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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Mixing fact and fiction

Our review of the new Reagan bio: the author's trick of putting himself in the story often captures the subject but loses the reader

By John F. Stacks

TIME magazine

September 27, 1999
Web posted at: 12:30 p.m. EDT (1630 GMT)

It was the summer of 1989, as I recollect, the kind of swampy, sweaty Washington day that makes cheap, polyester, short-sleeve shirts stick to the bulging middles of the bureaucrats. Edmund Morris and I ducked into the coolness of the F Street Club. Edmund had driven over from his Capitol Hill town house in his new Jaguar sedan. But even the soothing luxury of the club didn't seem to console Edmund.

"I just don't get him," he complained. He was working on the first authorized biography of a sitting President, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Part of Morris' mountainous $3 million advance was already earning interest in the money market. "He seems so vacant, so empty," Morris complained. "Yet he did great things; he was a great President. Maybe as great as Teddy Roosevelt." Edmund had won a Pulitzer for his 1979 biography of the heroic T.R.

I hadn't spent as much time with Reagan as Edmund had, but I had covered him as candidate and as President. I first interviewed Reagan in 1967, when he was Governor of California. I told Edmund that story, hoping it would be instructive:

I was ushered into the Governor's office in Sacramento, and there sat Reagan, suit coat buttoned, appearing to pore over some documents. I clicked on the tape recorder, or thought I did. Assured of a magnetic record, I neglected to take notes. We talked for nearly an hour. Back at the hotel, I discovered that the tape had not worked. When the panic subsided, I replayed the conversation in my head, for in those fine days, my memory was still crisp. Reagan had said nothing of interest. Blank tape, empty notebook, shallow man.

The first part of this reminiscence is fictional, although some of the specifics are true. I have never met Edmund Morris. The account of the interview in Sacramento is true, or is at least my best recollection.

And that's what it's like reading Morris' new biography, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (Random House; 874 pages; $35). There is fact and there is fiction, and they are jumbled together. The facts are meticulously footnoted in an epic 115-page section at the end of the book. But so is the fiction. Morris has created detailed and utterly false notes to buttress the fanciful parts of his book, which feature a fictional character, also named Edmund Morris, who is a contemporary of Dutch Reagan's. That he called the book a "memoir" and not a biography is of course a tip-off to the game.

This dramatic departure from standard biographical orthodoxy has already, even before the book goes on sale this week, set off alarms, with traditionalists condemning Morris and Morris himself scheduling a blitz of appearances on the TV yack shows to explain and defend his heterodoxy. The Old Guard from the Reagan White House, who had arranged Morris' appointment as official chronicler, are all holding their breath, concerned only that their beloved President be lovingly portrayed, by whatever device. Said Ken Duberstein, Reagan's last White House chief of staff: "I'm not looking forward to it, and I don't know anyone who is." Perhaps not accidentally, the very boldness of Morris' device is bringing a flood of attention to the book, 14 anguished years in the making, and will surely spark an initial rush to buy it. Finally, it will rekindle the debate over whether Reagan moved the history of his time or was merely present at its creation.

Morris' bizarre conceit of inserting his fictional alter ego into some parts of Reagan's life story begins in the very first chapter, in which Morris recounts his (apparently real) agony over whether to accept the role as the official presidential biographer. He alludes, confusingly, to having seen Reagan as a youth, and then tells the apparently true story of spending an evening with the Reagans at the White House.

"There's one good reason to do it, aside from the money," he tells his wife on the way home. "I've known Dutch much longer than anybody realizes. He least of all!" Reagan was then in his 70s and the real Morris in his 40s, and the literary hallucination begins.

"Damned if I can figure him out, though," Morris continues to his wife. "Is he a political genius, or a bore?" This, of course, is the central Reagan conundrum that many biographers have tried to answer. As he seeks to answer it, Morris traces the life of the future, nearly godlike President through the eyes of the fictional Morris. There is an encounter on the football field: "The square-cut youth and I briefly exchanged glances... A million miles away a factory siren wailed. 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."

Then comes a visit to the swimming beach in Dixon, Ill., where Reagan was a lifeguard and where, he would eventually claim, he made 77 rescues over the years: "He was deeply tan, and at least four inches taller than when I had last seen him. His chest was bigger, his legs stronger and straighter... Presently he shrugged off the top of his damp suit. The loops fell away, leaving behind pale ghosts of themselves. Midges sang."

