For the last month, members of the Ronald Reagan fan club have been trashing Dutch: A Memoir. Peggy Noonan, one of Reagan’s speechwriters, called it a “waste–of history’s time, the Reagans’ faith, the writer’s talent.” The National Review devoted an entire issue (titled “Our Man”) to defending Reagan from a book it called “stillborn,” “outrageous,” and “a horrifying display of personality disintegration.” On Amazon.com a reader panned the author, Edmund Morris, as “a liberal, elitist, intellectual snob who couldn’t accept the truth.” Another wrote that “a liberal press should have loved this book, as Morris clearly didn’t like RR.”
They should have been kinder, because Dutch, though hopelessly flawed, praises their hero more than they can imagine. Edmund Morris is crazy in love with Ronald Reagan, and the book he’s produced is proof that the Gipper, who entranced America for eight years, was charismatic enough to win the heart of anyone. Dutch is political biography’s answer to Lolita. Like Humbert Humbert, Morris is a cultured, effete foreigner who develops a mad, self-destructive passion for a crude but robust American.
It wasn’t love at first sight. Morris, a Kenyan-born Brit who’d won a Pulitzer Prize for The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, met Reagan at a state dinner in 1981. He came away with the impression that the president was an “attractive but bland personality,” he told Newsweek this month. “I couldn’t conceive of writing more than a paragraph about him.” After a second meeting a year later, he decided that Reagan was “shatteringly banal” and “culturally…a yahoo.”
But the writer was being seduced. Reagan had read the Roosevelt book and wanted Morris as his authorized biographer. For two and a half years Morris resisted. He wanted to finish a second volume on TR. But finally, under pressure from Reagan aide Michael Deaver, he gave in.
For the next four years, Morris interviewed Reagan once a month in the Oval Office. He sat in on cabinet meetings and flew to Geneva to watch the president stare down Mikhail Gorbachev. But such nearness wasn’t enough for the besotted scribe. Reagan treated him as no more than a minor staff member or, worse, a journalist. Morris wanted to experience the real Reagan, the inner man who dwelled behind the one-liners and the speeches he used to both charm and deflect the world. The man who was known only to Nancy, if even to her. He wanted to be Reagan’s friend.
It never happened. Reagan, Morris discovered, took almost no personal interest in the people around him. He was an actor, and the rest of the world was his audience. No one was allowed to step across the footlights.
“I wish I had a dollar,” Morris writes early in the book, “for each of the friends and family members who complained to me that Dutch never let them ‘get anywhere near.'”
And so, frustrated by his failure to find intimacy with Reagan, Morris invented a relationship with him. Dutch is narrated by a man named “Edmund Morris,” but it’s not the Edmund Morris who was born in 1940, as the author actually was. It’s an Edmund Morris who grew up in Chicago in the 1920s, the wealthy son of a cattle-feed heir. One summer he visits his cousin Paul in north central Illinois. They go for a swim in the Rock River at Dixon, in Lowell Park, where the future president is working as a lifeguard.
“I saw–I registered–I calibrated–a square-cut youth of nearly sixteen, about five feet ten inches tall and one hundred and sixty pounds in weight,” Morris writes of that initial glimpse. “His shoulders were broad and he walked with extraordinary grace. There was none of the arms-out swagger that jocks affect, no sense either of hurry or hesitation, just flowing, forward, lynx-like momentum….His purposeful body moved on, exuding liniment. I dropped the candy wrapper I had been holding–and as I reached for it, his wet sleeve brushed my hand.”
Wow! As a first encounter, that’s as electric as the meeting of Troilus and Cressida. At least it is for Morris. Is it too much to say that a physical attraction is at work here? Maybe not. Morris is kept up on Dutch’s doings by cousin Paul, who becomes a classmate of Reagan’s at Eureka College and stalks him as ardently as the writer Aschenbach stalked his boy love Tadzio in Death in Venice. Paul’s letters are full of news about Dutch’s girlfriends, his football career, his acting, his lifeguarding.
