The Washington Times
Edmund Morris’ “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” is a spectacular failure. It’s a compelling example of brilliance gone hopelessly awry – a portrait of an artist-biographer, beset by who knows what demons of history and personality, who tries to escape disaster by setting forth with grim determination on a course that can only lead to ruin of another sort. What else can one say about a decision by the authorized biographer of the 40th president of the United States to produce, in effect, an historical novel in which the twin protagonists are that president and a fictionalized version of the biographer himself, recast now as a contemporary of Mr. Reagan’s?
Only that it doesn’t work, either as biography or novel or something in between. We would seem to be in some sort of postmodern hell. Our Reagan chronicler, having inserted himself into the story and then having invented a new self, invents as well a best friend from boyhood whose bitchy gossip column and letters become fictional media for our narrator to receive bulletins on the progress of Dutch Reagan. Edmund Morris invents also a son for “Edmund Morris,” a mouthpiece for the campus radical perspective on Gov. Reagan’s crackdown on the New Left in the University of California system.
Our narrator introduces us to his wife, of course, soon to be ex-, and then a second wife, who appears only long enough for the narrator to say that he wants to keep his wife out of this, since she is a private person – which would seem to be a statement Edmund Morris is making about his real wife, but who knows? Edmund Morris, the author, even persuaded some of the real people he interviewed about past episodes in Mr. Reagan’s life to help recast those interviews as contemporaneous conversations between the subject and Edmund Morris, narrator.
If this sounds confusing, it is not, particularly. “Dutch” is a ripping tale, and the Ronald Reagan who emerges from its pages is a gigantic historical figure. Edmund Morris (or perhaps “Edmund Morris”) likens him near the end to a glacier, splitting rocks and flattening the obstacles in its way.
And “when all the ice is gone, when fresh green covers the last raw earth and some future skylark sings heedlessly over the Ronald Reagan National Monument, men will still ponder Dutch’s improbable progress, and write on their cards, How big he was! How far he came! And how deep the valley he carved!”
It’s only if readers insist on relating the matter in “Dutch” either to actual history or to the requirements of literature that problems arise. As history, the problem is authorial idiosyncrasy. The desire to evoke Ronald Reagan, to give us first and foremost an impression of him, allows the author to leave out huge swaths of the history in which he participated (for example, most of the 1980 primary campaign). In literary terms, “Dutch” fails for simple want of an answer to the central question posed by its narrative structure: Why are “Edmund Morris” and his best friend so early and so determinedly obsessed with Ronald Reagan – as if they knew at the time he was going to be, well, Ronald Reagan?
On the last page of the book comes the answer, a sentimental and clumsy deus ex machina: It seems “Edmund Morris” is one of the 77 people young Ronald Reagan rescued as a lifeguard in Illinois some 70 years ago.
The book is, as well, seeded with high-class literary references, such as the eternal feminine from Goethe (in relation to Mr. Reagan’s devotion to Nancy and vice versa), the Grail legends (Mr. Morris tries out – only mostly to abandon – the notion of Mr. Reagan as Parsifal, the “innocent fool”), and T.S. (“Fear death by water”) Eliot.
For all the artifice here, however, “Dutch” is clearly no playful exercise in postmodern historical narrative, fruit of the insight that writing biography is problematic to the point of impossibility. What it seems instead is the work of a desperado, a man smitten by Ronald Reagan but lost in pursuit of him. It is the portrait of a biographer who reluctantly comes to the unwelcome conclusion that his subject was truly a great man and a great president (the terms in which Mr. Morris recently described Mr. Reagan in a television interview), but can bring himself to say so only following such heroic and dangerous measures of narrative life support as experimental personality transplant.
There are two main reasons for Mr. Morris’ discomposure, I think. One is well known, something Mr. Morris has discussed himself by way of explanation for the difficulty he has had with this much-delayed book. It is the elusiveness of Mr. Reagan’s inner life. The second is perhaps more important, however. Mr. Morris himself seems stuck in time, able to comprehend only with great difficulty, if at all, the effect that circumstances and the simple passage of the years have had on the reputation of his subject.
As to the inner life, it is worth remarking that everyone who has met Mr. Reagan (I have not) tells essentially the same story about the occasion: First, introductions; second, whether over dinner or just on the fly, a show of Mr. Reagan’s ample charm, including reminiscences about the Hollywood days, a well-told joke or two, perhaps the restatement of a couple of familiar political positions; finally, an unceremonious departure -and a lingering impression that one has not really much registered on the consciousness of the president nor learned much about him.
What, they ask themselves afterwards – the scholars, intellectuals, writers, policy analysts, etc. – was that all about? Did he even know who we were? What we were interested in? The Reagans in 1987 accepted an invitation to dine at Mr. Morris’ house. He invited a bunch of literati as well, extracting from each a promise to write down afterwards impressions of the president. Their responses typify the phenomenon of meeting Mr. Reagan. Robert K. Massie: “Somehow, he was both there – very much there – and not there. . . . What bothered me about Reagan was his lack of curiosity about what we did and what we thought about the world.”
Or Kenneth and Valerie Lynn: “If we were utterly beguiled by the President’s surface charm, we were conscious of inner depletions. . . . Intellectually, Reagan struck us as a man who had been living off capital for so long that he had exhausted his resources.”
Or Marion Elizabeth Rodgers: “I realized we had not been individual Americans around the candlelit table. We were simply dinner guests, who had been entertained.”
