Politics & Policy

Not The Authorized Biography

John O'Sullivan on Ronald Reagan on National Review Online

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review appeared in the October 25, 1999, issue of National Review.

Dutch is described very firmly on its cover as a “memoir” of Ronald Reagan. This announces an oddity from the first, because a memoir is usually a personal account of some famous person by an old friend or colleague. It supplements, but does not replace, the full-dress biography because it is a less comprehensive and more intimate portrait of its subject, painted not in the harsh primary colors of historical evaluation but in the gentler hues of reminiscence.

But Edmund Morris is not an old friend of President Reagan, nor even an old colleague. He is a professional writer, the author of an acclaimed biography of Theodore Roosevelt, who was commissioned in 1985 to write the authorized biography of Ronald Reagan and accordingly given unparalleled access to the White House as a kind of historian in residence. The idea was that he should combine the skills of a practiced biographer with the privilege of a bird’s-eye view.

This was a unique opportunity. As Morris accompanied the president to meetings in the Oval Office, summits with Mikhail Gorbachev, and political events around America, he must have realized that his experience would give unusual depth and richness to his overall portrait of Reagan. And this is, in part, so. The passages in which he accompanies “Dutch” on a postretirement visit to the town where he was born, or watches from the wings as the president strides out to take control of Gorbachev and the Geneva summit, are among the liveliest and most revealing in the book.

Unfortunately, he also realized that he would not enjoy the same advantage when he came to deal with events that had occurred before he himself arrived on the scene. And since that period covered Reagan’s life from his birth to the end of his first presidential term, Morris must have feared that the greater part of his book would lack the immediacy of its final chapters. So the biographer decided to grant himself privileged access to the whole of Reagan’s life by writing himself into it as an acquaintance who hovered on the fringe of Reagan’s circle.

Morris has therefore written not one book, but three books that jostle uneasily together between the same hard covers. The first book is an authorized presidential biography that, because of the space devoted to the other two, falls short in certain respects, notably in assessing Reagan’s full historical achievement; the second is notes and jottings for a memoir of Reagan drawn from his real experiences as Reagan’s literary shadow; and the third is a postmodern novel, The Man Who Knew Ronald Reagan, in which a fictional character called Edmund Morris describes how his own life has intertwined with Ronald Reagan’s in the course of writing a memoir about him.

Does this literary device of a fictional author actually work? Arguments can certainly be advanced for it. The author in a biography always has elements of a fictional character, because he possesses an apparently godlike knowledge that enables him to make the most sweeping judgments of his subject’s life. Thus do professors who can scarcely keep order in the classroom correct Bismarck’s statecraft. At least Morris’s fiction is clearly and candidly a device; no one is deceived. It gives the entire book a uniformity of tone and style–that of the aforementioned memoir–while also allowing Reagan’s career to be seen and judged from several different perspectives, not just “Edmund Morris”’s, and not all of them friendly. Both Morris’s “son,” Gavin, and his “friend,” Paul Rae, are witnesses for the prosecution, Gavin a student revolutionary who sees the Gipper as the smiling face of a corrupt corporate “power elite,” Paul Rae a bitchy homosexual writer (and early AIDS victim) who regards him as the vacant repository of narrow small-town virtues. And the fictions are closely tethered to the facts of Reagan’s life, confirmed in detailed footnotes that give the real sources for accounts that appear here in the mouths of Morris, Rae, Gavin, and others.

Set against these arguments is the large and unavoidable fact that the final product is a mixture of fact and fiction, and we cannot be sure which is which on any one page. George Will, for instance, has cited one passage in which the later (and thus presumably more factual) Edmund Morris seems to be present at a medical examination where Reagan is diagnosed as harboring a dangerous cancer. In fact, the scene is an invented one, based to be sure on the doctor’s subsequent notes, but supplemented by what W S. Gilbert sardonically called “merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” Such a mixture of fact and fiction is ultimately fiction, and its presence disables a biography that by definition claims to be the nearest approximation to documentary truth that the biographer can achieve. Whatever the reason, however, I found the fictional characters and their accounts an irritant and had to conquer an urge to skip them as I went along.

