Edmund Morris, after 14 years of work, has produced a compelling, richly informative, conceptually courageous book that constitutes a relentless pursuit of truth. Arguably, it is the most insightful book in print about Ronald Reagan and the meaning of his presidency, and it may very well remain so for many years.
What sort of book it is is problematic. Its subtitle calls it a "memoir." The publisher's dust-jacket blurbery calls it a "biography." Its footnotes and bibliography attest to scholarship.
In form and aspiration, it has obvious kinship to Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" and "The Armies of the Night" (which were presented as nonfiction) and Robert Penn Warren's novel, "All the King's Men." "Armies" carries the provoking subtitle: "History as a Novel/a Novel as History."
Immediate critical rage about Morris' book called to mind a quatrain in Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade": "Cannon to right of them,/Cannon to left of them,/Cannon in front of them,/Volley'd and thunder'd."
The first cacophonous volleys roared from George Will, the reigning pundit of America's literate hard right. A killing barrage was laid down by Michiko Kakutani, prime keeper of the sputtering altar flame of what is left of New York's literary far left. Academics lobbed grenades, while traditionalist biographers launched mortar fire.
The offender is "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan" (Random House, 874 pages, $35). It's a big book, with 672 pages of narrative, a bibliography, an index and very extensive endnotes.
What's so troubling?
The concept -- Morris' method of narration. The life and times of Ronald Reagan, from birth till retirement and into the oblivion of Alzheimer's disease, are all recounted by an invented person, a major character.
This narrator is also named Edmund Morris, but this Morris is fictional. At 87, he is a year and a half younger than Reagan. The two are presented as distantly knowing each other since youth.
The real Morris is 59 years old, was born in Kenya and educated in South Africa; his biography of Theodore Roosevelt was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The narrator is a Chicagoan born to privilege, a pilot and a writer, something of a wanderer -- a man with the freedom to flit around in order to witness Reagan -- from before his undergraduate days at Eureka College in Illinois in the 1930s until after the end of his presidency in 1988.
As Reagan's officially designated biographer, Morris had more access to the president and his family, aides and papers than all other historians or chroniclers. (The arrangement gave neither Reagan nor any other source or subject any right of review.)
Despite all that impressive access, Morris found Reagan maddeningly elusive. In response to that mysteriousness, he created the other Edmund Morris. That is the device everybody is chattering about -- and Morris did it for the same essential reasons as did Capote, Mailer and others who have broken traditional literary boundaries for the sake of what they have believed to be a greater truth.
As far as Reagan and history go, that narrator is presented entirely as an observer -- except for one dramatic, effective ornament at the book's end. He does not alter the course of anything that happens in Reagan's life -- political or personal. He is a mirror, a lens, a prism, a device though which Morris chooses to examine Reagan in full context.
A main effect is to make the book more confiding, more conversational -- certainly, more swiftly moving and enthralling. Occasionally, that narrator became, to me, a clutter; I didn't much care about his bits of family history and goings on. But never did that voice, for me anyway, intrude on the events or attitudes of Reagan's or history's doings.
I tried rewriting in my mind, again and again, passages where that narrator's voice is particularly present -- where recognizing that he is a fiction is necessary to comprehend what is being read. In each case, my conclusion was that -- yes, of course -- the same material could have been written in an orthodox narrative manner, and if it were, however brilliantly executed, it would be far less interesting and illuminating.
Morris holds short of calling Reagan a great president, yet finds his power and his courage and their consequences of great historic importance. With Reagan leading the way, America rekindled its belief in itself, began a profound rethinking of the role of government, revived a work ethic, launched moral war against the Soviet Union -- and ultimately bankrupted "the Evil Empire" into dissolution.
One-tenth of the way into the book, Morris presents Reagan -- whose first glories were as a lifeguard -- as a swimmer:
"Watching him -- indeed, trying to imitate him -- helped me understand at least partly the massive privacy of his personality. The swimmer enjoys a loneliness greater, yet oddly more comforting, than that of the long-distance runner. One tunnels along in a shroud of silvery bubbles, insulated from any sight or sound other than vague perspectives of water, and the muted thunder of one's own arm strokes and breathing. Others may swim alongside for a while, but their individuality tends to refract away, through the bubbles and blur. Often I have marveled at Reagan's cool, unhurried progress through crises of politics and personnel, and thought to myself, He sees the world as a swimmer sees it."
And nearing the book's end, he writes: "Dutch remained a mystery to me, and worse still -- dare I entertain such heresy, in the hushed and reverent precincts of his office? -- an apparent airhead. 'What you see is what you get,' several ... intimates had warned me, when I asked about his hidden depths. Nevertheless, I could not believe how little one indeed 'got,' and how shallow those depths appeared to be."
Reagan was not simple. Morris's book is not simplistic. Yet finally, as Morris and his narrator-agent have merged, he finds himself deeply fond of, moved by, the man and profoundly respectful of his influence -- for the good -- upon history.
Will this stand as the defining Reagan biography? For some tastes, yes. But -- in my opinion -- not forever. For all its length and excellent compression of detail, there will be others, with more formal material, presented in a more orthodox manner. And in the fullness of time one may emerge that even more completely captures the man as well as his times. But were that to happen, it is impossible to imagine that the debt to "Dutch" will be anything short of major.