Fiction's Role In Reagan Bio

This week, CBS News Sunday Morning Critic John Leonard reviews the new book, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, by author Edmund Morris, published by Random House.
By now you probably know that the Edmund Morris who wrote Dutch is not the Edmund Morris who appears in Dutch. The real Morris was born in Kenya in 1940, educated in South Africa, and emigrated to the United States in 1968.

The fictitious Morris was born in Chicago in 1912, went to Eureka College with Ronald Reagan, to Hollywood as a screenwriter, and to an ad agency run by RonÂ's brother, Neil, before both Edmunds published a book on Teddy Roosevelt and were invited in 1985 to move right into the Reagan White House, where, like jelly beans, they sat in on almost everything - and got $3 million to produce an authorized biography of King Babar and Queen Celeste.

I found this funny when I first heard about it. A president who thought he was a movie got a biographer who thought he was a novel, like Nick Carraway explaining The Great Gatsby, or Woody AllenÂ's Zelig, or maybe Forrest Gump. But nobody else smiled.

Even before Newsweek published excerpts, Morris had been so abused by paid opinionizers whoÂ'd only heard about his book that youÂ'd think he was either violence on television or a cigarette. Then Time trumped Newsweek by revealing an entirely fictional surprise twist on page 672.

Then came the reviews, lavishing more attention on fake characters, fake documents, fake film scripts and fake footnotes than they did on some superb prose or any of the juicy gossip in a book that gets longer the more one reads of it.

Postmodernism specializes in deceitcolor>

Words like deception, madness, inane, dishonest, narcissistic, parasitic, irresponsible, travesty, bizarre and monstrous floated overhead like blimps. The best of these reviews, in The New Yorker, mentioned NabokovÂ's novel Pale Fire, in which a lunatic imagines that a long poem by somebody else is actually all about him.

More to the point, perhaps, is NabakovÂ's own memoir, Speak Memory, in which he lied about himself. As did Andre Malraux, in four volumes of his anti-memoirs. As did Henry Adams in his third-person autobiography, where he failed to mention his wifeÂ's suicide, or even that he had a wife.

For that matter, modernist literary giants like Borges, Calvino and Stanislaw Lem published reviews of entirely imaginary books. And postmodernism specializes in deceit, like Philip Roth and TV docudrama.

All arrators are unreliable, so why not Morris, who even invents a son, Gavin, just so he can join SDS, introduce Frantz Fanon to the Black Panthers, and go underground with the Weathermen.

All personality, not enough politicscolor>

The real problem with Dutch is that itÂ's all personality and not enough politics. Morris had such privileged access to the gerontocracy that he was in the room during Iran/contra, and the defense spending that tripled the federal deficit, and the total indifference to AIDS. And by the presidentÂ's side at Bitberg. And in his Brylcreemed pompadour at the Geneva chats with Gorbachev. And yet he seems not the least bit interested in the nuts and bolts of how things work, like electoral politics, political economy or campaign spending and spin.

We already know, from our TV screens, that the Gipper could put on a show. And, from Garry Willis, Joan Didion and Lou Cannon, that he believed in the show he put on. But what does either Edmund really believe?

A great man, but a shallow onecolor>

Apparently that Dutch was a great man, but a shallow one, on whom he can heap contempt without ever disagreeing with any of his programs or policies. This having it both ways bothers me a lot more than the fictional Edmund. IÂ'm used to biographies in which psychoanalysis is a fictional character, telling us what to think, or Christianity, or Marxism, even malice and envy.

Maybe, as most reviewers seem to think, Morris panicked at not being able to fathom Reagan and invented Edmund to cover his confusion. But Edmund seems to me a disingenuous device for belittling the manÂ's mind while cherishing his philosophy of being above it all, then leaving town like Shane.

Written by John Leonard
  • Sarah Katt

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