Where’s the Rest of Him?

Sunday, January 30, 2000
illustrationIllustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest  

Edmund Morris’s biography of Ronald Reagan is so bad in so many ways that reviewers will be able to write about it for months without exhausting its faults. So far, critics have concentrated on the weirdness and self-indulgence of Morris’s narrative technique. But what of his scholarship? Did he do his research? Does he get his facts straight? Does he accurately render the historical context?

I was a speechwriter in the Reagan White House for six years, so I examined Morris’s treatment of the president’s big speeches with particular interest. It gives me no pleasure to say so—like dozens of other Reaganites, I got to know Morris over the years—but his scholarship is appalling.

I offer three examples: first, the "Evil Empire" address of 1983. Morris spends several paragraphs investigating the origins of the phrase evil empire itself, perhaps the most important pairing of words in the history of the Cold War. He begins by noting that Tony Dolan, Reagan’s chief speechwriter, wrote the address. Then he suggests that the phrase nevertheless originated with Alexandre de Marenches, the chief of French intelligence, who, briefing President-elect Reagan in 1980, referred to the Soviet Union as "l’empire du mal."

So? Who put the phrase in the speech? Dolan? De Marenches? Reagan himself, recalling the phrase from de Marenches? Morris provides no answer.

It was Tony Dolan. Tony inserted evil empire in a draft that was sent to Reagan before Tony and the president even discussed the speech. Morris had fourteen years in which to establish the facts. If he had examined the drafts of the speech kept at the Reagan Library, he could have done so in twenty minutes. I grant, of course, that the authorship of evil empire is a small point, of interest principally to former Reagan speechwriters and just possibly to editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet it says something about the credibility of Morris’s entire project that, in an instance such as this, when doing the research would have been easy, he proved negligent.

Next, the Berlin Wall address of 1987. Morris writes:

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" declaims Dutch, trying hard to look infuriated, but succeeding only in an expression of mild petulance. The occasion too staged, the crowd too small and well-primed, to make for genuine drama.

Morris neglects an episode that bears directly on the president’s delivery. Shortly before giving the speech, Reagan looked over the wall, saw that the streets in East Berlin were deserted, and was told by one of his German hosts that, although a crowd had gathered in East Berlin to hear him, it had been dispersed by the East German police. When Reagan called on Gorbachev to tear down the wall, in the belief of many who observed him that day, he was expressing something more than "mild petulance." Was the crowd "too small"? It was estimated at ten thousand. Was it too "well-primed"? By whom? In what way? What is Morris even talking about?

He continues:

What a rhetorical opportunity missed. [Reagan] could have read Robert Frost’s poem, "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall," to simple and shattering effect.

The poem that Morris cites, "Mending Wall," represents a subtle, psychologically complicated reflection, open to interpretation, certainly, but on the whole an assertion of the need for the barriers that permit each of us a certain realm of privacy. The operative line, used twice, is "Good fences make good neighbors." "Mending Wall" is thus, so to speak, a pro-wall poem. Quoting it in front of the Berlin Wall would have been ludicrous.

The historical context? Morris proves too obtuse to notice. Still a relatively new Soviet leader, Gorbachev had only recently announced the policies of glasnost and perestroika. With the Berlin Wall address, Reagan offered his first public response, stating, in effect, that Gorbachev would have to prove that he meant what he said. Hence the lines, "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, . . . if you seek liberalization, come here." There may indeed have been better ways to put it. But Morris offers no indication that he even understood what was being attempted.

Last, the Moscow State University address of 1988. Morris opens with a flat factual error, attributing the speech to Tony Dolan when it was actually drafted by Josh Gilder. Then he writes:

Here in this huge . . . hall are a thousand or so children of the nomenklatura. . . . I am touched by the nods and smiles and careful note-taking whenever Dutch says anything in praise of basic human freedoms. Alas, he tires during the Q&A session afterwards, and rambles off into an embarrassing defense of U.S. government policy toward Indians, but the amazing thing is that these children understand what is happening: that he is old and somewhat naive and the dupe of some of his own sentimentalities. They know he is talking nonsense, but they forgive him.

