Reagan’s Biographer Gets in Dutch

It’s a good story, but Dutch wouldn’t have approved. Not that Dutch would have cared about the way Edmund Morris has mixed fiction and fact together in his new memoir of the nation’s 40th President. Old Dutch, of course, wasn’t too particular about facts himself.

But Ronald (Dutch) Reagan had a serene, baffling, even maddening self-confidence. He knew he’d hit his marks, even when his aides thought he didn’t have it in him, like when he delivered his last speech from the Oval Office. Peggy Noonan watched in horror as Dutch seemed to shrivel behind his desk seconds before air time, his head down. “What the hell’s he doing?” Ms. Noonan whispered. With five seconds left, he straightened up, winked at his speechwriter, then went out and gave one more great performance.

No, Dutch wouldn’t have approved of Edmund Morris, who lost his bearing and his self-confidence, his conviction, who suffered a creative breakdown and, like the indigent for whom Dutch had little sympathy, chose the easy path of self-indulgence. Somewhere during the course of the 14 years Mr. Morris has been working on Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan , somebody at Random House, the book’s publisher, should have played the Peggy Noonan part, asking the same question: “What the hell’s he doing?” He was paid $3 million to write an authorized biography of one of the century’s most important American politicians. He was chosen early enough to get an unprecedented view of his subject in action. He had no problem gaining interviews with those who knew his subject, the famous and the obscure.

But when he was confronted with the challenge of putting Dutch’s life between two hard covers, he despaired, as Dutch surely despaired during bleak times in his life–when Jane Wyman left him, when the General Electric Company fired him as its spokesman. But Dutch never lost his bearings, never doubted his abilities. It was always morning in Dutch’s America.

But there wasn’t enough Dutch in Edmund Morris. Rather than fight his way through his darkness, he grabbed the easy solution: fiction. He admitted that even after all his research and all his access, he couldn’t quite figure out Dutch, couldn’t quite capture his essence through the usual tools of the nonfiction writer–research, interviews, etc. And so his authorized biography of Ronald Reagan is destined to become a book that historians will disregard even though it contains astonishing observations and insights, wonderful stories and incomparable story-telling. Even one of Mr. Morris’ harshest critics, the historian Stanley Kutler, author of The Wars of Watergate , conceded that Mr. Morris can tell a story. “Oh, boy, this guy is some writer,” Mr. Kutler said. “He knows how to use the language–but to what end?” Ultimately, to tell a story about a man who articulated policy through unverifiable anecdotes and who appeared to confuse actual events in his life with roles he played in movies, creating a vision that was his alone and who was to his own life-story-telling what Parson Weems was to George Washington’s.

But that’s not what Edmund Morris was hired for.

Poetic justice? Perhaps at a certain level, perhaps in a culture that prefers style to substance, personality to policy and narrative to analysis. Still, even at a time when biographers know they must keep their touch light, the fact remains that Dutch was President of the United States at a critical time in the 20th century. And he led an extraordinary life; only a man in despair would dismiss Mr. Reagan, as Mr. Morris does, as “boring.” The remainder of Dutch’s long life will be spent in shadows, yet here is a man who was a lifeguard in the 1920′s, a movie star during Hollywood’s golden years, a union president during the Red scare and a politician of global importance. Here, then, was a life, a life that demanded from its chronicler the self-confidence and courage and majesty that never failed Dutch.

Instead, Mr. Morris, heretofore a brilliant, if conventional, non-academic historian, chose to play jazz during high mass. The sound of the improvised notes is more than jarring. It is offensive. Mr. Kutler spoke for the congregation when he said: “Those of us trained to write nonfiction books learn to do so by following some elementary rules, one of which is that you do not intrude fiction or fictional devices on a nonfiction subject.” And that raises a touchy question: How will The New York Times and other tabulators of best-selling books categorize Mr. Morris’ book? Charles McGrath, editor of The New York Times Book Review , said he hadn’t give the question much thought until The Observer asked. “I think we’re going to ponder on this,” he said. “I think historically the tendency has always been to go with what publishers and bookstores say.” But even they are not so sure. A spokesman for Barnes & Noble Inc. said the book would be categorized as a memoir. And Charles Mullen, a co-owner of the Biography Bookshop in the West Village, said he would “probably put it with the other Reagan books and let people make up their own minds.”

Apparently some people at Random House haven’t yet made up their minds. The book’s copyright page, which ordinarily discloses under which categories the book will be catalogued with the Library of Congress (fiction; history; biography, etc.) is conspicuously silent on the subject. The publishing house has been extraordinarily secretive about Mr. Morris’ long-awaited book: Nobody in-house has a copy of it. Mr. Morris’ editor, Robert Loomis, has one copy that he kept at home until the book’s release date of Sept. 30, according to publishing sources. Mr. Loomis declined comment.

In creating at least three fictional characters to help tell Dutch’s life and to illustrate his times, Mr. Morris set himself up to become a high-end Mike Barnacle, the Boston Globe columnist who was fired for writing fiction. The Globe decided that Mr. Barnacle had broken his trust with readers, and historians, biographers and journalists are accusing Mr. Morris of the same offense with no end of damning evidence. When Leslie Stahl of 60 Minutes asked Mr. Morris how a reader might determine what is real and what isn’t, the author replied breezily that such mysteries could be resolved by consulting the footnotes. That was the literary equivalent of Gary Hart inviting reporters to trail him if they wished to know just how faithful a husband he was. Because the footnotes that Mr. Morris cites as the arbiter between fact and fiction are fake, too. That is, the footnotes documenting fictional correspondence between fictional characters.

