The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
Where's the Rest of Him? Edmund Morris's Portrait of Ronald Reagan
Peter Hunnaford & Robert D. Schulzinger, Presidential Studies Quarterly, 30/2, June 2000
[Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. By Edmund Morris. New York: Random House, 1999. 874 pp.]
Because of the considerable attention the Morris book has generated and the mixed reactions it has received, Presidential Studies Quarterly asked two reviewers-a former Reagan aide and a historian-to provide their perspectives. Peter Hannaford's association with Ronald Reagan dates from 1971. A public relations executive, Hannaford was a senior adviser and speechwriter who worked in the 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns. He has authored several books on the former president, including Recollections of Reagan: A Portrait of Ronald Reagan (New York: William Morrow, 1997), The Quotable Ronald Reagan (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1999), and The Reagans (New York: G. P Putnam,1983). Robert D. Schulzinger is a professor of history and director of the International Affairs Program at the University of Colorado. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including A Time for War.- The United States and Vietnam, 1941-1975 (Oxford, 1999), Henry Kissinger: Doctor of Diplomacy (Columbia, 1989), and U.S. Diplomacy Since 1900 (Oxford, 4th ed., 1998).
As president, Ronald Reagan did a number of surprising things. One of them was to appoint-in his second term-an official biographer and give him nearly unlimited access. The biographer, Edmund Morris, became the fly on the wall, sitting in as he wished on all but classified meetings, visiting privately with the president, reading Reagan's daily diary, and interviewing several hundred people who knew him.
The product was to be an authorized biography, but the Reagans did not insist on seeing the manuscript before it was published. Morris was chosen largely on the basis of the one book-much praised-that he had written, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which takes Roosevelt to the verge of his presidency.
Morris began the task in early 1985. Not quite fifteen years later, Dutch was published. It is a curious amalgam: two parts biography and one part postmodern novel.
The period composed of Reagan's years in California politics, his governorship, his 1976 and 1980 presidential races, and his first term in the White House were not experienced by Morris, so he relies on library research and interviews. His research is uneven as is his judgment as to what priority to assign various events. He is on firmer ground when it comes to Reagan's second term as president. In places, this section is richly detailed, based as it is largely on eyewitness observations and the author's contemporaneous notes.
To these biographical sections (and preceding them), Morris has grafted a novel that takes up more than half the book and covers Reagan's life from birth to his 1966 campaign for governor of California. It is peopled by several fictional characters, including Morris himself. He invents a Chicago North Shore genealogy for himself, moves his birth date up twenty-eight years to 1912, to approximate Reagan's, goes to college with him, has a fictional pal named Paul Rae (a WASPish gossip columnist who dies of AIDS) and a fictional son named Gavin who becomes radicalized in Berkeley in the 1960s and goes underground. The central character of this novel is Edmund Morris. We are treated to endless dialogues, television scripts, and imaginary letters, as well as his ruminations about the state of his imaginary world.
The reader does not know where fact leaves off and fiction begins, and neither Morris nor his publisher is any help. The only reference to this fictional device is a coy one on the dust jacket: "Morris's biographical mind becomes in effect another character in the narrative, recording long-ago events with the same eyewitness vividness . . . with which the author later describes the great dramas of Reagan's presidency." To make matters worse, his fictional characters are the subject of extensive footnotes and Index references, just like all the real people in Dutch. (The title is a curious one, by the way, for this is a childhood nickname for Reagan that, by the time of his governorship and presidency, was used by only a few old-timers.)
Morris's novelistic approach allows him to inject large doses of rumor, gossip, conjecture, speculation, and innuendo from Reagan's Hollywood days without the biographer's usual necessity of providing solid evidence. For example, he asserts that in the late 1930s, Reagan flirted with the idea of joining the Communist Party. His one source, without corresponding confirmation, is an elderly Left-wing foe of Reagan's.
Apparently, Morris turned to this device as the result of a writer's block. In 1990, he journeyed to the University of Virginia to tell a group of historians that Ronald Reagan was "the most mysterious man I have ever confronted. It is impossible to understand him." When this was published in the historians' newsletter, many of us who had worked closely with Reagan were dumb- founded, for Reagan seemed to us entirely straightforward and committed (as Jack Kemp put it) "to a few simple, yet powerful ideas about which it is impossible to be neutral." We understood that beneath his genial exterior, there was a steely determination to have these "few simple, yet powerful ideas" succeed as policy initiatives.