Later, in Hollywood, the fictional Morris becomes a hack screenwriter and spies Reagan and his soon-to-be first wife Jane Wyman on the beach: "This mature Dutch--'Ronnie' she calls him--is tall and sparely straight, constructed in flats, a mobile Mondrian ... Even his pectorals are flat and square; he has no bulges in him, of brawn or brain."

The temptation, once the ruse is discovered, is to ignore the long sections about the faux Morris. But buried within these sections are some trenchant and worthwhile observations about Reagan. After a dreamy sequence imagining Reagan practicing his swimming, Morris observes: "The swimmer enjoys a loneliness greater, yet oddly more comforting, than that of the long distance runner. One tunnels along in a shroud of silvery bubbles ... Others may swim alongside for a while, but their individuality tends to refract away, through the bubbles and the blur. Often I have marveled at Reagan's cool, unhurried progress through crises of politics and personnel, and thought to myself, He sees the world as a swimmer sees it." It is an elegant way to describe the serene detachment that marked the public, and private, Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan who emerges in Dutch is often of heroic dimension. But Morris is also acute and critical about the sometimes goofy, floating chimera who was President for eight years. Morris cites a former aide as saying that the President's attention span "would compare to that of a fruit fly." He tells the story of seeing President Reagan the morning after they had actually dined together at the Morris home: "Not only did he fail to mention our dinner, it was obvious from his smiling yet distant demeanor that he did not recall it."

Morris' image of Reagan today, in decline under Alzheimer's, is poignant and surreal. "He will rake leaves from the pool for hours, not understanding that they are being surreptitiously replenished by his Secret Service men." When Reagan acknowledged his ailment in 1994, many who had been struck by his odd driftiness during the White House years began to wonder whether it had been the disease beginning its assault on his brain. Morris is adamant in opposing that view. "To those readers who will seize on this as evidence of incipient dementia in the White House, I reply: You do not understand that actors remember forward, not backward. Yesterday's take is in the can; today is already rolling: tomorrow's lines must be got by heart."

Maybe, but Reagan was, by the accounts of those who worked most closely with him, one of the most passive and incurious men to ever occupy the Oval Office. During his first term, one of his closest advisers swore that on his own, Reagan could not have found the office of the White House chief of staff. Morris' reconstruction of the Iran-contra scandal paints a devastating picture of a floundering and uncomprehending Chief Executive.

What set Morris off on his risky, semi-fictional path? The author was seriously late in delivering his book and anguished about writer's block and his inability to get to the core of Reagan. Perhaps it was the arrogance of the intellectual who cannot make himself believe that a person with an ordinary mind can be a powerful leader. Perhaps it was the need do something different with Reagan's life, to justify the big advance and the long delay in producing the book.

The historical sleight of hand has one virtue, aside from creating commercially valuable buzz. Trying to thread one's way through what is made up and what is real in this book is not unlike being around the actual Reagan, who invented statistics, replayed movie plots as if they were history and answered questions with such bewildering non sequiturs that interrogators were stunned into silence. This biography could have been called Zelig Meets Chauncey Gardner.

Morris is also a brilliant writer--of both fact and fiction. His stylishness is so dazzling that the reader may want to forgive the manipulation he has employed. Again, this re-creates the experience of being around Reagan, who was so deeply likeable as a human being that even the most querulous reporter could be charmed into protecting him from his own vacuousness.

In the end, however, the fact/fiction bipolarity erodes some of the book's brilliance. The reader begins to doubt Morris even when he describes events without resorting to dramatic trickery. His account of Reagan's summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland is so vivid as to make it seem Morris sat with the two leaders. In fact, Morris admits he was not there; he went to Iceland later and, relying on interviews, "enjoyed the scribe's traditional advantage of being able to recollect emotions in tranquility." Morris' brilliant portrait of Teddy Roosevelt's rise to the presidency was of course built from research embellished by his imagination.

In T.R., Morris had a President who moved events. He seems to want to believe that to be true of Reagan as well. Morris says as much in the final, cloying scene of the book. He tells the reader that he himself was one of the people lifeguard Dutch saved from the river, and concludes: "Some day, I hoped, America might acknowledge her similar debt to the old Lifeguard who rescued her in a time of poisonous despair..."

The writer's job, Morris observes, is different from the actor's in that the author tries to remember backward, to turn experience into a literary account. "To the actor, only artifice is actual," Morris writes. Unfortunately in this book, Morris has switched roles.

--With reporting by Ann Blackman/Washington

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Cover Date: October 4, 1999

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