Jewish World ReviewOct. 6, 1999 /26 Tishrei, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- DARN THAT EDMUND MORRIS. Here was a guy who had the chance to answer an important historical question, and was placed well to do so: Was Ronald Reagan a genius or an airhead? Morris was handpicked by the Reagan crowd to be the former president’s authorized biographer. He was granted unprecedented access to Reagan in the White House. He attended meetings, where he would be the only non-Reaganite in the room. He had one-on-one sessions with Reagan, where he could ask the old man anything.
Morris’s recon mission has been tainted, though, by the now famous—and infamous—device he used to write Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan: he created a fictitious version of himself to serve as narrator. I was one of those critics who pounced on Morris before the book was even available for perusing. Call me a conventionalist, but biography ought to serve truth before literary form.
After the first round of wrath descended on him, I wondered if I might have been too rough on the man, but when the first excerpts emerged it turned out that he’d gone beyond concocting an imagined narrator: he had written several fictitious people into the book and had crafted fictitious scenes in which the unreal people interact with the supposedly real Reagan. At one point, Morris, writing as “Morris” (who happened to have been born 28 years earlier than the author and who grew up in Illinois, conveniently in the vicinity of the young Reagan), tells the reader: “I was introduced to Dutch several times, and each was the first as far as he was concerned. Paul [another fictional character] asked if he recognized us from the beach at Lowell Park, whereupon he tapped his glasses and shook his head, smiling.” None of this happened.
To depict it as the truth is lying.
Morris deserves all the available scorn. If he’d wanted to create a new form, he could’ve labeled the book fictory, or fi-hi. But Dutch is not, as Newsweek (which ran a lengthy excerpt of the book) calls it, “a controversial memoir.” A memoir is purportedly true, even if most memoirists recreate past events. Morris, who perhaps deserves credit for being honestly dishonest, manufactures the reality of another and blends it with the “realities” of those who do not exist. One more example: When Morris, in four paragraphs, takes on the matter of Reagan’s non-policy on AIDS, he rightfully notes that Reagan remained “unconcerned” with the disease during the early 1980s. To attach a human face to Reagan’s neglect, Morris reports that fictitious Paul died of AIDS in 1982. This was laziness on Morris’ part. Who cares about Paul?
To bring to life Reagan’s irresponsibility on AIDS, Morris should have sought out the public health advocates or gay activists who tried to convince the White House to care about AIDS. The story of their interaction with the Reagan administration would have been more telling than Paul’s demise (actually, on the last page of the book Morris then notes that Paul died in 1985. Even the fiction in the book is not consistent).
So Dutch is not to be trusted, which is too bad, since Morris has more or less sided with the airhead view of Reagan—although, covering his bases, he hails Reagan as one of the great presidents. He refers to Reagan’s “encyclopedic ignorance” and describes him as a man who lived in an alternative reality of his own—one in which Lenin had a plan for invading the United States through Mexico, Bolivians speak Portuguese, private cars have “exactly the same” fuel efficiency rating as a bus, acid rain is caused by too many trees, coal plants produce more radiation than nuclear plants, he’s younger than most other heads of state, South Vietnam and North Vietnam were “separate nations for centuries.” Morris attempts to be a bit sympathetic, explaining that Reagan dished out idiotic replies because he had to answer hundreds, if not thousands, of questions a day, frequently when he was groggy with fatigue.
But Morris adds, “What horrifies, though, is that Reagan says exactly the same things when he is fresh, and after he has been repeatedly corrected; his beliefs are as unerasable as the grooves of an LP. The only reliable way to recognize the approach of a Reagan untruism is to listen for signal phrases: I have been told... and, As I’ve said many times...”
Morris, after spending years near Reagan, concluded that the ex-president was something of a dunderhead, but one who believed in core principles (Communism is evil, charity begins at home, more military spending is better than less, government is bad) and was able to communicate these notions with masterful skill. Thankfully, Morris notes, most of the work of a president—at least, this president—entailed “initialing the recommendations of underlings.”
Morris’ conclusions, however, are trumped by his means. He’s merely reignited the debate on Reagan when he was in a position to settle it. There was much evidence, after all, that Reagan lived in a factual fantasyland. When he was in the White House, Mark Green, now New York City’s public advocate, put out two editions of Reagan’s Reign of Error, a delightful and frightening compendium of the foolish things Reagan had said before and during his stint at 1600 Pennsylvania. He lied about the Iran-Contra affair, stating at first his administration did not trade weapons for hostages. (Morris notes that even when Reagan eventually conceded this was false, he maintained he still believed it to be true.
Such was Reagan’s powers of belief.) While commander-in-chief, he commented that submarine-based nuclear missiles once launched could be recalled. They cannot. Of the brutal military in El Salvador, he said, “We are helping the forces that are supporting human rights in El Salvador.”
Justifying his constructive engagement policy with the racist government of South Africa, he said, “Can we abandon this country that has stood beside us in every war we’ve ever fought?” The leaders of the ruling Afrikaners of South Africa had been Nazi sympathizers. He claimed real earnings were increasing when they were decreasing. In 1983, he maintained, “There is today in the United States as much forest as there was when Washington was at Valley Forge.” Wrong. The U.S. Forest Service estimated only about 30 percent of forest lands of 1775 still existed 208 years later. He once told the story of a brave WWII bomber commander who stayed behind with an injured subordinate and went down with the plane, noting that this commander was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Lars-Erik Nelson of the Daily News checked and found no such event had occurred—except in a 1944 movie. In 1985, Reagan quipped, “I’ve been told that in the Russian language there isn’t even a word for freedom.” (It’s svoboda.)
There are scores of other “Reagan untrusims” recorded in Green’s book. In the 1987 book, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, Garry Wills notes that on two occasions, Reagan told White House visitors that when he was in the military he’d filmed the Nazi concentration camps. That was false. He had served in Los Angeles, where he made training films. Even Reagan’s devotees could not avoid the obvious. In Triumph of Politics, David Stockman, Reagan’s White House budget director, writes of one meeting with the boss: “What do you do when your president ignores all the palpable, relevant facts and wanders in circles? I could not bear to watch this good and decent man go on in this embarrassing way. I buried my head in my plate.”
In the end, Morris was an appropriate selection as Reagan’s chronicler: To catch a weaver of fiction send a weaver of fiction. It is unfortunate that the grand opportunity offered Morris—to tell us what life was really like in Reagan’s world—was subsumed by the author’s ego, arrogance and misjudgment. Reagan may have received the biography he deserved.
The reading public did