On the higher floors of major New York publishing companies these days, some folks believe that "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan" by Edmund Morris--with a first printing of more than 300,000 copies--will be autumn's mega-bestseller. But others have started to bet that the controversial tome will hit the remainder table before it sells even a third of that printing. Early critiques have been so devastating that there is a question whether anyone will want to give it as a Christmas gift.
The news has not been relentlessly bleak for Morris, who was given unprecedented access to the 40th president. The book, which was released on Thursday, has gotten a very few good reviews and has generated mucho buzz. In the minus column: Morris's handling of one of this century's most lionized political figures is being savaged from all directions.
Some Reagan stalwarts were among the most disheartened. "I have not read it," said Kenneth Duberstein, Reagan's last chief of staff and now a lobbyist. "I read the excerpts in Newsweek. I saw [Morris] on '60 Minutes' and the 'Today' show. From what I've read and seen, this sounds bizarre. It sounds like he struggled mightily to get a handle on Reagan, who many of us knew so well."
Duberstein added, "It is not something I feel compelled to read."
Others who have no ties to Reagan can be downright vicious. "I will not read it," said University of Virginia political science professor and pundit Larry Sabato after seeing about a half-dozen reviews of the book. "I won't even borrow it from a library. It's time to take a stand against psychodramas, pseudo-history and all the rest. That stand means not enriching the publisher or the author and even shunning both so they won't try this kind of stunt again."
Sabato added: "Where is Rudy Giuliani when we need him? He's railing against dung artwork. This is dung biography."
Some people were reading the book over the weekend. Ron Chernow, author of "Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.," hesitated to speak out about "Dutch" but felt that he should on principle. One of the problems with the book, Chernow said, is that "the very thing that for me breaks the spell is precisely the invention that is intended to cast the spell. Every time I'm lulled into the rhythm of this work, the intrusion of the imaginary characters--whose lives are of trivial importance--keep coming between me and the giant historic epic that is being told."
Chernow said that Morris's literary devices are not revolutionary, but reactionary. "It takes us back to the 18th century," he said, before James Boswell, author of "The Life of Samuel Johnson," "elevated the form from something full of gossip and invention to something grounded in fact."
Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward agreed with Chernow. Woodward, author of several modern Washington histories, has been criticized for not always revealing the sources of his information. Of "Dutch" he said: "The fictional stuff is absurd and totally unnecessary. But the book is not without some deep insight into Reagan. It captures his genial detachment in a way that rings so solid and true."
Woodward added, "I can speak from experience. The first refuge of anyone from Nixon through Reagan through Clinton, the first point to which they escape when somebody writes something they don't like is: It's fiction. Now you have a very well-respected historian coming forward and saying, 'Yep, it is.' Journalism and history have gone back many steps. Now it will be said, 'This is what they all do.' "
Morris, Woodward said, "has done a giant disservice to reporters and historians."
Reviews of the book have mostly been corrosive. In the Wall Street Journal, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote: " 'Dutch' is a shocking book, not a work of sustained scholarship but a mere entertainment, and not an entertaining one. It is at turns bilious and cold, corny and cynical, manic and flat."
In yesterday's Washington Post, historian Joseph J. Ellis ended his review this way: "What Morris has done, in my judgment, is a scandal and a travesty, and its endorsement by a flagship American publisher is a sorrowful sign that editorial integrity has lost another battle to the proverbial bottom line. Although I never found it possible to vote for Ronald Reagan, as a historian it seems utterly clear to me that Dutch deserved better."
In Saturday's New York Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote: "Morris has produced a book that is anything but scholarly or substantial. He has produced a bizarre, irresponsible and monstrously self-absorbed book--a 'Ragtime'-esque 'memoir' featuring a self-annotating narrator out of a Philip Roth novel and childlike hero out of 'Being There.' Even worse, this loony hodgepodge of fact and fiction is being sold not as a novel but as 'the only biography ever authorized by a sitting President.' "
To be sure, the book has received a few valentines. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, also in the New York Times, wrote: "I can think of few conventional political biographies that bring their subjects' pasts so richly alive."
And in USA Today, Deirdre Donahue raised the question whether the reader will understand Reagan any better after reading "Dutch," to which she gushed, "this reader must answer a resounding yes."
On the talk shows yesterday, commentators ranging ideologically from former Reagan adviser David Gergen to former Post columnist Haynes Johnson had few kind words for the work.
In stores only a few days, "Dutch" is selling well.
"It's the biggest-selling book in the marketplace," Stuart Applebaum, a spokesman for Random House, said yesterday. "It's outselling everything."
At Amazon.com yesterday afternoon, the book hovered around No. 4 on the bestseller list. Just behind the three "Harry Potter" books.