If Morris had interviewed the students in the audience instead of simply imputing to them the thoughts in his own mind, he might have seen what I suspect many of them saw: that an American president speaking in the very heart of Moscow about human freedom signified a world turning upside down, or rather, after more than six decades of a communist Russia, right side up. Raised in a system in which the starvation or slaughter of tens of millions of citizens by their own government had been hushed up, many of the students no doubt found it profoundly moving that the president believed himself accountable, even to them, foreigners, for what his country had done to Indians—no matter how awkwardly he may have explained it.

Now that the authorized biography of the president has been stillborn, my fellow Reaganites and I find ourselves undergoing something akin to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. In our own mourning, I have counted four stages.

The first was anger. How, we asked one another, reading one outrageous passage after another over the telephone, could Morris have engaged in such a grotesque betrayal of the confidence the Reagans had placed in him? Then came amusement. Much of what Morris writes is so wildly misjudged as to prove hilarious. When we tried to picture the president striding to his lectern in front of the concrete and barbed wire of the Berlin Wall, clearing his throat, then reciting, "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall," we found ourselves hooting.

The third stage swept upon us even as we were still trying to stop chuckling. It was genuine grief. Morris was given access to the president and Mrs. Reagan, to their family, to their papers, and, for that matter, to all of us, their supporters. He could have produced a magnificent volume, telling the tale of Reagan’s remarkable life while providing a scholarly assessment of Reagan’s achievements, establishing the president’s place in history. There was every reason to suppose he would do just that—just hours before my copy of Dutch arrived in the mail last October, I told a television producer at MSNBC that when I appeared on his program I would be defending Morris, so certain did I still feel that Dutch would prove of the same high standard as Morris’s previous book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Instead—well, this.

The last stage is of course resignation.

All of us grant that Morris deserves a measure of sympathy. Reagan could be maddening. Indeed, in one encounter after he left office, Reagan did to me what he seems to have done to Morris over and over.

It was the spring of 1989, and I had stopped by Reagan’s offices in Los Angeles to say hello. After a moment of small talk, the former president frowned and asked if I had seen the morning newspaper. I had, noticing over breakfast that the Los Angeles Times referred to Reagan in two front-page stories. "Saw Risk of Reagan Impeachment, Meese Says," one headline read, while the other stated, "‘Star Wars’ Was Oversold, Cheney Says."

"I just don’t understand it," said Reagan.

"Neither do I, Mr. President." In a moment, I thought, I would be hearing the innermost story of Iran-contra or Star Wars or, if I was lucky, both.

"How can a judge decide the outcome of a sporting event?"

It took me a minute to realize that Reagan was not talking about his administration. He was commenting on the America’s Cup. A judge in New York had just awarded the cup to the boat from New Zealand, even though the American boat had put in a faster time. "San Diego Loses America’s Cup," the headline stated.

"Well," said Reagan, a twinkle in his eye, "at least it wasn’t a judge I appointed."

When I left, I felt disappointed. I had had my moment with the man who won the Cold War, and all I had managed to come away with was some talk about a boat race. How could Reagan have done that to me? If I had been in Morris’s position, responsible for producing the definitive biography of Reagan, perhaps that would have been the moment when I began to lose my grip as completely as Morris seems to have lost his.

As it was, by the time I was back on the Santa Monica Freeway, I recognized that Reagan had given me a very good example of the wisdom and simplicity of spirit that I had always cherished in him. For eight years he had been the most powerful man in the world. He had accomplished what he set out to accomplish, or at least as much as he could. Then he had gone back to being as ordinary an American as a former president can be. When Reagan looked at the newspaper, he read about sports. He seems to have driven Morris crazy largely because he himself was so sane.

"Who knows?" we Reaganites now find ourselves saying. By producing this bizarre volume, Morris may even have performed a service to Reagan, making readers hungry for good books about him. On Amazon.com the other day, I counted 231 biographies of FDR. Since Ronald Reagan dominated the second half of this century just as FDR dominated the first, we Reaganites console ourselves that there are another couple of hundred biographies of Reagan still to come.