Near the end of 1993, writer Christopher Buckley was waiting to have lunch with Edmund Morris at the trendy bistro Lavandou. Morris was knee-deep in the writing of the controversial "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," which will be published next week. When Morris arrived at the Cleveland Park restaurant, Buckley told him that he had just been reading about a meteorite that had struck the Yucatan eons ago. The impact, Buckley said, was equal to 300 million hydrogen bombs, each about 70 times as powerful as the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Morris paused, then said, "Now I have something to compare Maureen Reagan to."
As the publication of the book nears, Washington is awash with such stories of Morris's Herculean task and of the book's extreme weirdnesses, such as Morris introducing himself as a fictional character into the life study of the 40th president.
There's a slight chance that all the pre-publication craziness surrounding "Dutch" is merely the storm before the calm. Most likely, however, we ain't seen--or heard--nothin' yet. Morris is scheduled to be on "60 Minutes" tomorrow night and on the "Today" show Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
Almost no one has seen the book. Only a few copies have been distributed, crumblike, to reviewers who were sworn to secrecy by publisher Random House. No reviews are to appear until after Thursday, the official publication date.
Morris, 59, is mum. He said Random House wouldn't let him talk until next week. But all over town others are talking and wondering and asking questions.
Many of his friends are rallying to Morris's defense, swatting down theories that the book drove Morris, as one columnist put it, "barking mad."
Pharmaceutical entrepreneur William Haseltine sees Morris socially every couple of months. He said that writing the book hasn't seemed to affect Morris's personality at all. "He's always been very funny," Haseltine said. "He's got a great sense of humor.
"Topic A this week," said Buckley, a novelist and editor of Forbes FYI: "Has Edmund lost his marbles? Topic A next week will be: What an incredible book."
Though he has not read the finished product, Buckley did see three chapters somewhere along the way. Morris showed them to him a while back. "He had to present this new approach to Random House," Buckley recalled, "and I guess he was canvassing some friends for some judgment on whether it works. I said, 'Yes, it works.' "
The problem, Morris explained to Buckley, was that he couldn't "figure out" Reagan. He needed "to invent an enabling device, a way in," Buckley said. "I was charmed by the conceit of it. And I was somewhat humbled by Edmund Morris asking me. I said, 'Go for it.' "
Buckley said he'd never told anyone this before. "It's probably the only secret I ever kept."
Morris and his wife, Sylvia--also a biographer, with volumes on Clare Boothe Luce and Edith Kermit Roosevelt--live on Capitol Hill. He drives a Jaguar. He swims for exercise. He is known as a good cook. The Morrises, friends said, tend to hang out in politically conservative circles. Buckley met the Morrises at the home of neo-con diva Arianna Huffington (then Stassinopoulos) in the early 1980s. "I was immediately smitten by the twinklingness of his erudition," Buckley recalls. "We became friends. I think he's the greatest historian writing. I'm going to put my money on Edmund. I think that judgment's going to hold."
His advice to the public: "Calm down and read the book."
As many Washington historians learned of the book's imminent publication and the author's poetic license, they engaged, as usual, in reflection. Kenneth S. Lynn, who has penned biographies of Ernest Hemingway and Charlie Chaplin and is a friend of Morris's, said: "He never divulged to me that he was planning this kind of introduction of himself. If he had, I would have strongly recommended against it."
Several historians who know Morris agreed to be interviewed, but asked that their names not be used. "I think it was a mistake in judgment to choose Edmund" as Reagan's authorized biographer, said one. This respected biographer pointed out that Morris, when anointed by the Reagan White House in 1984, had written only one book--"The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," which chronicles the life of Roosevelt before he was elected president. "Edmund has no track record as a presidential historian."
Besides, the biographer continued, "Edmund is not an American by birth [he was born in Kenya]. To write about a president and to capture a Middle Western small town--the high school football, the cheerleaders--may be beyond his imaginative powers. It would be harder than it was for Lord Charnwood to write about Abraham Lincoln."
Publisher Peter Osnos, who was an executive at Random House when Morris's contract was signed, said: "Edmund's a writer and not an academic historian. What he's done here is what a writer would do."
Haseltine disagreed. "I find Morris to be very scholarly," said Haseltine, who taught at Harvard for 17 years. "To say that he's more of a writer than a scholar is a misconception and a narrow view of what a scholar is. He's extremely meticulous with the veracity of his facts.
"I think the book should rise or fall based on the solidity of the facts. I'm very confident, knowing him," Haseltine said. "It will be a source for those in the future who wish to write biographies in whatever style."
"He had tremendous access," said one Washington historian. "The promise of millions of dollars. . . . They hook him up with a legendary editor [Robert Loomis] at Random House. Morris says yes and he's stuck. At that point, his own culpability begins. He goes around complaining. The tenor of his remarks was: It's Reagan's fault that I don't understand him."
At Random House, everything continued to be hush-hush at the end of the week. "The embargo is still in place," said spokesman Tom Perry. There was some concern that too much information was leaking out, that people were going to be too drenched in "Dutch." But Thursday Perry said, "We are moving ahead. Everything is locked in place."
Newsweek, which is owned by The Washington Post Co., is planning to run an excerpt of about 10,000 words, said one source. Unlike the book, the magazine is bending over backward to explain to readers that Morris has employed a creative writing method. The excerpt will be packaged with a story about the story and an interview with Morris, according to one source. Newsweek Managing Editor Jon Meacham said yesterday: "We believed it was a newsworthy book. It was going to be a big story. It looks like we were right."