Or a thousand others, including the author himself, at least in the early going – Mr. Reagan struck Mr. Morris as an “apparent airhead.” Here, at bottom is the origin of the “Parsifal” Reagan, and the view of Mr. Reagan as an amiable dunce blundering happily through history, for good or ill.
These myriad gleanings have something in common besides the similarity of their descriptions. It’s an elemental blindness, a failure of sympathetic imagination, with regard to the thing that is actually most important about these dinners, namely, what they must have been like from Ronald Reagan’s point of view.
A Nov. 15, 1987, dinner party in the home of Edmund Morris is not of historical interest because Robert K. Massie was in attendance, after all. That’s where Mr. Reagan dined. And in the event that Mr. Reagan did choose to form an impression of Mr. Massie’s view of the world, it would be of interest not because of Mr. Massie’s importance in the scheme of things but because of Mr. Reagan’s. Marion Rodgers was clear-eyed enough to understand the relationship – “We were . . . dinner guests, who had been entertained.” But she was resentful as well, as if Mr. Reagan owed her more than an entertaining dinner with the president of the United States. He did not.
Likewise, the Lynns’ exhausted resources. It is quite clear that Mr. Reagan had long since made up his mind about some of the largest questions affecting the United States – that government was choking private enterprise and limiting freedom; that the Soviet Union, a totalitarian government, was evil and needed to be challenged internationally and morally; that America’s best days lay ahead if only these challenges were met. So certain on these points was he that he set out to reverse the course of the national and foreign policy of the United States.
With all due respect, nothing Mr. Massie could say over dinner would be likely to change Mr. Reagan’s mind on these points. And if Mr. Reagan’s ideas sounded a bit old-hat to the Lynns, well, when you set as your task reversing dtente abroad and liberalism at home, rebuilding the U.S. military, reinvigorating the private sector by deregulation and decreased marginal tax rates, and instilling a new sense of national optimism, you are probably going to end up repeating yourself a bit, as none of these things is apt to take place with quite the speed of changes in intellectual fashion.
Mr. Reagan was not an intellectual, a man given to playing around with ideas; he was a politician and a president with an agenda, the clearest since FDR. Mr. Morris, like most of Mr. Reagan’s table mates, was confused on the distinction here for a long time, and still seems not entirely over it.
Apropos of the inner Ronald Reagan, the president’s defenders, Mr. Morris reports, were apt to say, “What you see is what you get.” That doesn’t seem like the whole story, either, however. For example, Mr. Morris notes that Mr. Reagan kept his “true ambitions” about running for re-election in 1984 “secret even from his diary.” Now, what are we to make of this? Surely not that before he made his announcement, Mr. Reagan entertained no thoughts whatsoever about seeking a second term. No, the likelier explanation is that he chose to keep them to himself because their disclosure would not serve his purpose.
The essential fact of the Reagan presidency is that, with regard to the largest issues, Mr. Reagan said what he wanted to do and then did what he said he would do, with a clear view of what he thought the result would be. For the Parsifal analogy to stand, we have to assume he could do this without so much as an inner thought or secret calculation along the way – even though he would have had good reason to keep much to himself and did have a long-standing disposition to keep mum. This is a preposterous conclusion to infer from the disappointments of intellectuals at dinner.
And, in turn, it leads to Mr. Morris’ second problem. In a way that he has missed, buried as he was for 14 years in Reagan and Reaganiana, the preposterousness of such conclusions has grown more apparent with each passing day. The esteem in which the 40th president is held is higher than it has been since he left office, and shows signs only of further substantial increase. This is apparent in polls asking Americans to rank him as a great president, a good president, or less, in which the percentage regarding him highly has been growing.
Even more telling, perhaps, it turns up regularly in the judgment of people who were no fans of Mr. Reagan’s at the time. Consider these statements from Joseph J. Ellis, the Jefferson biographer, reviewing “Dutch” in The Washington Post: ” T he time seems ripe for a detached reappraisal of Reagan’s place in the presidential pantheon; . . . we now know that the American economy did grow itself out of the huge deficits, just as he said it would; . . . we now know that the Soviet Union did expire, its archives exposing a bestial regime wholly worthy of Reagan’s colorful condemnation as an Evil Empire.'” Mr. Ellis also notes, “I never found it possible to vote for Ronald Reagan.”
It is in a certain way touching that those who knew Mr. Reagan best and have spent so much of their lives defending him so tirelessly against his numerous detractors have been among the slowest to discern the revolution his reputation has recently been undergoing. In fact, much of the dross his opponents heaped upon him has now fallen away, so much of what so many professed so earnestly has turned out to be mere partisanship and bunkum – from a pious faith in the independent counsel law to the “Decade of Greed” tag for a stock market that never exceeded a third its current level. What remains from his time is, as Mr. Ellis notes, large – and much in Mr. Reagan’s favor.
Edmund Morris could have been the one to tell the tale. But he got stuck on Dutch. Mr. Morris felt the immensity, but couldn’t quite get it out, not without taking refuge behind a fictitious version of himself. That’s too bad, as one need not be incognito to safely utter these views these days.
In the guise of our eponymous narrator, Mr. Morris at least comes close at a couple points – for example, in the passage, quoted above, in which he casually refers to a skylark flying over some future Ronald Reagan National Monument. I predict that in my children’s lifetime – the young one is in kindergarten – though probably not in mine, dignitaries will lay the cornerstone near the Mall.