New York’s Central Park, 6:43 a.m. on a Thursday in late September, a morning dark, cool and rich with something latent. I walked along head down, lost in thought, trying to understand how a brilliant man could write, would write, such a base botch of a book. If only I were with him and could ask. Suddenly I stepped upon an acorn, and an electric shock tore through me. Suddenly, in an almost occult sense, I was there! In his office, in the townhouse on Capitol Hill. The rows of shelves groaning and gleaming with books, the long gray filing cabinet below and, within it, the famous yards of cards, the ones he showed so proudly on “60 Minutes,” each marked in careful, spidery script with a Mont Blanc pen whose use signifies a commitment to calligraphy, a writer’s love of sparkly things, or nothing much.
“Edmund,” I said, “I’m writing like a nut because I’m imitating you! I agreed to review your book because I was sure you’d been unjustly criticized. I expected something of breadth, depth and sweep—something serious. Not this—this high-dive belly-flop into the pools of Narcissus.”
He looked at me—wire-rimmed glasses, soft bangs and beard. Why, he looks like Lytton Strachey! (Later, from my notes: “His unconscious homage to wiggy but groundbreaking Bloomsburian biographer?”) At first he was dismissive—the criticism is the sort of thing that “always greets any kind of original idea.” Then he was pleading. Fourteen years of expectation, 14 years of the elusive Reagan, and all the while as each year passed he got closer to … the battlefield. When his book on Teddy Roosevelt came out in 1979 Teddy was long dead, the historical case long settled. But Ronald Reagan is alive, the argument rages, there is still no settled opinion! The editors, reviewers and social figures with whom Mr. Morris dines—Mr. Reagan is, still, their full moon; they see him, they bay. And sometimes bite.
“Do you know how all this pressure left me?” he asked.
“Don’t say barking mad.”
“No—unnerved, in time enraged, at last quite desperate. So I got someone else to write the damn thing, a made-up character with a made-up life who has made-up interactions. I called him ‘Edmund Morris.’ If you don’t like the book you can bloody well blame him.”
* * *
But where to start.
Edmund Morris’s “Dutch” (Random House, 874 pages, $35) is a shocking book, not a work of sustained scholarship but a mere entertainment, and not an entertaining one. It is at turns bilious and cold, corny and cynical, manic and flat. It is also almost heartbreaking in that it marks such a waste—of history’s time, the Reagans’ faith, the writer’s talent.
The famous central literary device, as I think we all know, does not work; it confuses, frustrates, obscures what it was meant to illumine. The reader never quite understands who is talking and whether he is being given a fact, a joke, a serious opinion, a bit of speculation or a guess. The fictitious “Edmund Morris” is a bore, tedious and windy, and a distraction from the more compelling story, fitfully told, of Ronald Reagan.
From beginning to end a badly written meanness permeates. Mr. Reagan goes to “a hayseed school” where the girls have “ugly names” and wear “cheap perfume.” His first radio broadcasts appeal to “Dust Bowl brats like little Hughie Sidey.” His early California supporters are patriotic and honest but, tragically, lack “irony.” They are “aesthetically blind, culturally retarded … they view all threats to the Constitution—their Constitution—with the utmost seriousness.” Silly them. At White House dinners Mr. Morris puts up with more tacky people, a boring female theologian and a Palm Beach socialite “stiff with jewels.”
When he is not mean he is English, not necessarily the same thing. He has no feel for the Midwest, and when he gives his characters dialogue—“There was more ‘nuff roasted chicken and corn as evening came on” and “Jay Russell got him a new Buick”—they sound like extras in “Show Boat.”
His portrait of America in the ‘60s seems written by someone who wasn’t there; cliches are not avoided but seized upon and held high. The free-speech battles at Berkeley get deservedly long attention, but the central characters are not Mr. Reagan and university president Clark Kerr but Mr. Morris and his fictitious son, “Gavin,” who calls the Black Panthers “bad cats I dig in Oakland.” You will, literally, wince.
