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Books Chat

Edmund Morris

A chat about the book "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan"

October 5, 1999
Web posted at: 7:00 p.m. EDT

(CNN) -- The following is an edited transcript of our chat with Edmund Morris, author of "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," published by Random House. Mr. Morris joined us by telephone on October 5, 1999. provided a typist for him.

Reagan biography controversial

Chat Moderator: Welcome Edmund Morris.

Chat Moderator: What's your reaction to all the criticism about the book; did you expect it? Now that it is out, do you regret using the fictional character?

Edmund Morris: The criticism has not disturbed me one bit, except thatcriticism based on pre-judgment due to the fact that the book had not been read yet.

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. There are floods of praise coming in as well as criticism. In answer to your second question, no, I would not write the book any differently.

Question from Taliesin: Why do you suppose your critics have trouble with the form of your biography; I love the idea!

Edmund Morris: Thank you very much for saying that, and I am happy to say that more and more people I hear from say the same. Any original idea always creates shock at first. But this is an honest idea, and one that is entirely true to historical life.

Question from Cathy: Why did you choose this technique?

Edmund Morris: 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.

Question from Indy: In an A&E biography special on Reagan about two years ago, you claimed that Reagan had entered the beginnings of dementia, citing a diary entry in which he reports having dinner with a guest who was not there. But in all your interviews, you state that Reagan was of sound mind up until his last days in office. How do you respond?

Edmund Morris: The program to which you refer was a PBS documentary on the life of Reagan. I did not state that he suffered from dementia in the White House.

What I did state, and still state now, both on television and in the pages of my book, is that Reagan, after the assassination attempt of March 30, 1981, was a man who aged slowly almost imperceptibly, and like all old men, went through periods of withdrawal and self-conservation in office. Dementia was not apparent until the first weeks of 1993.

Question from Mags: In many of your TV interviews about the book, you made it seem like the book positively portrays Reagan, yet those who have reviewed the book say the book is an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Reagan. What's your response?

Edmund Morris: The book is an honest portrayal of one of the largest figures in recent American history. 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.

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.

Question from Woody: Was Reagan an individual you would have

found interesting and/or spent time with had he not been President? What special insights did Ronald Reagan have?

Edmund Morris: I find Reagan as sports broadcaster in the 1930s and film star in the 1940s, and as governor in the 1960s, just as fascinating as I do as president. This is speaking as a biographer, of course, since I never knew him before 1981. But he remains to me one of the most complex and mysteriously interesting figures I have ever studied.

Question from zzxxyman: How does Nancy view your portrayal of their private life?

Edmund Morris: I do not know what she thinks of the book, since I have not heard from her since I sent her a copy about 10 days ago. But I enclosed a letter with that copy which frankly said that I did not expect her to like it at first, for the obvious reason that wives are protective creatures, and Nancy was more protective than most.

I once described my last interview with Ronald Reagan shortly after he announced the onset of Alzheimer's, and in the article I wrote about that last meeting, which appears in the epilogue to my book, I mentioned a patch of silvery stubble on the once-immaculate presidential chin. I remember Nancy saying, "That was a wonderful article, Edmund, but did you have to mention the silvery stubble?"

A biographer has to see and record such poignant details. But I am sure that when the initial shock has died, Nancy and I will once again be friends.

Question from Kris: Did Reagan's family or advisers approve of the book? Shouldn't they have been given the opportunity to review and approve of the biography since you were hand-picked and given special access with the sole purpose to write the biography?

Edmund Morris: No self-respecting biographer would ever consent to the prior approval of family members and acolytes, because everything he wrote would then be suspect as independent history.

But 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.

Question from Indy:How did you decide which events to seriously emphasize and which to not?

Edmund Morris: I decided the only way a writer can: By what Tennessee Williams called "that little click in the head, Maggie." Or perhaps I should say, that little surge in the heart which tells me that a particular incident or story is pregnant with literary power.

