In 1999, the acclaimed biographer Edmund Morris published his long-awaited life of Ronald Reagan. Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan surprised Reagan friends and foes alike. The book was a partly fictionalized account of Reagan’s life, complete with a narrator, “Edmund Morris”—not to be confused with the real Edmund Morris—and other fictional characters, some of whom interacted with real people in a baffling mix of history and artifice. Morris used these tactics, he said, to surmount his inability to penetrate the character of Reagan, a man who had presided over a momentous epoch and who had been, depending on whom you listened to, anything from a prime mover to a barely competent custodian making sure that the lights were on while history played out.
Morris’s struggle to understand Reagan is even more perplexing in that, unlike almost all other presidents, the Gipper kept a daily diary of his time in office. Yet for Morris, who had early access, the diary yielded little insight into Reagan’s inner world. Now the rest of us can take a crack at it: this spring, at long last, HarperCollins published a condensed version, edited by historian Douglas Brinkley, a biographer of both Jimmy Carter and John Kerry. HarperCollins will eventually publish the unabridged diaries in a multivolume set.
The diaries transport the reader back to when the Dow Jones index was below 1,000, few people owned PCs, and the Soviet Union seemed in it for the long haul. Reagan’s descriptions of events are thin, as he passes from one event to the next, rarely stopping to reflect—though he also shows a deeper grasp of policy detail than many readers might expect. Throughout, his voice sounds exactly like the man Americans believed they knew, and this may be the most revelatory aspect of the book. As the diaries make clear, Reagan had what George Will called “a talent for happiness,” and his wit and genial nature come through.
Reagan’s dogged courage in the face of the Soviet threat also comes across consistently, though with relatively few dramatic entries. There are flashes of the wonderful Reagan anger, as when he chastises Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze on human rights in the run-up to his summit in Reykjavík with Mikhail Gorbachev. Otherwise, the sections on his summits with Gorbachev aren’t particularly revealing. Likewise, Reagan throws little light on his difficult relationship with his children, but for the distance and mutual incomprehension with which they seemed to regard one another—best summarized in a rare moment of exasperation, when Reagan pens the diaries’ most memorable line: “Insanity is hereditary—you catch it from your kids.”
Though the diaries are fascinating history, readers may feel a twinge of sympathy for Morris. Reagan’s political convictions are clear on every page, but the man himself usually eludes detection, except for his moving expressions of love for his wife, Nancy. Otherwise, little of the world truly seems to touch him, a trait that family, friends, and foes alike observed. Richard Pipes, who served on Reagan’s National Security Council, saw the president as out of his depth in policy meetings, intellectually vapid, and personally remote. Yet Pipes also believed that Reagan had the instinct of great statesmen for “what matters and what does not.”
Other politicians have had a tangled way with facts, or short attention spans. Both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush have had an arm’s-length relationship with the English language. Yet these traits do not present obstacles to understanding them comparable with Reagan’s detachment. Detractors often confuse Reagan’s personal opacity with political simplicity, and resist crediting him for the changes that his presidency ushered in. On that score, the evidence is against them, as historians not associated with conservatism, like John Patrick Diggins, have argued. Derek Leebaert, in his cold-war history The Fifty-Year Wound, puts it best: “It is beyond the laws of probability to believe that this was all coincidence or a matter of being lucky. . . . [Reagan’s] lack of surface arrogance should not conceal his force of will, nor should his modesty in details obscure a confidence in his contribution to the heart of things such as only great men or fools possess. The hypothesis of foolishness becomes weaker by the day.”
Nevertheless, the struggle to make sense of Reagan the man continues. Our contemporary bias is to probe the private man in an effort to understand what the public man does. Recent scholarship, for example, has tried to understand George Washington’s inner life in order to reveal a man less remote and more accessible to our sensibilities—but Washington isn’t terribly cooperative. Likewise, Reagan’s inner world is nearly “unreadable,” as the postmodernists would say. We’re better off focusing elsewhere. In what Washington called “the great theater of Action”—in contrast with the dark corridors of personality—Reagan’s character emerges clearly.
“Getting shot hurts,” Reagan wrote after surviving John Hinckley, Jr.’s assassination attempt in 1981, exhibiting his persistent tendency toward understatement. So when he describes a 1982 swim in the Pacific Ocean at the actress Claudette Colbert’s house, writing that “coming in was a chore against the undertow,” one wonders whether he had just survived another near-death experience or merely had some vigorous exercise. Either way, the image of the swimmer coming in against the tide is fitting for his presidency: seemingly effortless accomplishment amid a nagging sense of mystery. How did Reagan do it? As Edmund Morris must know, great performers never tell.