“Paul’s obsession with the Lifeguard of Lowell Beach was not unamusing,” Morris writes.
Nor is it passing. Eventually Paul becomes a waspish Hollywood gossip columnist who makes Reagan the subject of numerous items (“quoted” here), some adoring, some bitchy. He also lives with a “friend” in Greenwich Village, and after Reagan becomes president he dies of AIDS. You have to wonder why Morris would create such a character, except to express this side of his attraction to Reagan.
A less smitten biographer might have ignored Reagan’s physical appeal, but it was a key part of his success. As a young man, Reagan was a handsome specimen: smooth faced, muscular, broad backed. If he’d been as plain as Jimmy Carter, he would have spent his life broadcasting football games in Iowa.
This book is such a testament to Reagan’s magnetism because Morris is the last person you’d expect to fall head over heels for the Gipper. He’s cultured, worldly, a Manhattanite, a man of great literary achievements. His prose is spangled with French epigrams, with references to Robert Frost and Teutonic mythology. He’s not one of the TV-watching boobs who were assumed to be Reagan’s constituency. Most east coast intellectuals thought Reagan was a doofus, and cringed when they looked at the front page of the New York Times and saw a picture of their president in cowboy boots and a western shirt.
Morris’s prologue tells us of a White House reception for eminent historians. There, Dutch melts Arthur S. Link, an Ivy League professor who enters the room a Reagan hater. The president jokes and flatters until the crusty academic is a puddle of affection. Finally Reagan suggests that nobody will be interested in his letters. “This was too much for Arthur, who by now was gazing at Reagan misty-eyed. ‘Mr. President!’ he roared, almost sobbing with adoration. ‘Six hundred years from now, historians will still be fascinated by your manuscripts!’…There was nothing to do but let rapture run its course.”
Because of Morris’s invented past, it’s often hard to tell who’s real and who’s not. Fictional characters, including cousin Paul and Morris’s “son” Gavin, a Berkeley radical during Reagan’s years as governor, are listed in the index and footnotes. In the chapter “Star Power: A Dialogue,” for example, Morris, who becomes a hack Hollywood screenwriter and publicist (the better to observe Dutch), “reminisces” with screenwriter Philip Dunne about Reagan’s days as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Because the fictional Morris claims to have given Dunne flying lessons in 1939, I had to look him up to be sure he existed. He did, until 1992, and evidently gave authorized biographer Morris an interview.
As they talk, Morris praises Reagan’s “intelligence” in dealing with a craft union strike. Dunne scoffs at the noun’s use in the same sentence with “Ronald Reagan.”
“Mock him if you will,” Morris says, “but I’ve never known anybody with such an ability to reduce a situation to its simple essence. And simple is not necessarily simplistic. Isn’t this the most complex country on earth? We need somebody in the White House who can divine our common–”
“Divine?” Dunne pounces on the pomposity. “Are you imputing mystical ability to a man who thinks Rimbaud is Sly Stallone?”
“I mean a President who feels what power is, and doesn’t have to compute it from poll figures.”
Later they go out onto the deck to look through a telescope. Morris tries to find Jupiter, and he compares his celestial search with his struggle to understand Reagan: “an attempt to fix on a large, diffuse, amorphous object with a huge gravitational pull.”
It’s truly amazing how Reagan’s power over Morris mirrors his mesmerism of the American people. The nation was so charmed by Dutch’s genial grandfatherliness that he was able to sell it on Reaganomics, his ludicrous theory that cutting taxes would increase revenues to the treasury. If this handsome, lovable man said it would work, who needed to look at the numbers? Morris is the same. He excuses himself from analyzing Reagan’s first budget as governor of California, saying, “Here the pen of a fiscal retard begins to quail.” Completely inexcusable for a historian. But he’d rather moon about the difficulty of getting to know Dutch.
