Commentary

Edmund Morris Just Didn’t ‘Get’ Ronald Reagan

By Craig Shirley and Mark Weinberg | May 31, 2019 | 4:34pm EDT
Former President Ronald Reagan (Photo by Michael Evans-The White House/Getty Images)

There they go again.  The passing of Edmund Morris, best known for writing “Dutch,” a truly bizarre “biography” of Ronald Reagan, has renewed ridiculous theories about Reagan as inexplicable and impenetrable. That’s because Morris – despite unprecedented and virtually unlimited access to Reagan himself, the Reagan family, Reagan’s friends, and Reagan’s staff – failed to get who Reagan was.  Rather than admit that, he kinda sorta blamed Reagan for being Reagan, painting him as a mysterious, unknowable man, and produced a book that contributed almost nothing to history. We know why.  Reagan was far too polite to act rudely toward anyone, so the way he dealt with people who got on his nerves was to clam up.  Long-time Reagan aides Lyn Nofziger and Peter Hannaford, both of whom knew Reagan well, said so.

The original idea to have Morris be Reagan’s official biographer falls into the category of “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”  Some Reagan aides, understandably concerned about Reagan’s legacy and worried about him being dismissed as something other than a thoughtful, smart, and substantive president, thought that him having an indisputably highbrow, intellectual, and respected biographer would confer status on Reagan and help counter the bothersome and dismissive “he’s just a Hollywood actor” criticisms.  The thinking was that brilliant and serious biographers write about brilliant and serious presidents.  And it would be especially nice to find someone who had written a previously well-received biography of a Republican president.

In that regard, Morris seemed a good choice at the time.  Reagan himself acknowledged as much after meeting with him in November 1985, writing this in his private diary that night: “Met with Edmund Morris who is going to do my official biography.  I’m pleased – his book on Teddy Roosevelt was wonderful.  Of course I can’t charge up San Juan Hill.”  The idea of an official biographer first came up two years earlier, when the Reagans and a few senior aides dined with a small group of acclaimed biographers, including Morris, at an intimate dinner at the Georgetown home of Senator and Mrs. Mark Hatfield.

It was not lost on the Reagan staff that in appearances, at least, Morris was the exact opposite of Reagan: diminutive in stature, bespectacled, bearded, spoke in what struck some as forced intellectually superior tones, and a bit socially awkward.  That made him especially appealing to Reagan’s handlers because he and Reagan seemed like the perfect odd couple.  The only problem was that he probably annoyed the Gipper, which is why Morris proclaimed him a mystery.  Some felt that Morris talked down to Reagan, which would have bothered him.  Reagan was relatively hard to anger, but questioning his intellect was one of the few ways to make him fume.

While Reagan was initially pleased that Morris would be his biographer, the White House staff was sometimes less than thrilled at having to accommodate him at meetings, on trips, at the Ranch, and elsewhere.  His presence was an added, and some thought, unnecessary, logistical burden.  But because he had the green light from the boss and Nancy, he got the access he wanted.  After all, everyone wanted “the definitive” biography of Reagan to show the greatness of the man.

Imagine the surprise and disappointment when Morris’ book was finally published.  Far from being the book to which scholars, fans, and critics could point as the one “must read” to understand Reagan, “Dutch” was a disaster.  It was a long, boring, and in many ways useless tome, the credibility of which was severely undercut by Morris’ unprecedented – and frankly, weird – idea to fabricate himself into a fake character in Reagan’s life.  Telling Reagan’s story through the eyes of someone who never existed is hardly scholarly biographical writing.  Indeed, it is more like fiction.   Not only that, Morris also got some basic facts wrong, including how many children Gerald Ford had and the date of Reagan’s 1975 announcement challenging Ford for the GOP Presidential nomination.

One theory that seems to make sense is that Morris was a liberal who just could not bring himself to write a favorable book about a conservative icon, so he went off the rails in order to be able to face his liberal friends.

Morris’ book was not the only bad book written about Reagan.  Reagan, like any great leader, has inspired many good books and several bad books about him, such as liberal activist Rick Perlstein’s, agenda-driven mess, “The Invisible Bridge” and a teacher named HL Brands, who devoted six pages in his book on Reagan trying to prove Reagan sent George Bush to Paris in the heat of the 1980 campaign to keep the hostages trapped in Iran, thus preventing the star-crossed Jimmy Carter from winning re-election. Another less than mediocre book tried to make the case that Ronald Reagan was actually a New Dealer into his presidency!

None of these books are available in the bookstore of the Reagan Library including “Dutch,” not because they are critical of Reagan, but because they are inaccurate books.

Edmund Morris was a smart man and a gifted writer.  But he was not a Reagan biographer. Also, as a native of South Africa, it is easy to see how Morris could never fathom Reagan’s unique appeal with the American people.

Fortunately, Ronald Reagan never read “Dutch,” which was published five years after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  He would have been disappointed.

Sadly, “Dutch” set back the cause of true and objective Reagan scholarship by years.  But the silver lining is that its failure has given new attention and life to more durable and consequential books by such important scholars as Steven Hayward, Paul Kengor, Annelise and Martin Anderson, and the great Lou Cannon.

Edmund Morris was unable to capitalize on the generous access Reagan and his immediate circle granted, and missed a golden opportunity to shed light on one of history’s most important and transformative figures. 

In Morris’ defense, maybe there was no light to shed.  Michael K. Deaver, Reagan’s long-time image maker, who knew him better than anyone other than Nancy, said it best: “With Ronald Reagan, what you see is what you get.” 

Edmund Morris just didn’t “get” Ronald Reagan.

Craig Shirley is the author of four bestsellers on former U.S. president Ronald Reagan and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College. He is teaching a course on Reagan at the University of Virginia this fall.

Mark Weinberg, a communications consultant, speechwriter, commentator, and public speaker is the author of “Movie Nights with the Reagans.”  He served as Special Assistant to the President and Assistant Press Secretary in the Reagan White House and Director of Public Affairs in former President Reagan’s office.

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