Book Review: White House, White Lies ; A Box of Silly Tricks Makes This Biography as Credible as a Clock That Strikes 13. by Godfrey Hodgson; Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris HarperCollins, Pounds 24.99, 874pp
Hodgson, Godfrey, The Independent (London, England)
In 1980, Edmund Morris published the first volume of a biography of Theodore Roosevelt. It was an excellent book, and it led to a commission: to write the life of the incumbent president of the US, Ronald Reagan. As the years went by, rumours surfaced in Washington about the project: the length (more than 600 pages of text and another 200 of notes); the advance (more than $3m); the enviable access Morris had been given by the President, his wife Nancy, the White House staff and Reagan's friends.
What no one was prepared for, and indeed what the publisher kept secret, was the bizarre way in which Morris tackled his assignment. It is not just that he has used a whole cupboard full of literary techniques, from more or less straight narrative to fantasy, scrapbook, screenplay and verse, so as to produce a sort of mixed- media tribute. The result is political biography as magic realism.
Morris is no stranger to pretension. He drags in French and Latin words, then misspells them. But the most bizarre self-indulgence is that he has invented a doppelganger version of himself, to recount episodes from Reagan's early life as if he were an eyewitness. This involves imagining a cod biographer, 20 or so years older, who purports to remember things that he has in fact learned about in the usual, boring way, by reading books and archives and interviewing people who were there.
To manoeuvre this proto-Morris into position to have been a fly on the wall of Reagan's early life, he has to be manipulated through some implausible pseudo-biography of his own. Morris compounds this trick by inventing a wholly bogus persona for this imaginary Morris's son as a Berkeley sixties radical. As it happens, I was in Berkeley in the 1960s, and Morris's account is pure cliche.
The result of this box of more or less dishonest tricks is like the thirteenth stroke of a clock. It casts doubt on all that preceded, and on all that follows. The best that can be said of Morris's silly games is that with luck they may finally bring an end to the fashionable toleration of mixing truth and fiction in biography - which is a polite way of saying mixing truth and lying.
In the case of Reagan, I should declare an interest. In 1988-9, Phillip Whitehead and I made three films about Reagan's life for Channel 4, which were sold to the Boston public TV station WGBH. It is, I admit, galling to run into interviews I did myself, quoted by Morris with the sole attribution "WGBH Archive".
That is trivial. Having interviewed more than 100 people who knew Reagan well, and having spent far less time than Morris, but still some time, with Reagan himself, I think that Morris has done his research with impressive diligence. What makes it worse is that he writes well, sometimes very well. His ability to evoke this enigmatic and misunderstood man, to bring him to life, is remarkable. Were it not for the box of tricks, in fact, this would be a fine biography, As it is, it is rendered all but unreadable by the biographer's conceited and crazy assumption that he is as interesting as his subject.
Ronald Reagan deserves better. For his is an extraordinary story. He emerged from a series of small Illinois burgs, …
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Publication information: Article title: Book Review: White House, White Lies ; A Box of Silly Tricks Makes This Biography as Credible as a Clock That Strikes 13. by Godfrey Hodgson; Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris HarperCollins, Pounds 24.99, 874pp. Contributors: Hodgson, Godfrey - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: October 3, 1999. Page number: 10. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.