The chapters dealing with Reagan’s presidency have been highly praised. Some reviewers have suggested starting at page 410, since all that comes before is cluttered with the fictional Morris’s life story. But there’s almost nothing about the White House years that wasn’t in Time magazine between 1981 and 1989. Morris seems uninterested, and his prose flattens out into perfunctory journalese. It’s because he wasn’t there for most of it, as either himself or “Edmund Morris.” Readers must realize that this is not a biography but a psychomemoir of a biographer’s struggle for his subject’s love. When Morris is actually on the scene, as he was at the Geneva summit meeting, his observations of Reagan, hero of the cold war, are deep and riveting. So are his assessments of Reagan’s leadership style, though sometimes you get the feeling he’s projecting. One of the reasons Reagan was so strong and decisive is that he really wasn’t interested in anyone else’s opinions. (He wasn’t interested in anyone else’s facts, either. Once he’d divined from his Reader’s Digest clippings that trees cause pollution and oil slicks purify the air, there was no dissuading him.) He rarely remembered the names of unimportant aides, and even referred to world figures such as George Bush and Gorbachev as “that man” or “this man.”
In 1983, Reagan’s inner circle tried to convince him to fire George Shultz as secretary of state. Reagan told Shultz he could stay, “but he did not issue the guarantee of exclusivity that Shultz craved, and the Secretary left his presence, like many supplicants before and since, unsatisfied and insecure.”
Morris also left Reagan’s presence “unsatisfied and insecure.” The last two years of Reagan’s presidency, when Morris had his greatest access, are described largely with tidbits of gossip picked up in White House hallways, Reagan diary entries, and anecdotes of the Oval Office sessions between biographer and subject. In these last, some of Morris’s stabs at chumminess are completely weird and embarrassing to read. On election day 1988, he tells Reagan he plans to vote for “Zippy.”
“Who the hell’s Zippy?” Reagan responds.
“I thought you read all the comic pages! Zippy’s the pinhead in the muu-muu who’s running to succeed you!”
“Oh, yeah. I could never understand that one. The one I read every day is Mary Worth.”
On Reagan’s final day in office, Morris at last gets a sliver of what he’s been yearning for since he began following Reagan four years before. As the president prepares for his farewell speech, he winks at his biographer, and addresses him as “Edmund.”
“I wink back, trying to restrain a surge of adoration, reminding myself that we are all audience to his perpetual performance,” Morris gushes.
(By this point in the book, Morris has pretty much stopped fictionalizing, although he keeps up his pose as a Reagan contemporary by referring to himself as a “graybeard.” But everything “Edmund Morris” witnesses during the Reagan presidency actually was experienced by the flesh-and-blood Edmund. I think.)
The last time Morris saw Reagan was in 1994. By then the president was sliding into his dotage. He pointed at a shelf of books in his office and referred to them as “trees.” A few months later Reagan wrote the letter to his “fellow Americans,” informing us that he had Alzheimer’s disease. Morris saw the handwritten note reproduced in a newspaper, and “for the first time in my life, I felt love for Ronald Reagan.”
Most of Dutch was written after that event, and Morris expressed his love on every page. He was so starstruck, powerstruck, and lovestruck that it was impossible for him to write a definitive, scholarly biography. I’m going to break the rules of book reviewing and give away the end of this novel, because it’s there that Morris comes as close as he can to consummating his affection for Reagan. On the last page we learn that a boy Dutch rescued from the Rock River back in chapter four, a boy identified by the newspaper as “James Raider,” was actually Morris.
“Perhaps Dutch, most inscrutable of men, knew. Perhaps not. In either case, he was now beyond caring. Who was I but one of seventy-seven? I heard his husky chuckle. You’re just another notch on the log….I owed these last seven decades to Dutch…. Someday, I hoped, America might acknowledge her similar debt to the old Lifeguard who rescued her in a time of poisonous despair.”
Maybe Morris was just another notch, but he finally put himself where he’d yearned to be for the book’s first 671 pages: under the strong wing of Ronald Reagan.
Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris, Random House, $35.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Flynn.