DUTCH: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan

By Edmund Morris

Random House

864 pp. $35

Review by Joseph J. Ellis

Here we have the long-awaited biography of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris, whom Reagan chose as his biographer in 1985. Authorized presidential biographies can be deadly, mausoleum-like books, but Morris's previous biography, a critically acclaimed study of the young Theodore Roosevelt, demonstrated true stylistic flair as well as a knack for probing the character of his subject to uncommonly deep levels of insight. There has been a discernible buzz in publishing circles about the delay of Morris's book, some rumors suggesting that he was having trouble penetrating the alabaster depths of Reagan's mind. Perhaps even Morris, so the rumors went, could not find the words to explain a man who prepared for his summit conference with Mikhail Gorbachev by watching "The Sound of Music."

Now, the arrival of Dutch is provoking more buzz. His book is not just a riveting read. It takes as its model what is generally regarded as the greatest biography in the English language, James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. Morris becomes part of the story, Reagan's Boswell, watching the blue-eyed boy from Tampico, Ill., assume a character that reflects the vast Midwestern skies of a still innocent America. With Morris at Reagan's side, we follow Dutch as the vigilant lifeguard who notches a log with each rescue; as the undersized tackle who, by sheer dedication, makes the starting team for the Dixon Red Devils; as the fast-talking sports announcer in Iowa who parlays his smooth voice and beefcake looks into an improbably successful Hollywood career. All this is conveyed in a beguilingly cinematic style that places the reader alongside Dutch as he prepares to become Ronald Reagan, the political leader destined to transform the entire dialogue about government's proper place in our national life. We watch him applying the Brylcreme to his ever-thick hair, develop that instinctive duck of the head that will eventually endear him to millions, practice the sure-fire anecdotes about sure-fire American values and then file them away in the index cards of his mind.

As I turned the pages of Dutch -- and it is an absolute page-turner -- I marveled at the unique combination of Morris's writerly skills and the extraordinary good fortune he enjoyed in meeting young Dutch Reagan; attending Eureka College with him; knowing him as a colleague in wartime Hollywood; having a son, Gavin Morris, who attended Berkeley during Reagan's years as governor of California and wrote eloquent letters to his father full of the utopian fantasies of the student left, thereby serving as the perfect instrument for dissecting the revolutionary goals of the turbulent 1960s. It was almost too good to be true.

Well, since history is almost always too good to be true, I should have known better. Morris was not really there to accompany Dutch on his All-American stroll toward immortality. He was not even born when he claimed to have been saved from drowning by the ever-ready lifeguard in 1928. Morris was born in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1940. He could not possibly have worked alongside Reagan in Hollywood during the war or had a college-age son in the 1960s. His Boswellian posture is a conceit.

Dutch reads like a novel because, well, that's what it really is. Or, perhaps more accurately, it is a docudrama, a prose version of Oliver Stone's "JFK," which splices together historically accurate evidence from oral interviews and legitimate archival sources with fabricated letters and fictional creations. Perhaps the book's dust jacket or an accompanying press release will apprise readers that this authorized biography is primarily a work of Morris's imagination. But the 672 pages of text and the 168 pages of notes piled up before me say nothing of the sort. Quite the contrary, the text artfully disguises Morris's blending of fact and fiction, real and fabricated dialogue. And the endnotes cite made-up letters from Gavin Morris alongside scholarly accounts of Berkeley's aspiring revolutionaries. In the blurred post-modern genre within which Morris is working, the gap between history and fiction has been everlastingly closed. The effect might even be called Reaganesque, a biographical endorsement of Reagan's habitual tendency to confuse what befell the character he played in Hollywood films with what really happened.

Suppose we suspend disbelief for a moment, place our questions about Morris's problematic methods off to the side, and try to assess his interpretation of Reagan's thought and character. There is, to be sure, an important difference between verisimilitude and the truth. And there is, even more surely, a moral reckoning to be made when the author collects a $3-million advance for an authorized biography of one of the most significant presidents of the century and then permits his imagination to break free of the tether that ties history and biography to orthodox notions of evidence. That said, where does Dutch succeed, on its own terms, and where does it disappoint?

It seems to me that Morris does a splendid job of describing the most crucial and controversial chapter in Reagan's life. These were the post-war years, when he underwent a political conversion from a New Deal Democrat of decidedly leftist leanings to a right-wing conservative. Morris sees the conversion as a process involving both personal and political factors. On the personal side, there was the experience of a near-fatal illness, the death of a child by Jane Wyman, Wyman's decision to divorce him, his fading acting career. On the political side, there was the clash with communist elements within the Screen Actors Guild, the exposure to England's socialist government, the budding perception that Stalin's Russia represented the same totalitarian menace as Hitler's Germany. These overlapping emotional and ideological traumas shook Reagan to the core and forced him back to first principles, which for him became the rock-ribbed belief in self-reliance and the conviction that government is "them" rather than "us." Morris lets this story play out gradually, poignantly, and without a trace of political prejudice for or against the conservative conclusions Reagan reached.

Morris's treatment of Reagan's presidency, on the other hand, is a disappointment. There is no systematic appraisal of the most controversial Reagan decisions or policies: the wisdom of his tax cuts and increased defense spending, which produced those unprecedented deficits; his faith in the Strategic Defense Initiative; his complicity in the arms-for-hostages deal labeled Iran-Contra. Because Morris was actually present, in fact and not just fiction, within the White House by 1985, and because his status as official biographer gave him access to all the major players, he was uniquely situated to provide a comprehensive account of these developments. But his approach throughout is impressionistic and kaleidoscopic, a continuation of the you-are-there posture: Reagan's emotional speeches before the Jewish graves at Bergen-Belsen, the dramatic encounters with Gorbachev at Geneva and Reykjavik. The camera focuses on telling details, such as Reagan's diligence at replacing dead goldfish in the Aga Khan's suite in Geneva, which is meant to contrast with his relative lack of interest in the technical intricacies of throw-weight ratios in the disarmament treaty he was negotiating with the Soviets at the time. One comes away from these chapters with a more humanistic understanding of Dutch but without a fuller historical understanding of Ronald Reagan's political legacy.

As a result, although the time seems ripe for a detached reappraisal of Reagan's place in the presidential pantheon; although we now know that the American economy did grow itself out of the huge deficits, just as he said it would; although we now know that the Soviet Union did expire, its archives exposing a bestial regime wholly worthy of Reagan's colorful condemnation as an "Evil Empire," Morris's up-close-and-personal focus avoids any panoramic perspectives or historical verdicts.

Indeed, the debate that this predestined bestseller is certain to provoke will not be about Reagan's political legacy but about Morris's biographical methods. Does the stylistic brilliance of Dutch justify Morris's scholarly shenanigans? Is this some new literary genre with its own form of intellectual integrity or merely an artful attempt to make duplicity respectable? Ronald and Nancy Reagan granted Morris complete independence in writing this book, never requesting any glance at his pages. Has Morris used or abused that independence? Should Dutch even be placed in bookstores without a clear statement within the text itself that identifies the fictional and nonfictional sections and sources? Does it bring Reagan to life or trivialize his historical significance?These questions will get thrashed out on the talk shows, in the news magazines, within publishing houses, perhaps in courtrooms over the ensuing months. The attendant publicity will assure that legions of readers will buy Dutch, Random House will recover its huge investment, and Morris himself will become rich and famous. Dutch will make history by defying the very standards that make history worth knowing.

Joseph J. Ellis teaches American history at Mount Holyoke College. He won the National Book Award for his biography of Thomas Jefferson.