Kerfuffle

Zoë Heller

  • Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris
    HarperCollins, 874 pp, £24.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 00 217709 9

Fourteen years ago, Edmund Morris won the job of writing the official Reagan biography. With the job came all kinds of unprecedented access. Morris was allowed to attend senior staff meetings at the White House and to travel as part of the Presidential entourage on foreign trips. He had permission to examine the President’s conscientiously kept handwritten diary and, most promisingly, he was granted a monthly private interview with his subject.

Although some of Reagan’s people were initially under the impression that they had hired an ‘in-house historian’, Morris was more of an in-house Lynn Barber – interested in matters of ‘humanity’ rather than policy, convinced that ‘in the end what chiefly survives or should survive of any Chief Executive is the quality of his personality.’ Now that Dutch has been published (the title refers to Reagan’s childhood nickname) several critics have dismissed this emphasis on character as low-brow and ahistorical. But such objections would have been less insistent, one suspects, had Reagan’s character not proved so unyielding to Morris’s probings. In principle at least, his desire to find out what sort of man Reagan was seems entirely reasonable. Of all American Presidents, the foolish-seeming and yet abominably successful Reagan surely presents the most tempting subject for character analysis. If Morris had come back armed with any insight into what lurked beneath the President’s head-bobbing folksiness, if he had been able to shed even a little light on the disconnection between Reagan’s apparent idiocy and his illustrious career, we would all have been grateful.

As it was, his quest proved deeply frustrating. He hacked and hacked at the President’s public shell, but eventually began to suspect there was no kernel within. After about a year of hard research, he writes: ‘Dutch remained a mystery to me and worse still – dare I entertain such heresy, in the hushed and reverent precincts of his office – an apparent airhead.’ In many ways, his book is a testament to how unrewarding ‘access’ to one’s subject can be. At American magazines like Vanity Fair, it is held to be absolutely crucial that writers are allowed to visit the celebrity subjects of their profiles at least twice, in two different settings, for a minimum of two hours on each occasion. These stipulations, painstakingly negotiated with the celebrities’ publicity people, are based on the calculation that more time spent with a person will result in more intimacy and more intimacy will result in more aperçus. But in most instances, writers wring whatever portion of grim factoids they are going to get from the celebrities in the first half-hour and must then spend the remaining 210 minutes going, ever more tortuously, through the investigative motions. So it was with Morris and Reagan. Morris flew about on Air Force One. He attended meetings and read diaries and showered the President with questions. (Once, hoping to elicit some sort of Proustian flash, he even presented the President with a leaf from an oak tree that he claimed Reagan had sat under in his youth.) But none of it did him any good. Beneath Reagan’s veneer of craggy amiability, he found only more craggy amiability and something alarmingly approximate to senility. After months and months of assiduous observation, the biggest category in Morris’s index system was the one headed, ‘RR’s inscrutability’.

As has now become part of the legend of this book, Morris came down with a monumental case of writer’s block: a block from which he was freed only when he hit on the idea of having Reagan’s story told by an alter ego. The Edmund Morris whose first person pervades this book is not the real Edmund Morris, but ‘Edmund Morris’, a fictional character with an intricately constructed personal history of his own. His putative narrative advantage over the real-life Morris is that he is a contemporary of Reagan’s, whose life, thanks to a series of credulity-defying coincidences, has repeatedly crossed paths with the President’s. As an adolescent, ‘Morris’ first encounters Reagan playing right guard in a high-school football game in Dixon, Illinois. It is a brief thing – the future leader’s wet sleeve brushes his hand – but ‘Morris’ still manages, aged 14, to register Reagan’s exact height and weight, his ‘shallow chest’, ‘adolescent coarseness’, myopia (‘I sensed that he was reacting to sound rather than sight’) and ‘lynx-like momentum’ on the field.

A little later on, he comes across Reagan working as a lifeguard at Lowell Park Beach and accumulates more elaborately detailed information about his physical build, his swimming stroke and his taste in books. At Eureka College, Reagan is his classmate and they are ‘constantly bumping into’ one another. When ‘Morris’ leaves to attend flying school, his best friend Paul sends him regular reports on the doings of ‘that fellow Reagan’. In 1941, he gets a job on a Ronald Reagan movie and keeps a scrupulous journal of the production. After the war (during which he ends up at Reagan’s side in the Army’s First Motion Picture Unit) he gets another job working for Reagan’s brother Neil at an ad agency. And so the ludicrous felicities of chance continue.

Now, sharper readers will immediately detect that this clunky stratagem does not provide an answer to the question of how to penetrate Reagan’s impenetrable fatuousness – the question that precipitated Morris’s block. It may answer the question: how do I spin my non-findings into a big book that will prevent me from having to give back my three million dollar advance to Random House? It may also answer the question: how do I vent my festering creative urges and show what a brilliant novel I could write if only somebody would give me the money? But it is no help at all in solving the Reagan enigma. It simply obscures that enigma with its own blare and kerfuffle.

