People talk about Ronald Reagan being a puzzle. The real puzzle is Edmund Morris.
Why did he do it? Morris is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer blessed with a gifted pen, a well-deserved reputation for scrupulousness and style, unprecedented access to a living president, a towering subject, and the full cooperation of practically everyone surrounding him.
Why then did he produce a "Memoir of Ronald Reagan" that can only be called a ruin?
A tragic ruin, too. In those parts of the Reagan biography that Morris does not contaminate with his own real or fictional presence, one can see how wonderful his writing can be. His account of the 1981 assassination attempt, for example, is gripping and beautifully rendered. Most of Reagan's life, however, is written from inside the head of a fictional Edmund Morris (28 years older than the real author) who keeps intersecting Reagan's life at various junctures. This pseudo-contemporary keeps intruding himself into the narrative: commenting, emoting, reacting, analogizing, reflecting. Reading this, one can almost scream: Edmund, get out of the way. You're blocking the view!
At times, the book is impossible to read. It becomes all about Edmund--more reflections of Morris's mind as represented by yet more invented observers, most notably a (fictional) journalist and a (fictional) radical son (of fictional Morris). It's enough to give you vertigo. And to recall that quip about the terminal egoist engaged in casual conversation saying, "But enough about you. Let's talk about me."
Because I once practiced the mystical art of psychiatry, I have been asked by several people whether there might be some clinical explanation for what he has done. The facile view is this: Here is a man who had taken his advance, accepted the access, sunk a decade of his life in the project, then, failing to fathom his subject, reaches some kind of intellectual/psychological crisis.
A normal person would have given up. Morris tries to save himself with a leap off the deep end. A towering egoism solves the problem with a frightful merging: Morris's mind will invade Reagan's (recorded) life, the way Reagan's life had invaded Morris's mind.
As I say, it is a facile view. A deeper insight subsumes Morris in a much larger phenomenon. It comes not from psychiatry but from a fellow historian. In her prescient 1991 Jefferson Lecture "Of Heroes, Villains and Valets," Gertrude Himmelfarb cites Hegel's dictum, "No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet--is a valet."
Hegel, explains Himmelfarb, "had contempt for those small-minded men, men with the souls of valets, who reduce historical individuals to their own level of sensibility and consciousness." It is all around us today, an epidemic in contemporary historiography: the impulse, when in the presence of greatness, to level.
The conventional way for the valet to draw equal with the hero is to tear him down. Hence the proliferation of "pathobiography"--famously exemplified by Robert Caro's destruction of Lyndon Johnson.
To be sure, Edmund is no pathobiographer. He comes to like and admire Reagan too much. Hence Morris's originality: He, too, wants to equalize valet and hero, but rather than tearing down the hero, he elevates the valet! Makes himself Reagan's shadow contemporary. Seizes psychological center stage. This is not "Ronald Reagan: A Life." This is "Edmund Morris: A Memoir."
Our time, when titanic world-historical struggles have already been fought and won, is acutely devoid of heroes. At the post-heroic, indeed, anti-heroic "end of history," the leveling impulse is particularly strong. (Hence, for example, Pat Buchanan's tome telling us that the two greatest heroes of the century, Churchill and Roosevelt, misunderstood Hitler--as opposed, of course, to the omniscient Buchanan--and were fatally wrong about World War II).
Ours is a time of pygmies being big-me's. Living in, as Francis Fukuyama correctly predicted, an era of unnerving placidity and thus ennui, we seek vicarious elevation by parasitically projecting ourselves onto the greats of the past. Morris's attempt--relentlessly inserting himself into the life of perhaps the last American world-historical figure and author of the most successful presidency of this half-century--is surely the most spectacular such exercise in parasitism. But it will not be the last.