[Header] Cheap and Corny
The political perceptions and assertions are almost uniformly common wisdom. For all his references to dusty archives and the pains of research (one wonders why he makes so many) much of what Mr. Morris says about Mr. Reagan’s presidency reads like clippings from Time magazine. A troika rules the White House, Edwin Meese has a messy briefcase, pragmatists and hardliners disagree, David Stockman is tense, supply-side economics silly. SDI, the missile defense system Mr. Reagan fought to research and deploy, is presented, cheaply and cornily, as an idee fixe whose appeal to Mr. Reagan is its similarity to sci-fi novels and B-movies. Mr. Morris does, however, allow others to make the case that holding to SDI at Reykjavik changed everything in the U.S.-Soviet relationship and was a key element in the Soviet collapse.
The book’s judgments on Mr. Reagan are mixed but not balanced, and the language deployed seems an attempt to cloak the author’s indecisiveness. The result is a striking inconsistency. Mr. Reagan is an apparent airhead. Mr. Reagan has a clean, orderly, serious mind. Mr. Reagan tells pointless stories. Mr. Reagan’s stories have a serious allegorical purpose. Mr. Reagan is a yahoo, Mr. Reagan is a reader with a high enjoyment of style and a writer of crystalline clarity. Mr. Reagan lacks compassion and heart, Mr. Reagan’s emotions well over when he speaks of that which he deeply cares. Perhaps strangest of all, “Reagan was America, and he wasn’t much else.” What a sentence. You have to be very strange to think that isn’t quite enough. The flaws of the book were reflected (and perhaps rehearsed) in Mr. Morris’s “60 Minutes” interview last Sunday, in which he dismissed Mr. Reagan’s character and gifts and then posed, weeping, as he read the president’s last letter to the country.
“Dutch” has some moments. The reporting of the John Hinckley assassination attempt has the simple force and power of that old popular classic, Jim Bishop’s “The Day Lincoln Was Shot.” Mr. Morris’s rendering of the blacklist era, almost thwarted by the insertion of fictional movie scripts and song-and-dance patter, is tugged along by the sheer force of Mr. Reagan’s actions, which are presented as courageous and idealistic. The sections on the Reagan-Gorbachev summits are strong. All of the author’s interruptions, conceits and bizarre devices cannot derail these few but solid narratives. Mr. Reagan’s function in this book made me think of what was said of FDR: He is like the Staten Island ferry, big, unstoppable and bringing all the garbage along in its wake.
[Header] What Really Happened?
I am not sure what to make of the quality of the reporting and suspect we will be hearing more about it. It is simply not believable, as Mr. Morris contends, that Mr. Reagan “secretly despised” George Bush. He secretly despised no one, and you didn’t have to know him well to know that. Mr. Morris’s attribution of an “upstairs downstairs” social resentment between the Reagans and the Bushes seems similarly bizarre, and one can’t help believe President Bush when he says it isn’t true. A small anecdote in which I figure, expressing concern about Mr. Reagan before a speech, is weirdly hyped up but happened. I’m not sure other things did. The story that young Ronald Reagan wanted to join the communist party but was turned away because he wasn’t bright enough (yes, Hollywood communists were famous for turning away rising stars who weren’t bright) comes from the gossip of an aging left-wing Reagan foe and is confirmed by no one. Colin Powell is reported boasting to Mr. Morris, on the last morning of Mr. Reagan’s presidency, that Mr. Reagan’s filmed office goodbye was great: Once again he, Mr. Powell, and the senior staff “directed [Reagan] and scripted him and made him up and gave him his cues.” It is hard to believe that Mr. Powell would talk like that, but if he did he is a conceited and ungrateful man, and quite stupid, too.
One senses this scene is in the book—that many stories are in it—not in an attempt to shed light, or make us understand, or explain Mr. Reagan, but merely to generate Bob Woodward-type headlines. This is unworthy of the author of “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.”
There is one other scene, at the end of the book, that is striking. The author sees Nancy Reagan leave the North Portico for the last time as first lady. “I blew her a kiss, feeling absolutely no emotion,” he writes. This actually is revealing, and for once you know exactly which Edmund that is.
A final note. I think this book’s great purpose may be to demonstrate decisively, and perhaps finally, contemporary biography’s obsession with the small. It is as if modern biographers cannot handle greatness and feel compelled to reduce it to petty and irrelevant things. This is puzzling and pointless. It is also tired, and, because it so often seems driven only by rage and inadequacy, tiresome. You’d think it would fall out of style, if only for the reason that, as is demonstrated here, it does damage not to the subject, but to the historian.