At times Morris justifies this unusual technique as necessary to explore the mystery of Ronald Reagan’s personality. Just how mysterious, however, is the Gipper? Reagan himself, in his own post-presidential autobiography, has conceded one surprising trait–namely, that he is essentially a private person, convivial in a crowd but remote and even aloof in private, who uses jokes and anecdotes to keep others at bay (and, incidentally, who can fire and forget formerly close colleagues at will). Unembarrassed by any mystery here, Reagan advances the commonsense speculation that this remoteness is the result of his short-sightedness, which, unrecognized until his early teens, placed a curtain between himself and the world in his formative years. It is, of course, Nancy Reagan who pierced this curtain and has since been his indispensable ambassadress to the world.

Morris agonizes over a slightly different point of psychology–namely, the mystery of what complex private reality lies behind Reagan’s public personality, with its firm opinions and genial demeanor. Maybe, though, the mystery of Reagan is that he is not mysterious. An English Tory friend once explained wistfully to me that the only place he could express his true opinions was on a public platform: “If I were to say at a dinner party that England is a great country and that we have shaped the modern world for the better, from ending the international slave trade to holding the line against Hitler, people would mock me unmercifully. I can say such things in a public speech because the same people assume I am playing to the gallery. In fact, those are the things I really believe; it is my cynical remarks over the dinner table that are insincere.” What distinguishes Reagan from the platform patriot is that he was not afraid to be patriotic in private. The virtues he admired in the small-town America in which he grew up, the decisive contribution America made to saving the world from two totalitarianisms–these he was prepared to celebrate equally at a dinner party or in a public speech. As he himself said, he is “an open book,” all of a piece. It is such simple, uncomplicated honesty that strikes the modern mind, especially the mind of a postmodern literary intellectual, as requiring explanation.

And here Morris has been seriously misjudged by his critics. Several of his dismissive remarks–in particular his question to himself as to whether President Reagan was “an airhead”–have been quoted as if they were his final and considered judgment. In fact, he threw out the “airhead” speculation when, as he admits, he was undergoing a biographical crisis: The more he tried to grasp Reagan’s personality, the more it eluded him. And as he goes along, he tests out various other explanations of the Gipper.

This juggling of judgments, as well as inviting charges of inconsistency, has the effect of making Morris a much more central figure than he should be in someone else’s biography. Indeed, it occasionally produces some almost comic egocentricities, as my NR colleague, Michael Potemra, observed in an otherwise largely favorable account: “On page 327, the author recounts the reaction of a fictional character named Edmund Morris to the assassination of President Kennedy. Consigned to an endnote on page 761 is the following: `For the less-than-anguished reaction of the Reagans to JFK’s death, see [Reagan daughter Patti] Davis, The Way I See It, 81–83.’ In other words, if you want to know about a fictional character based on me, read this text; if you’re curious about some Reagan facts, read Patti’s book.”

Yet there is at least some method in this madness. For the fictional Morris means something beyond himself projected backwards in time. He is a not-quite-representative member of what Professor Whittle Johnson calls “the academic-media complex,” disliking its “vituperative” hostility to Reagan, but sharing many of its prejudices all the same. As the book proceeds, however, both the fictional and real Edmund Morris gradually overcome these prejudices and struggle towards a discovery of the Reagan in plain sight. They abandon their initial condescension and grow to appreciate both his decency as a private man and his far-sighted statesmanship as a public one. And though the president’s fictional critics, Gavin and Paul Rae, retain their hostility to him until they both depart–Paul Rae to the next world, Gavin into the leftist underground–nonetheless they shrink into dogmatic and insignificant critics before our gaze. Paul Rae in particular is bound to resent a man who has remained true to the early American verities he himself has rejected–and not merely remained true to them, but made them sing and fostered their victory.