I did not get that surge in the heart when I contemplated the Tax Reform Act of 1986, but I did get it when I contemplated the assassination attempt, the Geneva summit, the Bittburg crisis, and other presidential dramas without number, as you will see when you page through my book.

Question from David: Why is the book called "Dutch"?

Edmund Morris: The book is called "Dutch" because Reagan was called Dutch, almost immediately after his birth. His father affectionately compared him to "a little fat Dutchman." He called himself Dutch until the age of 26, signed himself by that name, used it as his air name on Des Moines radio, and even tried to get Warner Brothers to continue calling him Dutch when he signed with them in the spring of 1937.

Edmund Morris: They preferred to call him by his real name, Ronald Reagan, but for the rest of his life, whenever he corresponded with friends from his Illinois days, he invariably signed himself "Dutch."

In the White House, in fact, there were three auto pens, one programmed to sign letters "Ronnie," one "Ron," and one "Dutch."

Question from Jonathan: What level of White House access did you have? What was it like going to work with the president in the Oval Office?

Edmund Morris: My level of access was high, but I never penetrated through the cordon of ultra-high secrecy. But I had frequent physical proximity to the president, meeting with him in the Oval Office and elsewhere, throughout the years 1986 through 1989.

To be in the Oval Office alone with the most powerful man in the world is an experience I can only compare to ..... words fail me at this point. What I am trying to say is, such entirely natural intimacy between an ordinary citizen and an extraordinary leader is possible only in my adopted country, my beloved United States of America.

Chat Moderator: Many GOP presidential hopefuls for 2000 are claiming to be the heir to Reagan's conservative legacy. Having studied Reagan so closely, do you think that any of the Republican presidential candidates can really make this claim, and if so, who?

Edmund Morris: The only one, in my opinion, who can honestly make the claim, is the man whom Ronald Reagan himself picked out in 1973 as an example of the finest in the American character, and that was the returning POW, John McCain.

John McCain is by any standards an authentic human being, and that adjective -- authentic -- was the adjective that Mikhail Gorbachev applied to Reagan in Russian, when I asked him what his overall impression of Reagan's character was.

Gorbachev said, "He was a 'lichnost' personality -- which I gather in Russian means "authentic and self-confident to his fingertips."

I would apply this same Russian word to Sen. McCain.

Question from JeffD: I'd like to know what the last meeting with Reagan was like.

Edmund Morris: I could spend a long time telling you about it now, but I have written out in such detail in the epilogue to my book that my publishers would never forgive me if I did not draw your attention to that.

I will only say that it was the most heartbreaking moment of my professional career.

Chat Moderator: When was your last meeting?

Edmund Morris: It occurred in November 1994, immediately after he announced that he had Alzheimer's disease.

Question from JeffD: How difficult was it for him to deal with the Iran Contra affair, from a first hand perspective? Do you think he ever considered the possibility of resignation?

Edmund Morris: It was extremely difficult for him to deal with the crisis.He was not a well man in the last months of 1986, when the scandal broke. He was suffering from an acute prostate condition, which was only slowly alleviated by an operation in the New Year of 1987.

Apart from this medical distraction, his basically innocent soul could not accept the fact, obvious to all, that he had traded arms for hostages. His inability to reconcile good will with brute fact drove him to the point of depression, and he was lifted from it only when Howard Baker came in as his new chief of staff in February of 1987.

Question from robin6: How do you feel when people such as the Bushes deny making the statements to you that appeared in the book? (i.e., that the Reagans were not friendly toward them.)

Edmund Morris: 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.

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. But I can assure you that Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush have never been the best of friends. George Bush remains to this day respectful of and affectionate toward Ronald Reagan's memory.

Question from Traci: Did you consider Reagan your friend when it was all said and done?

Edmund Morris: No, I never considered (him) my friend, and nobody with any perception of his strangely aloof nature could ever flatter himself or herself that Reagan perceived them as friends.

He had no interest in the individual character of the approximately 80 people he met every day of his presidency. The faces he saw around him were neutral, almost invariably smiling, affectionate and indistinguishable.

