Morris's creative and disconcerting literary device will be much debated among scholars and historians for years to come. But the immediate question is whether this memoir of an author's struggle to understand the 40th president will be seen as adding to or subtracting from our understanding of a leader Morris sees as among the most enigmatic in American history.
Asked by American Enterprise magazine – for an interview that will appear in its November-December issue – what was the biggest revelation in "Dutch," Morris replied, "That Ronald Reagan was a massively substantial person of considerably more deliberation and philosophical seriousness than he's ever been given credit for."
At points in the book, however, Morris is more dismissive of Reagan's intellect. He writes that he could not believe how shallow Reagan's "hidden depths" appeared to be. He refers to Reagan's frequent use of cue cards, to his deference to aides on matters of substance, and to the often rambling answers the president gave to interviewers.
After following him around for seven months, making friends with Reagan insiders such as Michael Deaver, Donald Regan, George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, Morris writes that he was stumped. "Dutch remained a mystery to me, and worse still – dare I entertain such a heresy, in the hushed and reverent precincts of his office? – an airhead."
The book, scheduled to be released Sept. 30, has been held extremely closely by the publisher, Random House. Only a limited number of copies were distributed to be reviewed, with the understanding that they not be further disseminated. The Washington Post independently was able to see a copy of "Dutch."
Morris could not be reached yesterday for comment on his book.
Morris covers the major scandal during the Reagan years – the Iran-contra affair – but reaches no firm conclusion whether Reagan knew of the diversion of funds to pay the Nicaraguan contras. The answer will "forever be swathed in pipe smoke," he writes. He does add, however, that he suspects that Reagan approved the transfer without really understanding what he had done.
Perhaps the book's salient characteristic, however, is Morris's insertion of himself into Reagan's life. Early in the book, for example, he places himself at the 1920 Chicago Aeronautical Exposition – an obvious fiction, since Morris was born in 1940.
Later in the book, Morris has a scene on Christmas Eve 1988, shortly after George Bush has been elected president. As Morris recounts the tale, Bush leads him upstairs to a spot just outside of a bathroom where he shows the biographer a bizarre gift that he and Barbara Bush had given to the Reagans. It was, Morris writes, "the single most terrifying piece of kitsch I have ever seen. It would not be out of place at Auschwitz. There, standing booted and spurred, are Dutch's feet and lower legs, supporting, like some flattened dwarfish torso, an embroidered seat, with the presidential seal au centre."
In the American Enterprise, Morris explains his literary technique this way: "In fall 1992 I had an epiphany. It was an intense moment of discovery, so sudden and violent I remember getting an electric shock taste in my mouth. I realized that after several years of deep research I was, in an almost occult sense, there when Reagan was younger."
So, he says, he had the idea to personify his researching personality "and extend my own life backward to make myself a contemporary of Ronald Reagan."
He assures readers of the magazine, "I haven't invented any thoughts, speeches or anything. The only invention is that of the narrator."
He tells the magazine that in 1938, Reagan "made steps to join the Communist Party." In the book, he presents a transcript of an interview with the author Howard Fast in which Fast asserts that some of Reagan's friends – he was then a Hollywood actor – had become Communists, and because of this he had expressed a passing interest in the party. Morris then goes on to dismiss the notion as improbable.
By turns, Morris fawns over Reagan and writes sharply about his intellect. At one point he describes the president as "courtly, beautiful, brave and blundering."
Writing about his second meeting with the president on Valentine's Day 1983, he says he was flattered that Reagan had read his earlier biography, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." "Happiness," he writes, "suffused my heart."
Later, though, Morris writes that he was distressed by "the relentless banality, not to say incoherence, of the president's replies in interviews." And he was frustrated by Reagan's "tendency to blank out on events closed to me. I could not figure if he was being tar baby or fox," Morris writes.
Morris explains these apparent lapses as "a program of conservation of mental resources" in the wake of his cancer operation.
Morris delves into Reagan's childhood and acting career and early forays into politics. Not until page 410 of the 672-page story does Reagan become president. In the summer of 1985 – after more than 500 pages of narrative – Morris gains regular access to the president. Around the same time, the president's health begins to decline.
When he lets the story tell itself, as with the assassination attempt, Morris describes events vividly. The president's blood is "bright and frothy." In just a few paragraphs the reader careens through traffic from the Washington Hilton Hotel to George Washington University Hospital.
At other times, making sense of Reagan is a task Morris finds overwhelming. "There were times doing the Reagan book that I thought my head was going to blow open," Morris says in the magazine interview, which was culled from a 4,700-word transcript. It will be available Oct. 6.
Morris has occasional glimpses into Reagan's psyche. When talking about the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative, Morris points out that Reagan's favorite book as a kid was Edgar Rice Burroughs's "A Princess of Mars," which talks of building defenses against lethal death rays.
After the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and the American invasion of Grenada, Morris writes that Reagan being Reagan, "there was no moral difference between the American eagle descending on the cedars of Lebanon, or upon the nutmeg trees of Grenada. In both cases, the protection of Christians from dark forces was involved, as was the perpetuation of American ideals."
Morris does not always hide his feelings. "It is always moving, indeed sometimes tear-jerking, to see a professional performer mutate from stroll-down-the-corridor ordinariness to step-on-the-stage mastery. ... I watched Dutch do what only he could do, and remembered him going through this same transformation so many times."
As the official biographer, Morris had unprecedented access to the president. "Frankly I hadn't given it much thought," Reagan told the Alfalfa Club, "until the other night, Nancy sneezed in her sleep and I heard Edmund say Gesundheit."
Staff writers Howard Kurtz and Joel Garreau contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company