It seems to have been beyond Morris's ken that a public figure would single- mindedly pursue a few ideas he had decided were necessary to the nation's success and that these ideas would emanate from the uncomplicated middle-American values with which Reagan had grown up.
Had Morris understood this, he might have avoided the writer's block that led to his fictional treatment of much of the book. He was looking for a mystery where there wasn't one. Wading through his interruptive dialogues and digressions into the fictional Morris family's life, one gets the impression that Morris had become intent on inventing a new genre for the delectation of some literary circle to which he aspired.
Morris's amateur psychological excursions are taken at the expense of systematic analysis of Reagan's public life. There are significant lapses in his narrative. This may be attributable more to the author's background than to his motives. Morris was born in Kenya of British parents. He came to the United States as an adult and shows very little understanding of, or interest in, American politics. Yet, he is writing about a man for whom politics was an art form. Morris also lacks even a basic knowledge of economics, yet much of Reagan's political agenda-in both Sacramento and Washington-was driven by economics.
Much of the space he allots to the Sacramento years are devoted to the unrest at the University of California's Berkeley campus. Morris does give a good account of Reagan's welfare reforms-a major success at the time-but skips over the 1970 reelection; Reagan's reluctant acquiescence to income tax increases; his subsequent return of surpluses to taxpayers; and his ill-fated 1973 Proposition One, a constitutional amendment to permanently limit the percentage of the people's collective income the state could take in taxes.
In the years between Reagan's governorship and winning the presidency, the political significance of Reagan's strong stand against the Panama Canal treaties eludes Morris. He skips over Reagan's two 1978 overseas trips to meet foreign leaders and how these burnished his foreign policy credentials. He misses the shrewdness with which Reagan attracted policy people, such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who had not before considered helping a conservative Republican.
Although he generally gets the sequence of the 1976 presidential campaign right, he does not capture the drama of Reagan's string of early losses, followed by the dramatic turnaround in the North Carolina primary and the seesaw suspense of primaries and state conventions that led to the Kansas City Republican National Convention. He telescopes the events of the convention, not mentioning that the nomination was lost in a rules vote the night before nominations were entered. Had a few votes been changed on the rules fight, Reagan would have become the nominee.
Morris gives the 1980 campaign little more than a page and about the same for Reagan's reelection in 1984. The firing of the air traffic controllers (and the fact it could have been predicted, based on frequent earlier statements by Reagan) is glossed over. Furthermore, Morris misses the logic of Reagan's supply-side, across-the-board tax cut legislation of 1981 and the trigger it provided for the economic expansion that, with one brief interruption in 1990, has continued to this day.
While Morris understands the impact on Soviet society of Reagan's Evil Empire speech in 1983, he does not connect the dots, so to speak, that marked Reagan's deliberate strategy for forcing the Kremlin to make a choice between potential economic chaos and arms reduction talks. Morris did not attend the Reykjavik summit in 1986, relying on accounts of others. Thus, while his reportage is satisfactory, he misses the point that when Gorbachev played his last card (i.e., calling for Reagan to shelve the Strategic Defense Initiative) and Reagan refused, it was the climactic event of the cold war.
After waiting nearly fifteen years for what was expected to be a definitive biography of Ronald Reagan, readers are entitled to expect exemplary fact checking and copy editing, yet Dutch has numerous errors. For example, on page XVII of the Prologue, Morris says that in 1990, Reagan "had been seized by a senescent desire to visit, for the first time since 1911" his birthplace in Tampico, Illinois. In fact, on Monday, January 23, 1976, while campaigning in the Illinois primary, Reagan led a busload of national reporters up the narrow staircase of the building on Main Street, Tampico, to his birthplace.
Morris writes that on June 8, 1982, Reagan went to Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin and had "his first view of Communism." Not so. It would have been relatively easy for Morris to check Reagan's schedules to find that he drove through Checkpoint Charlie to Alexanderplatz in East Berlin in early December 1978, an experience that had an indelible effect on Reagan.
