Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan

Article excerpt

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. By Edmund Morris. (New York: Random House, 1999. Pp. xx, 874. $35.00)

Well into The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), Edmund Morris paused to appraise TR's early book about The Naval War of 1812: "Its merits are as simple as those of any serious piece of academic writing: clarity, accuracy, and completeness backed by massive documentation" (p. 154). Yet TR's approach failed to satisfy Morris, who said, "There is something almost inhuman about the young author's refusal to swashbuckle, taste the triumphs of victory and the pain of defeat, and dramatize character where well he might." (p. 154-155). That is, Roosevelt chose to be a historian rather than a novelist or a screenwriter. In Dutch, whose dust jacket boasts that the book is "the only biography ever authorized by a sitting president - yet written with complete interpretive freedom," Morris, a middle-aged author (b. 1940), invented a narrator, "Edmund Morris" (b. 1912, in Chicago), to follow Ronald Reagan around up to the 1980s, when the "authorized biographer," Edmund Morris, could take over.

The resulting almost 900-page "Memoir of Ronald Reagan" is buttressed by several hundred acknowledgements ("co-contributors"), almost fifty archival collections, and one hundred fifty pages of notes. More than three dozen of these notes purport to document various fictional characters Morris scatters through his text. Dutch devotes about one hundred thirty pages to the Illinois and Iowa years, about two hundred to Hollywood and Reagan's pitchman work for General Electric, less than a hundred to California politics and the long road to the White House, and about two hundred fifty pages to his presidency. An Epilogue recounts Reagan's post-presidential years and his acknowledgment of Alzheimer's Disease.

Dutch's subtitle explains much about this odd book, which might better be called, "My Life with Ronald Reagan." For it is the frustrated "authorized biographer's" failure to have something new to say about Reagan's personality that apparently drove Morris to the narrative strategies that have aroused such controversy since the book's publication in late 1999. These include unlikely chapters devoted to a literary review of Reagan's high school papers and unpublished college short stories, a dialogue with a Hollywood screenwriter, "Four Short Scenarios" crosscutting between Reagan's House Un-American Activities Committee testimony and the breakup of his marriage to actress Jane Wyman, an extended analysis of a 1958 Reagan speech to the California Fertilizer Association, and a montage of seemingly undigested excerpts from Morris's "author's notes" during 1987 and 1988. "Edmund Morris" makes his debut during Dutch's account of Reagan's Illinois upbringing, about which Gore Vidal once wrote, "This story has been told so much that it now makes no sense at all" [Vidal, United States (1993), p. 986]. Building on the detective work of others, and on his subject's two autobiographies, "Morris" casts a scornful eye on rural Illinois, dubbing Reagan's birthplace, Tampico, "then as now, a home for the homely" (p. 13), suggesting that such surroundings helped produce "the immense insularity of Dutch's personality" (p. 22). The author notes President Reagan's lack of interest in the details of his origins, then launches into the tale of "Edmund Morris" - sent off to an English prep school, afflicted with polio, returned to "a lakeside house in Ravinia," then taken to Grand Detour, IL, all so that he could be driven to Dixon and shown Lowell Park, site of the teen-age Reagan's exploits as a Rock River lifeguard. …