Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Dutch Treat

All hell broke loose when Edmund Morris invented characters for his Reagan biography. But how else could he tell the story of that surreal presidency?


There's a burden carried by journalists who covered the Reagan years. They missed the story. They didn't come anywhere near to explaining what is surely the strangest career in American politics. Indeed, they went along with the Reaganites' story -- all its neatly stage-managed takes. He was too slow, too cornball, too out of it -- who would disagree? And yet he was the Great Communicator -- who doesn't believe that? Was this some inside media joke? (Great Communicator. Hee-hee.) Or some forceful effort to align reality? He was elected, after all. He must be communicating awfully well with somebody.

Was he stupid or gifted, personable or remote, a dedicated ideologue or a casual opportunist, an honest man or a partly fictionalized creation? Indeed, who can be confident that he wasn't in the early stages of Alzheimer's during his presidency (consider how a reporter feels knowing he might have missed that story)?

Now, ten years after the end of his term, we have a biography that makes exceptional efforts to explain him, and, in response, a Catholic Legion of Decency-type firestorm of opprobrium.

On the side of decency and proper biography are the Reagan partisans who, once again, are rushing fiercely to the cameras to insist the man is (is? was?) as normal and straightforward as you and I -- then, as now, a proposition so preposterous that we shrink from the challenge, because if reality is that skewed, well, we could be crazy.

The Reaganites are joined by the Washington media, who, during the Reagan term, accepted his behavior with such a blind eye and generous rationalizations that it became impossible for anyone to discuss his obvious nakedness (again, you would have been the crazy one).

Then, too, there are the cultural elite, who, in a dramatic tumble, went into the eighties as liberals and came out the true conservatives, resentful of technology, Wall Street, and the general triumph of the marketplace.

Oh, yes, and there are the other Republicans -- the Bush Republicans (whom Reagan mostly disliked and who mostly disliked him) -- eager to take what benefits they can from their proximity with the Great Communicator (but winking broadly), shocked, shocked that anyone would doubt the great man's greatness.

On the side of moral and intellectual relativism and, possibly, genuine flakiness, is Edmund Morris, the frail-looking biographer.

While it is almost inevitable that a biographer will either be a hagiographer or a betrayer, Morris's betrayals are, actually, of a special order.

For one thing, he came to the job giving no indication that he was anything but conventional (while some might have noted he came out of the advertising business instead of academia, the Reaganites probably thought that was a plus). His Theodore Roosevelt biography was Pulitzer Prize-level conventional. He was, by all appearances, an incredibly safe choice.

That, too, is no small part of the betrayal: He was the choice. When they choose you as official biographer, you're not supposed to go unofficial. He was invited in! He had access! They say access like sex. And indeed, there is a seduced-and-abandoned tone here. A moral if not contractual breach. And then, too, a bit of professional self-interest: After Morris, will anyone else ever again be given such access?

And then there is the fourteen years he took to write the book and the $3 million that Random House advanced him for the project. That's supposed to add up to something weighty. Arthur Schlesinger's three-volume The Age of Roosevelt, for instance. The Reaganites have always aspired to that heft and weight.

Instead, Morris takes his fine reputation, his unprecedented access, his unlimited time, and, it turns out, his fuck-you money and produces not a massive and ponderous tome but something more like a merry-prankster romp through the twentieth century.

It's the being-made-a-fool-of part that people really don't take to kindly.

Still, it is not necessarily clear what this book was supposed to be. Presidential biographies are a pretty undistinguished and uninteresting bunch of books (this is why they are usually safe for presidents). They are, second only to presidential autobiographies, political acts. Or they are clip jobs, or tell-all scandal stuff -- from the Woodward or the Regnery presses -- or, finally, in the highest example of the form, an archival recapitulation. It is only Schlesinger's Roosevelt and Robert Caro's as-yet-unfinished two-volume-and-counting Johnson series that, arguably, manage to define their subjects, and only Caro's that provides a knock-your-socks-off reading experience. (Considering that in Caro's biography the subject becomes the whale, larger and more frightening and more destructive as the story unfolds, it is especially unlikely that this is what the keepers of the Reagan legacy had in mind.)

"A scholarly work" is the term that has been popping up as the purported standard against which Morris's book should ideally be judged. This is in itself a problematic or illusory standard because many scholars -- that is, historians who follow scholarly conventions and who therefore do not write for the popular market -- eschew the writing of presidential biographies (indeed, they tend to eschew the writing of all biographies). The scholarly prejudice -- sometimes certainly a reasonable one -- is that presidents are mainly place-holders, careerists, whose importance is a reflection of the news media rather than of history. Presidents, in other words, are not the center of the age, the government, or even their own destinies. They are merely the product of their own or someone else's mythmaking.

Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift