I ran into Edmund Morris, the Reagan biographer, as he and his wife were coming out of an elevator last week. A handshake for him, a kiss for her -- and then some brief small talk, all jokey-jokey. But as the two of them were being tugged away to their next appointment, Morris turned back to me and plaintively exclaimed a whopping understatement: "Richard, I'm the most reviled biographer in America."
In fact, Morris may be the most reviled biographer of all time. His authorized biography, "Dutch," concocts three fictional characters to help tell the story of Ronald Reagan -- one of those characters being Morris himself. He makes himself a Reagan contemporary, present in the Midwest and Hollywood as life prepares Dutch for the White House, and then joins him there as his authorized biographer -- chosen by presidential intimates on the basis of his previous, and only, work, a stunning biography of Theodore Roosevelt.
Now those intimates bray betrayal. They talk breach of faith and just plain immorality, and some of them suggest that Morris, burdened by a labor of 14 years and unable to crack the code that is Ronald Reagan, quite simply lost his mind. At the elevator, I said nothing. The book awaited me, an intimidating tome of 874 pages. I started to read.
And I read and read, with increasing fascination and enjoyment. While I found the fictional characters disconcerting and sometimes confusing -- never mind the appropriateness of the approach -- I also found myself living the book, enjoying the book, loving the book in places and putting it down, finally, feeling wistful about Reagan and thinking that he would understand Morris's approach. His biographer wrote a movie.
"Dutch" is Edmund Morris's "Citizen Kane." The author himself plays the part of the reporter who seeks to find the meaning of "Rosebud," Charles Foster Kane's last word. Morris's fictional characters afford him three additional points of view (POVs in movie lingo) and the all-important "back story." This is critical, because Reagan's own story is a cliche -- true, but hackneyed.
What's more, Morris claims to have uncovered Reagan's "Rosebud" -- Christine Reagan, born to Reagan and Jane Wyman in 1947. The child died soon after birth and so, partly as a consequence, did the Reagan-Wyman marriage. Morris dedicates the book to this forgotten child.
What's surprising about "Dutch" is how unsurprising it is. Here is the Reagan we all knew -- boring, out of touch, intellectually lazy, blessed with good luck, good looks, a sunny disposition and "ambitious enough to crack rocks."
Here, too, is a gallant man, a courageous man, a courteous man -- a man of strong convictions and deep faith who made both his sons on their 14th birthdays view "Lest We Forget," a graphic Holocaust documentary. Here is a man who got so many of the little things wrong but enough of the very big things right that Morris, grudgingly, lays the mantle of greatness on him. Historians will not lightly skip over the Reagan presidency.
I don't know what the Reaganites expected of Morris. His approach aside, did they think he would contradict what we all knew -- that the man was, in Clark Clifford's scathing phrase, an "amiable dunce"? Were they expecting exoneration -- the finding that Reagan was really a nuts-and-bolts sort of guy, attentive to people and programs? That surely would have been fiction.
The Reagan people blundered when they chose Morris as authorized biographer. Maybe they had not noticed that his TR biography had originated as a television movie. Maybe they had not noticed how cinematically the book is written -- scenes, not mere events. Morris works always with a camera and a soundtrack (music is his passion), both of them compactly stored in his imagination.
"Dutch," in fact, comes with little scenarios and constant references to music. It also comes with a certain asperity, a flip condescension toward Reagan that is nettlesome. But these are often the views of the fictional characters. Not only do they consistently underestimate Reagan but, with Morris behind the camera, the star is oblivious to them. As usual, Reagan is not in the least interested in those who are so puzzled by him.
Frankly, I wish Morris had not blended fiction with fact. I wish, too, that he had not turned Christine Reagan into Reagan's "Rosebud." But he has nonetheless written a compulsively readable book -- and one that strikes me as fundamentally true and fair. In the unfathomable blankness of senility, Reagan leaves this book as he will life itself -- with his greatness ensured, his dignity intact and his immense secret finally revealed.
He had none at all.