Edmund Morris: Ronald Can't Be Hurt by a TV Movie





Edmund Morris, writing in the NYT (Nov. 9, 2003):

The idea that anything so trivial as a made-for-TV mockumentary might harm [Ronald Reagan's] reputation is ludicrous. Theodore Roosevelt suffered much worse damage, historiographically speaking, in 1931, when the biographer Henry Pringle depicted him as an overgrown bully. Pringle's book is still in print, but has not stopped T. R. from settling at No. 4 on several recent scholarly surveys of the greatest presidents. And John F. Kennedy, who has been repeatedly portrayed on television as a Mafia stooge, a serial bimbophile and the plotter of Marilyn Monroe's murder (or was that some other Kennedy?) still shines in American memory.

What Mr. Reagan did as president — the big, enduring things: restoring national pride, rebuilding the military, refiring the economy, rearming Western Europe, and above all, forcing Soviet Communism to self-destruct — cannot be argued away. Neither, it might be added, can his more serious derelictions, such as the bartering of arms for hostages, and (yes) his lack of any particular sympathy for the victims of AIDS. The writers of CBS's canceled miniseries have invented a bit of dialogue to the latter effect, but historians might more seriously ponder Mr. Reagan's actual remarks, including, "Maybe the Lord brought down this plague [because] illicit sex is against the Ten Commandments."

Behind the soft exterior, I repeat, was hard metal, and not all of him was nice. But more of him was nice than is normal in men that powerful. Even in ruminations like the above, and in the very funny stories he told (many of them politically incorrect), there was never any hint of malice. Well, maybe there was, when he leveled his wit against the one thing he really did hate: totalitarianism. Aides cringed at plenary sessions with Mr. Gorbachev as Mr. Reagan chucklingly told (again and again and again) jokes that ridiculed everything the Soviet leader stood for. It was insensitive, it was moral, and it was magnificent.

What he did, he did out of conviction, not caring how his actions might be perceived, then or now. Those protesting the reported slurs and inaccuracies of CBS's canceled miniseries forget that before he was afflicted by Alzheimer's, and particularly during the early years of his presidency, Ronald Reagan was lampooned with a savagery that Bill Clinton might feel happy to have escaped.

I remember Garry Trudeau drawing a series of "Doonesbury" cartoons, with explorers scouting a sterile landscape, under the rubric, "In Search of Reagan's Brain." Paul Slansky published a devastating book, "The Clothes Have No Emperor," that consisted almost entirely of presidential quotations as goofy as any emanating from the present White House. And on the private yet world-encompassing grapevine used by heads of state to convey their true feelings about one another, Mr. Reagan was a subject of such French contempt that his national security adviser flew secretly to Paris to plead with President François Mitterrand to stop making plaisanteries about le cow-boy in the White House.

It is a matter of record that President Mitterrand came to admire Mr. Reagan, as most sophisticates did when they got past what one Brit called "the corn barrier." He was especially impressed with Mr. Reagan's notion de l'état, his dignified self-identification with all that was strong in the American state.

When I published my biography of Ronald Reagan, my confession that I found him to be, on first acquaintance, "an apparent airhead," caused screams of outrage among his acolytes. The fact that the book was narratively designed to prove the author wrong — that Mr. Reagan was, for all his emotional coolness and often dumbfounding cultural ignorance, a visionary statesman — did not soothe the incense-swingers.



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