There are many other errors of fact (such as "Bernardino" County in California, instead of San Bernardino, and Bob Dole identified in 1971 as a U.S. senator, when he was a representative). All are disappointing, but the larger disappointment is that a book that could have been the repository of important analytic insights, has very few (One is that Reagan's training as an actor led him for the rest of his life to "remember forward, not backward. Yesterday's take is in the can; today is already rolling; tomorrow's lines must be got by heart." This probably explains Reagan's notoriously poor memory for connecting names with faces.)
Virtually all of Reagan's life has been covered, in segments, in several books, including Early Reagan (Edwards 1987), a detailed biography of the early years that Morris felt impelled to treat as a novel. Yet, the definitive Reagan biography ("the written history of a person's life," according to my dictionary) remains to be written.
-Peter Hannaford  
Nothing you have heard about this book quite prepares you for the experience of reading it. The story of how Edmund Morris came to write Dutch is well-known. President Reagan, impressed by Morris's The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, decided he wanted Morris to write his authorized biography. For four years, from 1985 through 1988, Morris had unusual access to the president, sitting in on White House meetings, accompanying Reagan on foreign trips, and interviewing him regularly. The Morris biography became the talk of publishing circles. Random House provided a huge advance, often cited as $3 million. After Reagan left office in 1989, anticipation was keen about what Morris would say The reading public waited, and waited, and waited. By 1992, reports circulated that Morris was having trouble finishing. Many accounts of the Reagan years were published by insiders. Historians wrote some quick books about the Reagan presidency. In 1991, journalist Lou Cannon, who had been writing about Reagan's political career since 1969, published President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, a nearly encyclopedic account of the Reagan presidency.
Morris, plodding away at the newly opened Reagan Library, interviewing hundreds of associates of the former president, found his subject's inner nature ever more elusive. Yet, what more could he say about the actual events of his presidency? Morris believed that character was destiny, but Reagan remained a mystery to him. Then came a blinding flash of insight for Morris. He would put himself, or an imagined rendering of himself, in the story from the very beginning. He invented a character, named Edmund Morris, who supposedly had the same sort of access to the teenage Reagan, the Reagan of Eureka College, the Hollywood Reagan, the GE spokesman Reagan, and Governor of California Reagan, as the real Edmund Morris had to President Reagan. What's more, the living Edmund Morris invented a son, Gavin, for the fictional Edmund Morris. Gavin commented on Reagan's California political career.
The experience of reading the comments of these invented characters was one of the most jarring of my life. The reviews hardly indicated what it would be like to read the reflections of the real Edmund Morris through his alter ego. As I went through the book, I had to force myself to read the paragraphs in which the fictional characters observe Reagan. Read them I did, though.
The initial comments of Edmund Morris on Reagan in Illinois tell the familiar story. Reagan, the son of an alcoholic father and a determined mother, learned self reliance early on. He succeeded as a lifeguard, saved a few lives, and won local attention. Reagan went to a local, Christian college at the beginning of the depression. He acted; he expressed some interest in politics; he had a girlfriend. They broke up. There's nothing much exceptional here. Only the fact he went to college at all put him above nearly every other late adolescent at the time. Morris's narrative device in recounting these years, for which there is little documentation, is not as irritating as later intrusions. But it doesn't add much either.
As Morris searched for the key to understanding the inner man, he interviewed several of Reagan's friends from the earliest days. At one point, he tracked down Margaret Cleaver, Reagan's college sweetheart. The real Edmund Morris told President Reagan that he had found her. To Morris's astonishment, the seventy-seven-year-old president of the United States, happily married for thirty years, obviously still passionately in love with his wife Nancy, professed utter indifference to Morris's discovery. Morris considered this a sign of the man's lack of curiosity about the world. There are two other more likely explanations: Reagan simply wasn't as pleased with Morris as Morris was with himself, and he hadn't thought about Margaret Cleaver in decades.
The pace of the narrative quickens with Reagan's Hollywood career, especially during and immediately after World War II. It is at this time Reagan became a political figure. And it is during this period that the narrative device of the fictitious Edmund Morris becomes ever more irritating. The reason is simple. There is more, and more authentic evidence from this period. More real people can comment on Reagan's awakening anticommunism. Every observation from "Edmund Morris" is space taken away from real people reflecting on real events.
