So long as the publishing industry insists upon hurling money in vast amounts toward the general vicinity of Washington, how nice it would be if some of the cash should end up in the pockets of real writers rather than mere political figures seeking to cash in on their positions. Well, Edmund Morris is a real writer and Edmund Morris, it seems, is about to get rich. Justice is about to be served, and -- as a fellow Morris knows rather well might have put it -- bully for that.
As was reported last week by The Washington Post, Morris has been chosen to write the biography of Ronald Reagan: Chosen by Reagan himself, apparently with great enthusiasm, and given what seems to be free run through the Reagan White House. Not surprisingly, the prospect of an authorized Reagan biography by the author of the admirable "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" has set the book industry in a tizzy, and dollar signs are spinning in the eyeballs of its ranking executives like lemons in slot machines. When all the spinning is over Morris is expected to haul in more than the $2 million that Harper & Row, in its wisdom, is paying David Stockman for his memoirs.
When you get right down to it an advance of more than $2 million for a book that now exists as nothing except a two-page letter from an agent is more than slightly loony, but Morris is herewith advised to take the lunacy and run. He is an exceptionally gifted writer and an honorable, scrupulous biographer; one of his many estimable qualities is that he understands that a life is a story, and tells it accordingly. There is every reason to believe that his life of Reagan -- a good story if ever there was one -- will be fair, judicious and authoritative, not to mention enormously entertaining.
That Morris is to be permitted to conduct his researches in the White House during the remaining three years of Reagan's tenure gives him a form of access that no previous presidential biographer has enjoyed. According to The Post, Reagan "has granted Morris unlimited interviews and rare access to White House meetings," a degree of freedom that can only be described as extraordinary. This may well result in a far more intimate portrait of a president at work than those painted of John F. Kennedy by Theodore Sorensen and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., since Morris is not a presidential aide and presumably will not be affected by a desire to show his subject in the best possible light.
This is good news for Morris, needless to say, and probably for his future readers as well. But it also contains potential difficulties, one of which Morris himself may be aware but which may not have occurred to Reagan or his aides. These people are accustomed to having reporters around, and to having their utterances and actions appearing routinely in the news, but having a biographer on hand -- a writer of history, that is to say -- is quite another matter altogether. Morris will have direct access, to some degree at least, to private meetings and conversations to which the press is justifiably and properly barred. Here is the question: Will the presence of Morris in these meetings affect the outcome of the business transacted in them?
It is not a frivolous or casual question, and it is one that has taken on new and heightened meaning in the age of television. We have slowly come to understand that the presence of a television camera can affect the behavior of those whom it is filming -- can make them aware of being on stage, can make them all the more determined to be judged favorably, can alter their normal patterns of behavior. Perhaps it will be recalled that several years ago when the Loud family became the subject of a series, "An American Family," on public television, there was intense controversy over whether family life could be accurately depicted through the disruptive presence of the television camera; similar objections have been raised about the otherwise exemplary documentaries by Frederick Wiseman, such as his recent (and thoroughly fascinating) portrayal of life inside the main Neiman-Marcus department store in Dallas.
A camera and sound-recording equipment certainly are more intrusive than a mere writer, but the presence of any outsider whose business is documentation is bound to affect the way people behave. To take a current example, a number of readers of Tracy Kidder's book "House" have wondered whether having a writer on hand, watching and recording, had any influence on the people involved in the house-building he describes. These questions have nothing to do with Kidder's own integrity or motives, which presumably are unimpeachable, but with the natural human tendency to behave differently when under surveillance -- especially the surveillance of a writer almost certain to make a bestselling book out of one's experiences, as indeed Kidder did. A number of the scenes Kidder describes are intimate and, for some or all of those involved, painful: Was the way these scenes played out colored in any way by having a writer in the room, and for that matter did the writer play a role in the drama that goes unreported in the book?
The answer to both questions may well be no, but that does not diminish the legitimacy of the questions. It goes without saying that they become considerably more urgent when the house being described is at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and when the business under discussion is that of the United States. Though Morris doubtless will not be allowed to sit in on meetings where matters of national security are on the table, it is evident that his "rare access" will find him on hand when issues more pressing than the color of White House draperies are at stake. Will advisers raising questions for presidential consideration be mindful of the presence, off in a corner perhaps, of the designated presidential biographer? For that matter, will the president himself have Morris -- the judgment of history -- in mind?
The judgment of history is of course a familiar subject in any White House, especially as a president's term begins to wind down; it seems that in honoring Morris with this assignment Reagan not merely wants to be judged favorably, but to contribute to the writing of as full and accurate a biography as possible -- for which he is most certainly to be commended. But that nagging matter of human nature cannot be nudged lightly aside. People at every level in the White House will do well to examine their own motives and behavior with care when Morris is on hand, and Morris himself will do equally well to watch the human comedies and dramas unfolding before him with skepticism. But it seems safe to guess that, since he brings just about every other attribute to the task, he is amply supplied with skepticism as well.