Eventually, ‘Morris’ gets married and has a son, Gavin. Morris fils grows up to be a left-wing political activist deeply committed to the New Left and deeply hostile to the fascist bastards who run things – guys like, you know, the Governor of California, Ronald Reagan. With much the same sense of effortful manoeuvring that characterises his father’s endless encounters with Reagan, Gavin, whose letters to his dad are written in a ludicrously bad imitation of 1960s hiplingo, shows up in the foreground of every seminal 1960s event and movement. He’s at Berkeley for the riots of 1964, in Paris for the May 1968 uprising, and in Chicago the same year to help lead the demonstration at the Democratic National Convention. He hangs out with Tom Hayden, introduces the Black Panthers to the work of Frantz Fanon, and becomes Michelangelo Antonioni’s personal guide to the counter-culture. Eventually he joins the Weathermen and ‘drops out’. The last ‘Morris’ hears from his son is an unsigned telegram, that says, simply: ‘GONE UNDERGROUND.’

Child of the south, beach boy, desert lover, he never took to northern light. Going underground, where there was no light at all, meant the same to him as to any ancient Greek.

  And it was you, Dutch, who sent him there.

The grandiosity of Morris’s style makes the meaning here somewhat uncertain, but what he seems to be telling us is that he thinks his son committed suicide and that Reagan, or at least the political forces represented by Reagan, were to blame. It is bizarre and puzzling stuff. Not long after this revelation, ‘Morris’ lets us in on another dark secret: back in 1928, during one of his summer stints as lifeguard at Lowell Park Beach, Reagan saved the young ‘Morris’ from drowning.

Like certain pieces of conceptual art that are accompanied by photocopied hand-outs explaining what the artist is trying to signify, Dutch has come to the public with numerous instructions from its author on how it should be read and what it ‘really’ says about its subject. The implication of Edmund Morris’s countless appearances on American television and radio as the sad-eyed exegete of his own work has been that Dutch, unlike other run-of-the-mill biographies of public figures is too recherché and sophisticated a literary conceit to be understood by the punters without the aid of Morris’s extra-textual guidance. But in all his solemn, slightly pained pronouncements on his own work, Morris has been curiously obstinate in denying the one obvious implication of his conceit: that a man who owes his own life to Reagan but also blames Reagan for his son’s death is likely to have a very particular view of the President. When Morris defends the way Reagan is presented in this book, he refuses to acknowledge any distinction between his viewpoint and that of his unreliable narrator. Morris and ‘Morris’ share the same snooty amusement at Reagan’s Midwestern corniness, the same alarm at his dotty, rambling responses to simple questions and the same bland, unshakable conviction that he was a ‘great’ President – mostly, it seems, because his leadership prompted ‘an overnight resurgence of American patriotism and positivity’. (They also like the way in which he effected ‘a transferral of “compassion” from welfare to the womb’.) But if there is really no difference in the way the two Morrises see Reagan, why did the real Morris go to the bother of creating the other, extravagantly biased Morris?

One reason, as I have said, may have been his desire to write in a more inventive and expressive manner than traditional biographical methods allow. Dutch brims with whimsy and self-conscious writerliness. Every other sentence swims in a coulis of the author’s self-regard. ‘Memory. Desire,’ muses ‘Morris’ in his prologue. ‘What is this mysterious yearning of biographer for subject, so akin to a coup de foudre in its insistence?’ A little later, just before launching into a drearily detailed account of his ancestry, he writes:

Dutch has intrigued me most of my life, but until 1985 I never thought of being his bard. Even now as we approach the end of our aloof intimacy, we are two bodies from remote systems, one a mere chip of rock, one huge – history cannot deny Ronald Reagan’s mass! – asteroids whose trajectories briefly interlocked. Yet still I feel that gravitational drag, the product as much of disproportion as convergence. Before we recede to our respective darknesses, I must allow these floating fragments, these dusts of myself, to sparkle in his waning light.

This passage – with its over-egged metaphor, its elaborate (unconvincing) protestations of humbleness, its creepy little exclamation mark and its ineffable aura of smarm – serves as well as any as an example of Morris’s prose style. Some undiscerning readers have taken this pontificating nonsense as evidence that Morris is a ‘beautiful writer’. He is not. He is a terrible ham: an overgrown sixth-former whose foam-flecked desperation to let us know how clever he is leads him repeatedly into grue-some misjudgments of tone. At one point, ‘Morris’ expresses the hope that Gavin, who is working on a thesis about radical French philosophers, will ‘resist the Marxist blandishments of Sartre, that nègre in so many a scholarly woodpile’. Describing his visit to Bergen-Belsen, he notes that he ‘wailed like a Jew’. Reagan must have imagined when he allowed Morris into his life, that he was dealing with a team player. Instead, the simpering, ever-so-humble biographer turned out to be a crazed narcissist in disguise. That may be the one achievement of this execrable work: to inspire in the reader something like pity for the duped Gipper.