Morris: Book is an 'honest portrayal of Reagan'
October 6, 1999
(CNN) -- Presidential biographer Edmund Morris says criticism of his book "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan" has "not disturbed me one bit," and that "there are floods of praise coming in as well as criticism."
Morris, the guest for a CNN.com online chat, said his book is "an honest portrayal of one of the largest figures in recent American history." As questions flew, Morris related anecdotes about "the strongest president in our century since Harry Truman," relating how a sober Reagan -- then a Hollywood actor -- enjoyed the companionship of "drunks like James Cagney and Spencer Tracy."
"He would nurse a beer through an evening of Irish revelry, affable and jovial, and carry his paralytically drunk companions home to bed without any disturbance to his life-long calm," Morris said.
An experienced and acclaimed biographer, Morris was invited into the White House during Reagan's second term to write a book about the president's life. The result, 14 years later, has been criticized because the author has inserted himself as a fictional character, a literary "Forrest Gump," into the long saga of Reagan's life, from boyhood in Illinois to California to the White House.
Responding to a question about the technique of using a fictional character, Morris said, "The technique derives directly from the way Ronald Reagan viewed the world. Reagan was all his life a performer, a genuine one, and an effective one. Performers cannot be comprehended unless they are perceived by an audience.
"All my innovator does is fulfill the role of spectator and auditor of Ronald Reagan's lifelong, world's-changing performance," he said.
At another point in the chat, Morris addressed the situation again: "I accept that I have embarked on a very unusual biographical technique, and all I ask of the reader is that they accept this technique, as they accept a projector in a movie house. The movie I project is documentary and authentic."
Reagan's eldest child Maureen recently said she has concluded Morris "wasted an incredible and irreplaceable opportunity," and in the chat room Morris responded. "For your information, three of Reagan's four children have supported my portrait of Ronald Reagan, saying that it represents the father they remember and love. Only Maureen, of the four children, is saying that she refused to read the book. This is a pity, because if she did, she would find it not only fair to him, but in places flattering to her."
And what of criticism from former president George Bush, who was Reagan's vice president?
"The fact that the Reagans were not particularly hospitable to the Bushes during the eight years of the Reagan presidency was a well-known fact in the White House and in Washington," Morris said. "The Bushes were and remain loyal to Reagan's memory, but the interview I had with them in December of 1988 made their private frustrations clear, and it is naturally embarrassing for them to have to confirm those feelings in public."
So how does Morris feel he has portrayed Ronald Reagan? "He appears there exactly as I saw him, in all his private moments of fallibility and even boredom, and in all his public moments of clear greatness," he said. "A biographer has to represent the totality of his subject, and it is a matter of fact that all great men are in private as human as you and me."
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