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A Dishonorable Work

By George F. Will

Wednesday, September 29, 1999; Page A29

The weirdness begins immediately. Edmund Morris's "Dutch," his "memoir" of Ronald Reagan, bears this dedication:

In Memoriam

Christine Reagan

June 26, 1947

That child died shortly after being born, prematurely, to Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman. Nothing in Morris's narrative suggests that this event was formative to Reagan. So the eerily inscrutable dedication foreshadows the perversity of the book. Morris has enveloped himself in melodrama that seems designed to divert attention from the book's subject to the author -- indeed, to make, in the postmodern manner, the author into the subject.

Before the onset of Alzheimer's, Reagan -- granted, he was more guileful, long-headed and tough than he wanted to be recognized -- was an open book who read himself to the country. But, remarkably, Morris found him both shallow and unfathomable. So unfathomable that Morris was plunged into a flamboyantly self-dramatizing crisis of creativity.

Then he experienced an epiphany: The craft of biography, which has sufficed to decipher such labyrinthine 20th-century personalities as Proust and Joyce, must be reinvented.

Enter the "semifictional" (Morris's mincing term) Morris, the altogether fictional fellow who repeatedly encounters Reagan in the narrative. For the flavor of this, and the intellectual vertigo readers will suffer, consider pages 537-538, where Reagan goes to Bethesda Naval Hospital for the colonoscopy conducted by a team that included Dr. John Hutton. It found malignancy. The book says:

"He [Hutton] leaned toward me in his green surgical tunic, grimacing. 'Just when we thought we were through, this enormous mass loomed up in the scope.' "

Today Hutton says: "I don't know to whom the 'me' refers." It is the make-believe Morris, who continues quoting Hutton on how the scope revealed in Reagan's colon some tumors that looked like mini-mountains, with an ominous whiteness signifying carcinoma:

" 'Funny, all I could think of was my first flight to the West Coast, crossing the flat part of Colorado and . . . '

"His hands spread and curved like a pilot's. 'Suddenly I saw the dark face of the Rockies, surging up to the snow line. This white, necrotic ridge.' "


Forget the grimacing and the spread and curving hands. The "Rockies" description is Morris's adaptation, through the make-believe Morris, of notes Hutton made later. The conversation in the green tunic (Hutton never wore one when he talked to Morris) is make-believe.

And so it goes.

In the prologue's third paragraph, Morris debuts as heroic protagonist:

"I have never forgotten the blue anger that came into [Reagan's] eyes . . . when I boasted that I had tracked down his first fiancee. 'Oh, you found out about her, huh.' " And on "60 Minutes" last Sunday Morris said Reagan "did not want to know that I had tracked her down."

"Blue anger"? "Tracked down"? Reagan wrote matter-of-factly about Margaret Cleaver in his 1965 autobiography. Lou Cannon, in three Reagan biographies, and others have written about her. As for Morris the supersleuth, Margaret Cleaver Gordon lived in Richmond, not Mongolia.

On page 209 Morris reports someone saying Reagan enjoyed telling off-color stories in front of women. On page 412 Morris writes of Reagan's "complexion that blushes the moment he sips alcohol, or fears a woman has overheard one of his ribald jokes."

On page 624 Morris writes dismissively of Reagan's 1987 "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech in Berlin: "The occasion too staged, the crowd too small and well-primed. . . . What a rhetorical opportunity missed." But in a chapter note on page 835 Morris says he "underestimated the impact" of the speech, and that the "tear down" passage "embedded itself in the Communist consciousness as much as 'Evil Empire.' " Why put the misjudgment in the text, the correction in a note few will read?

Perhaps all the peculiarities are because Morris thinks of himself not as a mere historian but as an artist. In 1991 he wrote:

"Honest distortion is not a paradox. Art, the most penetrating kind of communication, penetrates because it is an exquisite kind of distortion, an attempt to clarify things dimly perceived by subtly refracting them. . . . What, ultimately, is Truth -- the shock of recognition we crave in reading about our fellow human beings? . . . The ultimate test of any piece of nonfiction writing must be its success in saying something -- or quoting something -- that a majority of readers 'can't help but believe.' "

No. Distortion in fiction is not necessarily distortion, and conscious distortion in history is necessarily dishonest. Morris's majoritarian epistemology is a license to fabricate, and an invitation to the sort of self-glorification Morris practices.

Down from the academy has trickled the poison of postmodernism, defined by a non sequitur: Knowledge is conditioned in complex ways by the contexts in which facts are encountered. Therefore facts hardly matter, only interpretations are real. Regarding literature, postmodernism elevates the critic over the author, whose meaning the critic does not merely discover, he creates it. Regarding history, postmodernism invests the historian with the heroism of an artist, creating reality rather than fulfilling the mundane role of describer and interpreter of reality. Facts are dissolved by the radical indeterminacy of our relationship to reality. Thus a biographer can sever the tether that ties him -- how tiresome -- to his subject, and can strut to center stage.

Historical fiction -- Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men," with Willie Stark as Huey Long; Max Byrd's "Jefferson" and "Jackson" -- can instruct. Fiction larded into a work purporting to be history is just fakery.

"Dutch" (even the title, a nickname that fell into disuse long ago, is ostentatiously peculiar) is dishonorable. Morris enjoyed, to a degree unprecedented in the annals of presidential biographies, the cooperation -- access to the subject and his papers -- implicit in an agreement to write an authorized biography, meaning not an uncritical study but one given every opportunity for an accurate rendering of reality. What he produced is an act of bad faith.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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