I’ve known Edmund Morris since the days he, Ronnie “Dutch” Reagan, and I went to Eureka College together back in the ’30s. I knew Dutch long before Morris did, of course; Perlsteins have been around Reagans pretty much since both our families came over from Ireland in the 1850s. So when I saw that Eddie had just published Dutch, you can be sure I was interested to see what he’d come up with.
Well, one thing’s for sure: that’s the Edmund Morris I remember. The constant dropping of foreign phrases (10 in the first 16 pages!), the spouting of obscure lines of poetry: “Not until Reagan confronted the green mounds of Bergen-Belsen, and realized what dread fertilizer enriched their heather covering, did the alabaster become flesh, and terror and pity— emotions that Hazlitt says are concomitant with tragedy— stir in my breast.” He was always such a pretentious ass. And so full of himself: It’s the president of the United States everyone’s interested in, but you wouldn’t know it from the number of pages here about Edmund Morris.
But never mind the narcissism; his American history is either cartoonish or just plain wrong. He calls Dutch’s adolescent years “the last days of American innocence.” But they were also the days of the Klan’s control of much of the Republican Party in the Midwest, the racist Immigration Act (1924), eugenics, riots, savage strikes, and ruthless strike-breaking. Eddie spent much of the time in England while this story was unfolding, but that doesn’t excuse bad history.
When it comes to depicting partisan politics, he’s unfair to the point of inanity. In this book, mature, law-abiding adults are almost all conservatives, the left the province of smug, stupid, starry-eyed kids, kneecap-busting union goons, Communist double-dealers, and weepy apologists for Stalin. Taxes are always “punitive,” welfare an occasion to commit fraud, “liberal” always in quotation marks. All England’s problems in 1949 are caused by its Labor government— never mind the fact that it lost millions of young men and half of London in the war. He calls all late-’60s racial politics “Black anarchy” and the 1980s European nuclear freeze movement “pro-Soviet” (2 million people taking to the streets over one weekend in 1984— that’s a lot of Moscow stooges, even for Europe). He writes as if all of Reagan’s political projects were received with unanimous acclaim. He cried when Reagan recovered from his 1981 shooting. “But again, who had not?”
Since Morris thinks conservatism is the natural estate of humanity, he doesn’t even bother to analyze how Reagan came to travel from New Deal liberalism to a very idiosyncratic far-right conservatism by the early ’60s (one would think it’s an important issue, since his brand of conservatism became the political status quo by the late ’90s). Eddie dates Dutch’s conversion to the summer of 1946, when Dutch decided he was an “anticommunist,” and leaves it at that— as if practically the whole country weren’t anticommunist then, many of the most fervent occupying the left wing of the Democratic Party. He could have at least cast a glance at the hothouse context of Southern Californian politics of that time; it would have cleared up a lot of what is most mysterious about Ronald Reagan. He mentions that Dutch chaired the 1962 Senate candidacy of Orange County lawyer Lloyd Wright, but he doesn’t mention his platform. Wright thought we should give the Soviet Union an ultimatum to get out of Eastern Europe, “and if they didn’t, I’d commence shooting. If we have to blow up Moscow, that’s too bad.” The bombing begins in five minutes.
No, when it comes to politics, Eddie Morris is keen to make Reagan look as good as possible— conveniently achieved by mostly ignoring domestic politics after the 1983 economic recovery in favor of the story of how Dutch “won” the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union. It’s a canard that has virtually become gospel for the right, dishonoring the dissidents who put their life on the line to fight the regime, and disregarding the USSR’s own Vietnam in Afghanistan, or the fact that the system had been slowly atrophying for 70 years. And since Morris is more interested in depicting Jimmy Carter as a foil for the Bad America before Dutch came along than as a flesh-and-blood historical figure, we never learn that the military buildup Reagan gets credit for started under Carter. Instead he simply claims that “since kissing Brezhnev in 1979,” Carter “had suffered agonies of unrequited brotherly love.”
Which is strange, because when it comes to explaining Reagan the man, Morris is viciously accurate. This Reagan is the Reagan of his enemies: he doesn’t recognize his own son (whom he nicknamed schmuck) at his graduation, builds his own house based on a movie set, launches into endless irrelevant stories at certain trigger words like “horse,” as if he were one of the brainwashed soldiers in The Manchurian Candidate. There is “the fundamentally childlike, bipolar quality of his mind . . . the majestic perversity of his memory . . . abstracted to the point of catatonia.” Then Morris socks readers with a double whammy: he argues that this looseness with the facts is at the heart of Dutch’s virtue— his “ability to reduce a situation to its simple essence,” how he “struggled against circumstance and bent it to his will.”
I always thought it was easy to understand how Reagan turned out this way: his dad was the town drunk, moved the family 14 times before Dutch turned 18. Nothing like a life of horrified chaos to addict a fellow to fantasy, keep his human vulnerability hidden at all costs, and attract him to a core set of simpleminded bedrock dogmas. But Eddie— who was always a bit psychologically obtuse— doesn’t think his upbringing has anything to do with it. “Nothing,” he writes, “not even Jack’s binges and Nelle’s despair, seems to have affected his preternatural, lifelong calm.”
It’s enough to make me write a memoir of my own. Anyone have $3 million to spare?