I haven’t slandered Edmund Morris, nor have I suggested that he didn’t do exhaustive research. I’m sure he worked very hard, and collected all kinds of facts. It may very well be that, if I could overlook the gimmicky “edmund Morris” narrator, I’d find a decent biography underneath it.
The fact remains, though, that Morris felt a powerful need to get INSIDE Ronald Regan’s head, and to find the “real” Reagan. Frustrated by his inability to do so, Morris resorted to a gimmick. But my fundamental question is… WHY did he feel so compelled to get inside Reagan’s mind?
Historians of an earlier era felt no such silly compulsion. Thucydides didn’t try to psychoanalyze Pericles! Livy didn’t try to understand the “inner” Hannibal. Gibbon didn’t try to assess what was in Marcus Aurelius’ heart and soul. It was enough to describe what happened in an interesting way.
Only in MY lifetime have biographers and historians felt the need to expose the inner lives of important people. Frankly, I don’t see the point. This approach CAN be interesting, even gripping, but it’s ultimately empty and irrelevant. Even if you COULD get to the inner person, how would that really help us to understand history?
It’s POSSIBLE that, if Abe Lincoln were alive today, a medical doctor would diagnose him, as a manic-depressive or a syphilitic. But we don’t KNOW that, we CAN’T know that. All an historian can REALLY do is discover what Lincoln said and did- psychoanalyzing him, or ascribing his actions to medical or psychological conditions we can’t possibly know about, is just plain silly.
Now, there’s PLENTY to write about in the Reagan years, and there’s plenty a biographer/historian could profitably study without attempting to get inside Reagan’s head. Wouldn’t it be enough to lay out Reagan’s policies, and analyze their success/failure? Couldn’t an historian analyze the pros and cons of SDI (“Star Wars”) without trying to fit the idea into a pre-conceived psychological profile of Reagan? Couldn’t an historian attempt to find out all the deatils of how the Iran-Contra scheme went down, without trying to put Reagan on the analyst’s couch?
You see, it strikes me that psychological portraits of historical figures, while sometimes interesting, are merely diversions from what’s truly important. If Adolph Hitler had lived and died as a house painter, NOBODY would care how his parents treated him, or what kind of fantasies he entertained. It’s only because of the things he did as a world leader that Hitler matters at all. In the same way, the “inner” Ronald Reagan wouldn’t matter to ANYONE if he’d remained a B-movie actor (you don’t see anybody writing such biographies about Lloyd Bridges or Robert Stack, so you?). So, why not concentrate on the things Reagan did that actually MATTER??? It’s quite easy to understand and take an interest in his policies, without delving into his psyche.