Another disturbing element, meanness, emerges in the narrative when Dutch discusses Reagan in Hollywood. Morris ruminates at length on the breakup of Reagan's marriage to Jane Wyman. In the process, he makes gratuitous comments about Reagan's supposed sexual inadequacy. His source for this is Jane Wyman's divorce petition. But that's the kind of thing spouses had to include in the days before no-fault divorce. No one believed it then; no one should now
The book is remarkably unbalanced in its coverage. Of the 676 pages of text, the first three hundred cover Reagan's life before he entered politics. There are approximately one hundred pages about his political activities from 1960 to 1980. The account of his presidency begins on page 410 and runs for another 265 pages.
It is during the California phase of Reagan's political career that the narrative device of the fictitious son, Gavin, becomes most trying. Edmund Morris makes Gavin a graduate student in anthropology at Berkeley. Gavin is at first on the fringe and then deeply involved in radical Berkeley politics from the beginning of the Free Speech movement in 1964 through Reagan's governorship in 1974. What a waste of energy and imagination it was to have this invented character observe Ronald Reagan. There were hundreds of people who lived through the events who could have told a more interesting story. The shelves of archives groan with original material on events at Berkeley and Reagan's battle with University of California President Clark Kerr. Every word devoted to Gavin Morris is one less that can describe a real event and a real person.
At one point Morris bemoans the tedium of going through box after box of documents at the Reagan Library looking for something significant to say about Reagan's governorship. He laments the banality of every slip of paper, and he says this confirmed his view of the elusiveness, even emptiness, of Reagan's character. But there's another, simpler and more obvious observation. The boredom of turning millions of pages of documents to come up with a few worthwhile insights is what historians encounter every time they visit an archive. The best of them are able to weave a compelling narrative from the dry facts and dross. They do it for the most part without imaginary narrators.
By the time Morris gets to Reagan's presidency, it seems as if he has run out of gas. The coverage is spotty at best. The campaigns of 1976 and 1980 are covered in a few pages. The 1984 reelection campaign receives a few paragraphs. There are remarkable gaps too. Supreme Court appointments get short shrift. Sandra Day O'Connor receives less than a page. So does William Rehn- quist. There is no mention of Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and, most surprisingly, Robert Bork. Morris pays virtually no attention to the Democrats' recapture of the U.S. Senate in 1986.
Morris does discuss Reagan's economic policies, the summits with Gorbachev, and the Iran-contra affair. These are the best parts of the book. They are brisk, forceful narratives. Morris puts the reader in the room with Reagan, his advisers, or Gorbachev. But these passages are so very short, maybe a total of fifty pages in the entire book. The discussion of the Geneva summit of 1985 and the Reykjavik summit of 1986 is the best part of the book. And that's what makes reading Dutch such a frustrating experience. When Morris abandons the narrative tricks, the interjection of imaginary screen treatments, the German poetry (!), and just tells the story, he is a powerful writer. But there is too little of that story and too much of Edmund Morris.
Time and time again, Morris says Reagan was just plain boring. To Morris, he obviously was. But just as obviously Reagan is a more interesting figure than Morris. When Morris simply tells the story, it almost becomes clear why Reagan dominated the politics of a decade. Almost, but not entirely. In searching endlessly for Reagan's inward character, Morris spends far less time than he ought to in explaining the central issue of the Reagan years. Why did so many people venerate the man? In the summer of 1985, Time magazine wrote that Reagan had found America's "sweet spot." He connected with a sizable majority of the public. Why? That's the central question of the Reagan presidency, and Morris doesn't answer it.
In one of his ruminations on the role of a presidential biographer Morris contrasts himself favorably to Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Like Morris, Schlesinger had unparalleled access to a president. In Schlesinger's case, it was, of course, John E Kennedy. Morris criticizes Schlesinger, though, for taking a White House job, something Morris never did, because it would compromise his independence and integrity. Maybe it would have.
But Morris chose to ignore a valuable lesson from Schlesinger's A Thousand Days: a president's character emerges from what he did. Schlesinger told his story crisply and directly. Readers came away knowing a lot more about Kennedy than they did about the biographer. Morris's Dutch tells much less than we'd like to know about Reagan and much more than we care to know about Morris.
-Robert D. Schulzinger