer of Ronald Reagan, although it may surprise you that I feel, as you do, that he is one of the most important presidents of the 20th century and that he displayed a certain genius for leadership that, whatever his other limitations, helped make his presidency enormously successful and influential. Morris seems to sense that and at times to concede it, but he is so preoccupied with Reagan’s unremarkable personal opaqueness that he doesn’t really convey the power of his personality adequately or fairly. And I think you are right that his own self-conscious displays of erudition (which include his very mediocre poetry) lead him to evaluations of Reagan that are both condescending and politically naive.

I confess that I have only today worked my way through the last chapters of Morris’ book, and what strikes me is that it actually gets worse as it moves farther away from its unconventional literary techniques. The autobiographical elements are less intrusive in the chapters on the governorship and the presidency, but Morris’ limitations as a historian and biographer are much more glaringly on display–as you also note. You and I will undoubtedly be alarmed by different examples of these weaknesses. But let me give several illustrations of a kind of historical simplemindedness that is in many ways as bad as, or worse than, the simplemindedness he sometimes attributes to Reagan.

Here, for example, is Morris’ riff on the extraordinarily complicated 60-year history of the modern American welfare state: “Under the 1935 Social Security Act, a family on welfare was re-classified as ‘self-supporting’ the moment Pop was hired … Wives thus ‘abandoned’ [when husbands left home to preserve welfare benefits] found it profitable to go on having babies–by whomever–in order to notch up the family income.” This problem remained contained, he says, until the ‘60s, when “the New Deal idea of ‘benefits’ as emergency help, to be applied for reluctantly and granted responsibly, became the Great Society concept of ‘entitlements.’ ” (I’ve left out only a few sentences of this passage and have not, I think, altered its meaning in doing so.) It is hard to know where to begin to critique this monumentally ignorant description of the welfare system. There is no evidence that ADC in the ‘30s (or long after) caused husbands and fathers to abandon their wives, and no evidence at all to support the insulting statement that women “went on” having babies “by whomever” in order to increase their very meager welfare payments. Even in the ‘60s and beyond, there is very little evidence to support the argument that AFDC is responsible for illegitimate births. The Great Society did nothing to change the definition of entitlements under Social Security (although it did of course add new ones–Medicare and Medicaid). Morris’ footnotes cite only a few stray magazine articles, a book on Nixon’s welfare reform efforts that makes none of the claims that Morris does, and, significantly, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground.

The last chapters of the book are filled with these casual, simplistic, and uninformed observations about American public policy. Morris claims, for example, that the New Deal launched a 50-year effort to force the distribution of wealth downward. In fact, there was virtually no downward distribution of wealth during the New Deal or in the 50 years after World War II–and only a modest downward distribution during World War II, caused not by taxation but by economic growth and rising wages. Nor did any president advocate or attempt to produce downward distribution of wealth; even Democrats (Kennedy and Johnson included) explicitly rejected that as a social goal.

Even more astonishing is his flippant dismissal of Reagan’s economic program–a dismissal visible in the very scant attention he gives it in this 700-page book and in his remarks at several points about how bored he was to hear Reagan talk about it. I don’t think much of Reagan’s economic policies, although I concede that some good things flowed from them; but whatever one thinks of them, they do mark an extraordinarily important moment in American history. Morris can’t be bothered with them. When Reagan returns to his “tax program” in an interview, Morris tells us that “my heart sank, and I mentally deducted 10 minutes from the time remaining.” In fact, it seems there were many things about Reagan’s life and career that Morris considered too boring to attend to. There is almost nothing in this book about Reagan’s campaigns, and an astonishing passage on Page 645 perhaps explains why. Morris describes sitting in the Oval Office interviewing Reagan in January 1989. (Whether this is the 48-year-old “real” Morris or the 75-year-old fictional one is not clear.) He reads him a passage from Lord David Cecil’s famous biography of Lord Melbourne–a favorite of Anglophiles the world over–and asks for Reagan’s response. The president begins talking about some early presidential campaigning in 1968, and Morris “let my Sony do the listening. Fortunately, I had several photocopied pages of Cecil’s biography in my folder, and read them with surreptitious enjoyment while Dutch retraced his steps to the ‘68 Republican convention. The great clock ticked on an on.” I have a similar sensation reading Morris’ book.

More tomorrow.