Ronald Reagan had, and needed, no close personal friends. I remember Sen. Laxalt saying to me once, "I guess I know Ronald Reagan better than just about anybody. But we never talk about anything personal."

Question from John: Did Reagan develop a psychological defense mechanism, early in his life, which led to the creation of the "Ronald Reagan" public persona?

Edmund Morris: My feeling is that he was impregnable to hurt or insecurity from earliest infancy. I know it can only be a feeling, but as a biographer, I spend much time poring over old photographs. And nothing is more remarkable; in photographs of Reagan as a child, boy and teenager (there) is the air (he) gives off of placid, dreamy, self-confidence.

Most children of alcoholics develop defense mechanisms, as you say. These mechanisms almost always cause them to stay away from drink and uproariousness in adult life.

But Reagan, strangely, was happy throughout his Hollywood career in the society of notorious drunks like James Cagney and Spencer Tracey. 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.

Question from Sweet55: Why did you characterize Ronald Reagan as an "apparent airhead?"

Edmund Morris: Because in private, and in deed sometimes on the public stage, Reagan would say some astonishingly banal and ignorant things, always with an air of complete conviction.

For example, the brown smog boiling up from the Pacific Coast Highway was healthy ozone. Acid rain was caused by trees. A polluted river, flowing over clean gravel for two miles, would purify itself. He had never heard of the quintessential American play, Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." And so on.

It was these private lapses that gave me the erroneous impression, early on, that he was a cultural airhead. But my book makes plain how wrong that impression was.

Question from Saul: What is your response to people like Meese that said the book did a terrible job portraying Reagan?

Edmund Morris: Ed Meese has Ronald Reagan on his resume. Even in the Reagan White House, Ed was known to be the most unquestioning and worshipful of aides. By nature, Ed cannot comprehend the possibility that the boss he loved might possibly be a human being. He is a loyal soldier, and in his way an admirable public servant, but he is also that most lamentable of revisionists, a sentimentalist.

Question from Dave: If your book contains fiction, why isn't it labeled as such instead of a biography?

Edmund Morris: The book contains a huge preponderance of historical fact.The copyright page clearly states that all the thoughts, words and deeds of Ronald Reagan, and those of every historical character in the text, are authentic and documented in the 160 pages of footnotes.

The only fictional element is that of the narrator who observers all the true events happening.

Question from IDPOIRP: How would you compare this book to previous biographies you have written?

Edmund Morris: I have only written one previous biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and I put aside a half-written sequel, titled Theodore Rex, in order to write Reagan's biography.

My first book was orthodox in style, and when I return to volume two, it, too will be orthodox. The reason my current biography of Reagan is so unconventional derives directly from the unconventional, almost mythic nature of the man himself.

Question from IDPOIRP: Would you write another biography in this format?

Edmund Morris: Only if the character stimulated me in the same way.

But since Reagan was unique, it's highly unlikely.

Question from scott: Why do you think American citizens and people all over the world find Reagan so interesting as opposed to other presidents? In a few words, what is it that intrigued you about him?

Edmund Morris: His dramatic ability; his delicious humor; his massive self-righteousness; his courage; his complexity; and, in retrospect, the legacy we see all around us today.

As one reviewer of my book has written, "The world we live in now is Ronald Reagan's world." See the current issue of GQ Magazine!

Question from jeter: Do you believe that the Reagan court-in-exile have been unfair to you and the book?

Edmund Morris: No, I merely believe that as men and women whose whole

identity derives from their years with the great man, that their memories of him are inevitably colored by sentimentality. I am convinced that when they read my book with care, they will find Ronald Reagan every bit as majestic, and much more complex than they remember now.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts?

Edmund Morris: I have been privileged to spend 14 years acquainting myself with the strongest president in our century since Harry Truman. In retrospect, and only now that the book lies complete before me, do I recognize Reagan's historic stature, and I am confident that the book will testify to that.

Chat Moderator: Thank you, Edmund Morris, for joining us today to discuss your book.

Edmund Morris: Thank you.

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