By the end of the book, therefore, Morris has rendered a judgment on President Reagan that, though not without qualifications, is massively favorable. A few points of character at random: He is a brave man who, as a lifeguard, saved 77 lives. He is without bigotry and, in the early ’40s, when such acts were still risky, resigned from a country club that excluded Jews. He has a high sense of public duty and, when asked to present a prize to the top student at West Point, insisted on staying for several hours to hand diplomas to the entire class, on the grounds that one day he might have to send them into action. He has a crisp sense of priorities and was always on top of what he judged, usually rightly, to be important. As a hostile critic, Arthur Liman, chief counsel to the Iran-contra committee, said on reading Reagan’s private journal: “I’m amazed at the clarity of his executive thinking, his modesty and lack of emotion. Not at all what I expected.” And he had the moral courage to tell the simple truths that brought down an evil empire.

Not that Morris’s final judgments are entirely satisfactory. He gets the Big Picture triumphantly right–Reagan is, before all else, the man who “won the Cold War without firing a shot,” in Margaret Thatcher’s words. But there are curiously few references to Reagan’s historic partnerships with both the Pope and Lady Thatcher–even Francois Mitterrand gets more ink (perhaps because he has the wittier lines) . And there is a lack of balance and perspective in other respects. While making the obligatory mention of “deficits as far as the eye can see,” for instance, Morris acknowledges that “Reaganomics” led to the longest peacetime expansion in history. But there is less about economics than there should be in a Reagan biography. After all, the longest peacetime expansion in history has now lasted, with only the briefest interruption, for 17 years, and Reagan’s reshaping of U.S. industry in the 1980s plainly created the world–beating modern information economy whose cascading revenues have transformed the predicted deficits into large surpluses. Mrs. Reagan is given full credit for both giving and inspiring great love, but she is otherwise treated shabbily as a rich Republican with a blinkered view of life–evidence, surely, that Morris is simply wearing a different set of blinkers. And it is both snobbish and wrong to criticize Reagan for lack of interest in poetry when you have quoted him as reciting Robert (Songs of a Sourdough) Service after only one reading; a difference in taste is not the same thing as a lack of interest. (Besides which, I happen to like Service myself.)

In a final moving “Epilogue,” Morris attends an academic conference at which, amid some criticism, the dominant note is one of growing recognition that Reagan was one of our greatest presidents and that his greatest achievement was the toppling of the Soviet Union. The biographer writes a report to the president, describing this heartening debate in which the Russian speakers had been among his strongest partisans. But we know that already Alzheimer’s had begun to wreak its havoc on the Old Man, and that therefore any re-evaluation of his achievements will have to depend on others. With all its faults, this book contributes to that reevaluation. Hence the desperate relief with which liberal critics have seized upon postmodern techniques they might otherwise have praised to discredit conclusions that utterly undermine the picture they have painted of a genial half-wit presiding half-asleep over a Decade of Greed and the self-generated implosion of the Soviet Union. The Saturday Night Live sketch, showing a dynamic Reagan barking commands in various languages to Swiss banks and Mideast weapons brokers, is actually nearer the mark.

And there is the sadness of it. If Morris had written a conventional biography and followed it up a few years later with this book, describing it as a novel that drew upon real historical facts and his own meetings with Ronald Reagan, we might all now be acclaiming his genius. Indeed, we would probably be arguing that the book conveyed far more deeply than any conventional biography two elusive truths: first, the manly straightforwardness of Reagan, and, second, the agonizing difficulty that modern self-conscious intellectuals have in comprehending simplicity of character. (Remove their skepticism, indeed, and one would have to ask, “Where’s the rest of them?”) Once the immediate controversy over Morris’s postmodern literary methods has receded, therefore, Dutch may have a long afterlife as Reagan’s historical reputation inevitably rises and as people want to learn more about America’s lifeguard.

For the moment, however, it remains a companion volume to the authorized biography of Ronald Reagan that remains to be written, that needs to be written, and that Morris had an unparalleled opportunity to write. And in the end that makes Dutch a failure–but a failure more fascinating and moving than many a pedestrian success.


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