So, Linton Weeks asked Edmund Morris, author of the buzzed-about "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan": Did writing the book drive you crazy?
"No, no, no, nooooo," replied the compact and composed biographer.
There has been speculation that Morris's 14-year quest to discover the real Ronald Reagan defeated him, that he had been overwhelmed by the unique opportunity to sit at the 40th president's right hand and that, frankly, he had gone over the edge. After all, he created fictional characters, including one based on himself, to help tell the tale.
"I always knew it to be a controversial literary technique," he said. "But I was never in despair over his mysteriousness."
Morris said that in 1992 he had "written myself into a corner." Then while visiting the appropriately named Eureka College, Reagan's alma mater, he stumbled on the device of inserting himself into Reagan's story. Morris returned to his home on Capitol Hill and began to construct a "plausible life" for his made-up Edmund Morris. "I had to work it out," he explained. "Which took years." The result was a much-publicized extension of the project and murmurs that Morris was lost in a biographical swamp.
The fictional narrator, he explained, ultimately represents the American people, who "noticed Reagan more and more as the years passed."
Sworn to silence by the publishing company's publicity machine until after today's appearance on the "Today" show, Morris opened up in a conference room at Random House. He not only answered questions about his controversial biography, he came out swinging, taking on the brouhaha with gusto. "It was the perfect technique to capture a person whose entire life was a performance," he said.
The book is being released today. Early reviews have been brutal. Robert Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal, wrote, "The fictional conceit is an abuse of presidential generosity, and the waste of an irreplaceable opportunity."
Evan Thomas and Jon Meacham, the Newsweek editors who selected excerpts of the book for the magazine, noted that many readers will "view this cinematic biography as yet another assault on the ever weakening line between fact and fiction."
In his column in The Washington Post, George Will pointed out several factual discrepancies. He, too, was revolted by the weaving of truth and daring in "Dutch." The book, he concluded, "is dishonorable," an "act of bad faith."
Not so fresh from a TV appearance and an online chat, Morris looked tired and blue--blue double-breasted, London-tailored pinstripe suit, blue shirt, blue tie with white polka dots. He wore silver-rimmed glasses that picked up the shimmer in his beard and thinning hair. He answered the questions slowly and thoughtfully:
Was Reagan, as you wrote, "an apparent airhead"?
Former defense secretary James Schlesinger once put the question to Morris this way: "Is there any there there?" To which Morris replied, "I think there is, but I haven't found it yet."
"In private conversation in his old age," Morris said, "Reagan was sometimes stunningly ignorant, particularly in cultural matters."
One day Morris told the president that after he left office, he and his wife, Nancy, should put on a production of "Our Town," the mystical play by Thornton Wilder. "I saw Reagan as the stage manager/narrator," Morris said, "and Nancy as Mrs. Gibbs." Emboldened by the brilliance of his idea, Morris even suggested Charlton Heston as director.
Reagan heard him out, then asked, "What's that play again?"
"It's the quintessential American play," Morris said. "He'd never heard of it."
But, Morris added, when Reagan was negotiating for the future of the free world, "he needed no prompting whatsoever."
Because of the unconventional nature of the work, will "Dutch" ultimately be considered inconsequential?
"After the necessary shock and outrage--which always greets any kind of original idea," he said, "the authenticity of the portrait I draw will validate the method.
"Nobody can finish the book without being truly aware that this is an enormous personality, rendered with the utmost honesty." He was speaking here of Reagan.
How did his Random House editor, Robert Loomis, react to the idea of made-up characters?
After returning from Eureka College, Morris called Loomis, and they had dinner at the Willard Hotel. Morris gave Loomis a handwritten version of the prologue and told the editor about his method. Loomis said he was "roiled," recalled Morris.
The editor slept on the notion and "by morning," Morris said, "he was my convert and my friend." His support, Morris said, never wavered.
Where did he get the inspiration for his quirky literary device?
In biographies of Coleridge and Shelley by Richard Holmes, he said. And especially from Holmes's "Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer." "Holmes has explored this territory," Morris said.
Is he concerned about the criticism being leveled against "Dutch"?
"Not at all. In my heart," he said, "I feel extremely satisfied. I'll never use the technique again because I don't think I'll have another subject that calls for it."
After a six-week book tour that begins Sunday in San Diego, he will return to the second volume of his Theodore Roosevelt biography, which, he said, "eliminates the authorial voice altogether to an almost pathological extent." And after that, he's looking ahead to other subjects. Franz Liszt perhaps. Or Hector Berlioz or Evelyn Waugh or Benjamin Disraeli.
What about the allegations that the book has many factual errors?
There are mistakes in the book, he acknowledged, "as there are in every book." Morris wrote that William P. Clark returned to private life after leaving Gov. Reagan's administration in California. Actually, as one reviewer points out, Clark was appointed to a judgeship by Reagan. And Morris has caught some of his own errors. For instance, he got the name of the San Diego newspaper wrong.
Who would he like to appreciate his effort?
He is interested not so much in how historians view the book as how writers view it--"Gore Vidal, Richard Holmes, John Updike, people of that caliber."
Did he blow a golden opportunity?
"I certainly did not squander the riches I was given," he said. "I filled the book with all the riches I was given."
CAPTION: "It was the perfect technique," Edmund Morris says.