Reagan Reconsidered

Reviewed by Yitzhak Klein

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris; and Ronald Reagan,
by Dinesh D'Souza

The United States is today the world’s dominant political, economic and ideological power. Only twenty years ago, however, matters looked very different. In 1980, the democratic ideals for which the United States stood were in retreat around the world; the Soviet Union was extending its influence in many developing countries; the American economy suffered from high inflation and unemployment, and was growing more slowly than that of any other major industrial country; and American society was riddled with self-doubt following a string of humiliations on both the international and domestic fronts—including Vietnam, impotence in the face of OPEC and the Iranian hostage debacle. America seemed to be a civilization in decline.
Within a decade, all this had been turned on its head. Soviet Communism had disappeared. Democratically elected parliaments had sprung up to replace despotic regimes in places where such an outcome had never been thought possible. The energy crisis was forgotten. American inflation, unemployment and interest rates had plummeted, and economic growth had accelerated. With the passage of yet another decade, America’s recovery and its influence on world affairs took on even greater dimensions. In the 1990s, democracy became entrenched in Latin America, Eastern Europe and East Asia. The United States economy grew faster than that of any other major industrialized country, while unemployment fell to levels most economists had once considered unattainable. American economic, military and political power came to dominate global affairs. Matching America’s material success was Americans’ recovered pride in themselves, their country and their ideals.
Many political, economic and social factors, which were unleashed during the 1980s and continue to exert their influence today, combined to produce this remarkable turnaround. No single person or group can claim credit for every aspect of the American recovery. Increasingly, however, one person seems to have played the role of catalyst: Ronald Reagan, who served as U.S. President from 1981 to 1989. Reagan prosecuted the Cold War against the Soviet Union, which he correctly termed an “evil empire,” to its successful conclusion. He initiated controversial economic reforms aimed at encouraging entrepreneurship and rewarding hard work. And he championed the virtues of the American nation, encouraging his fellow citizens to take pride in themselves and in the values embodied in their society.
This view of Reagan’s achievements finds scant acceptance in many quarters even today. A certain conventional wisdom judges Reagan by his frequent verbal gaffes and his poor grasp of the details of policy, while finding his insistence on discussing public affairs in terms of moral values embarrassing. It seems that those who find it difficult to give Reagan credit for what took place in the past twenty years simply cannot believe that a man of such apparent intellectual shortcomings could actually have done what he did. For this reason, one must welcome the publication of two recent books, the long-awaited authorized biography by Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, and Dinesh D’Souza’s Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. Each one, in its own way, sheds light on the character and leadership of America’s fortieth president.
Edmund Morris was selected by Ronald Reagan’s White House staff in 1985 to write the authorized biography of the President. Morris’ Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan achieved notoriety overnight, largely because of the strange literary device he employs in his account of Reagan’s life. Morris has written his book in the style of a personal memoir. Since he was born twenty-eight years after Reagan, immigrated to the United States from Britain in 1968 and began to associate closely with Reagan only in 1985, he has invented a false persona for himself, as narrator, pretending to be Reagan’s contemporary and schoolmate from small-town Illinois, devoting much effort to maintaining this illusion throughout the book. The fabrication does not seem to have contaminated the book’s genuine biographical material, except by undermining from the outset one’s confidence in Morris’ judgment and, consequently, in his assessment of Reagan’s life and career.
Morris is a close observer of his subject. The Reagan he describes is, unsurprisingly, a masterful orator, a charismatic figure in person or on television. He is also a good administrator, a tough but flexible negotiator, a man of goodwill and genuine Christian virtues. Yet Morris does not whitewash Reagan’s flaws. Like many observers of the Reagan presidency, Morris found disconcerting how distant Reagan was even to his closest advisors, even to his children. He could fire aides without compunction—the scene in which Reagan summons his secretary of state, Alexander Haig, and hands him a brief note accepting a resignation Haig had not tendered, is chilling—and he never thought to call an old acquaintance or former employee.
Morris explodes the canard that Reagan was unintelligent. Many of those who expressed contempt for Reagan did so because the president lacked the ability to reason on his feet. When asked a question, he was at times unable to grasp its import, or to answer with anything but a pre-scripted response, which might not always have been the right one. This scandalized intellectuals for whom quick repartee is a prerequisite for public life. Reagan’s writings, however, reveal a very different view of the man. His letters and papers (including his speeches, most of which he wrote himself) are models of clarity and articulation. “I’ve never known anybody,” writes Morris, “with such an ability to reduce a situation to its simple essence. And simple is not necessarily simplistic.” Reagan was not an intellectual or an originator of ideas, but he possessed an integrated and comprehensive view of American society, its strengths and weaknesses, and the proper role and policies of government. A careful reader of Dutch will discern in Reagan the ability to develop a firm opinion about which matters were crucial to him, and then to take a firm stand on them. Whenever Morris graces his readers with a description of Reagan coming to a decision—whether to sign California’s abortion bill, for instance, or to develop strategic nuclear defenses—he comes across as deliberate and reflective.
Yet Morris’ analysis of Reagan’s decision making is neither systematic nor thorough, and he offers no considered evaluation of Reagan as a policy-maker. For Morris is singularly lacking in political perspective. He seldom discusses the issues which formed the context for Reagan’s decisions, and where he does his knowledge is usually fragmentary and inaccurate. One gets the impression that Morris does not really care much about economics, American politics or international relations. He has produced an insightful study of Reagan’s personality, but is unable to draw conclusions about the relationship between Reagan’s personality and his politics. In fact, the only personal trait whose political significance Morris notes explicitly is Reagan’s ambition. Yet the United States has many ambitious politicians. Morris conveys little sense of why this politician’s character was different, or how it led Reagan to the White House and, ultimately, to dominate global political and economic affairs. This, perhaps, is why Morris designed his book as a make-believe memoir: He lacks the knowledge and insight to write a genuine biography of Ronald Reagan.
This becomes evident as soon as Morris’ memoir reaches Reagan’s career in public office. Morris relates the main events of Reagan’s governorship of California as a series of unconnected events. Particularly irritating is his expectation that the reader will excuse him for not doing essential homework. His account of Reagan’s first California budget is typical: Three months after taking office in 1967, after a campaign which centered on Reagan’s pledge to reduce the size of government, Reagan approved the largest tax increase in California’s history. Rather than offering any insight as to what led to Reagan’s about-face, or what the consequences were for California or for Reagan’s future political career, Morris presents the event as just another link in a chain of impressionistic non sequiturs: The budget simply “went through to the legislature on March 27,” Morris writes, “and here the pen of a fiscal retard begins to quail.” Quailing, Morris offers no assessment of the event’s significance.
The 1967 California budget, however, was a pivotal moment in Reagan’s career as a political leader. California law said the budget had to balance, and Reagan’s $1 billion tax increase was needed to comply with the law. The rest of Reagan’s tenure in office revolved around his efforts to control expenditure, especially welfare spending, so as to avoid having to raise taxes again. California’s balanced-budget law was a central element of the struggle. Reagan skillfully used it to wrest control of the political agenda from state-house Democrats, while convincing California’s voters that they were not obligated to cough up additional funds for every social program the state’s liberals proposed. Thus Reagan’s governorship (1967-1974) was the formative period during which his views on welfare and budgetary policy took shape, as did his ability to dominate a recalcitrant legislature—factors that would loom large once he was in the White House, and whose impact on American domestic policy is felt to this day.

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