So, if you’re wondering whether Gavin Morris, the semi-fictional narrator’s fully fictional son, is real or unreal, the footnotes dating his fictitious correspondence simply further the illusion. One publishing source told The Observer that the footnotes “do raise all kinds of very disturbing questions in the minds of readers … For a book that was 14 years coming and took this much effort and insight, you can’t help but feel that’s a pity. Because … his ability to capture the essence of moments is superb. He really got his man.”

Thus, you have both the book’s breathtaking lunacy and its daring conceit: In the authorized biography of Ronald Reagan, film-star President, the man who said he witnessed the liberation of the concentration camps but actually only saw newsreel films of the event, it’s difficult to know what it real and what isn’t. The book is littered with phony movie scripts and letters. The fictional Gavin Morris is listed in the index and has more citations (72) than longtime Reagan confidantes Michael Deaver (46) and Edwin Meese III (30). This is not the way David McCullough explained Harry Truman, how Robert Caro and Robert Dallek, in their disparate ways, explained Lyndon Johnson, how Geoffrey Ward and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explained Franklin Roosevelt. But it may be the most poetic way of explaining Ronald Reagan, the elderly, declining man who won re-election in 1984 by asserting that it was “morning in America.” Real. Unreal.

Historians, journalists, Mr. Reagan’s aides, and even fiction writers, understandably will disagree. Mr. Meese told The Observer by phone from London that, based on excerpts in Newsweek and press accounts, he was worried that “the use of fiction in … the historical account will confuse the public as to whether the book is based on fact.” Author Peter Quinn, whose novel of New York’s draft riots, Banished Children of Eve , was based on prodigious research, asserted that novelists can get at larger truths by following their instinct instead of sticking to the record. But he said that Mr. Morris had not simply crossed the literary line, but demolished it. “Why didn’t Morris just write a novel and call it something like Win One for the Gipper ?” Mr. Quinn asked.

Ah, the Gipper. Mr. Reagan famously played the legendary Notre Dame football player George Gipp in a film about the life of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne. In the film, Pat O’Brien’s Rockne fires up his team by recounting the dying Gipp’s deathbed words. In one of Mr. Morris’ presumably factual footnotes, he tells us that when author Murray Sperber revealed in his book Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football that the real Rockne wasn’t at the real Gipp’s deathbed, Mr. Reagan was really angry. “It’s just not true !” he said of Mr. Sperber’s book. And Mr. Reagan, of course, would know the truth: After all, he played Gipp in the movie, damn it, and Pat O’Brien’s Rockne was there at his bedside. (Mr. Sperber, who lives in Indiana, said he was delighted to learn that he had angered Mr. Reagan. Like the fictional Gavin Morris, Mr. Sperber was a student at Berkeley during the late 1960′s when Mr. Reagan was Governor of California. “He infuriated us, and I never thought I would have the great pleasure to irritate Ronald Reagan,” he said.)

Does the Gipp-Sperber anecdote help explain Ronald Reagan? Absolutely.

Mr. Morris’ book is filled with extraordinary insights that required no fictitious device. Thanks to the access he was granted when he was named Mr. Reagan’s authorized biographer in 1985, readers are given fly-on-the-wall accounts of such important events as Mr. Reagan’s tumultuous summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavík, Iceland, in 1986: “By then it had gotten dark again, and rain was still falling. Downstairs in the basement, members of the Soviet secret-service detail were watching Tom and Jerry on Icelandic TV. Cat v. Mouse, above and below! Reagan shot an unbelieving look at [Secretary of State George] Shultz and said to Gorbachev, ‘Well, what are you talking about?”

In another wonderfully revealing scene, Mr. Morris is chatting with Mr. Reagan in the Oval Office about the apocalypse, which the President believes is upon us. After all, he notes, “our weather has been quite strange” and prophecies foretell of a day when there “are 10 kings from Europe. Well, the European conference, now, is 10 nations. And then from the West, comes a young nation, under the sign of an eagle!” Mr. Morris notes that Chief of Staff Howard Baker is in the room, listening, eyeing Mr. Morris’ tape recorder. “I tell you, Mr. President,” Mr. Baker says, “I wish you’d quit talking about that. You upset me!”

These insights, combined with Mr. Morris’ extraordinary writing skill, suggest that Mr. Morris could have written a glorious and even slightly unconventional biography. Shouldn’t somebody at Random House, perhaps his legendary editor Mr. Loomis, have saved Mr. Morris from himself, have suggested ever so gently that footnoting fictitious correspondence was perhaps not the best way to document the life of a President?

One publishing industry source said that Mr. Loomis “is a classic editor … but he’s not likely to go to battle stations with his author, especially one with whom he’s worked as closely as this one.” The source said he believed that Mr. Morris would be “very stubborn on this point.”

Three-hundred thousand copies of Dutch will land on bookshelves beginning Sept. 30. The debate will rage on, and very likely will overshadow Mr. Morris’ considerable literary achievement. For he has, in an important way, told us the most essential truth about Ronald Reagan.

Just check the footnotes.

Additional reporting by Devin Leonard