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.
This is at least one of the things that Morris accomplishes in his book: We see Dutch mostly as a happenstance product of events rather than as the prime mover. Morris’s book is picaresque, amused, uncomprehending. A Pilgrim’s Progress. The twentieth century unfolds and Reagan unfolds with it, grabbing with instinct rather than strategy a few of the key opportunities that unfold in front of him. Morris manages to avoid the sense of historic inevitability that almost all presidential biographies are possessed by, and to sidestep the imputed job of presidential biographer, which is to build a tightly knit system of cause and effect.
You can, if you want, reasonably argue that this isn’t biography. The main subject here is time and place, and Reagan is merely the writer’s foil. The nuances and pacing of Reagan’s ambition (first radio, then motion pictures, then politics) and opportunism (the New Deal, the Red scares, the sixties), his drift from the Midwest to California, his peculiar familial relationships, his responsibility (or lack of same) for the end of the Cold War, provide a remarkably good plot line for the story of the American century. Along the way, the picture of Reagan is finally and credibly fleshed out. Not just Chance the Gardener but Babbit too. He is more well-meaning than he is pernicious (more well-meaning than many politicians). More corporate man than entrepreneur – he was a product, and not necessarily his own product. Something else of great value comes through in Morris’s telling: the particular quirk that moves him from a failing acting career to the presidency. He is a gasbag.
In an effort (no doubt) to impose order on a disordered world and, at the same time, stay emotionally remote, Reagan discovered not so much politics as political viewpoints. The Reader’s Digest moved him. (He is – like Fitzgerald’s Tom Buchanan – surprising not for the fact that he has adopted vapid ideas but because something he’s read has moved him.) Indeed, Jane Wyman dumps him at least in part because he won’t stop talking. He’s a bore. He is Cliff Claven.
I see him. I get it. The outlines of the Reagan puzzle are clear. What’s more, I read the book not at the wasting pace you ordinarily read large biographies but in a thrall. Dutch rocks.
But I am getting ahead of the story, because the firestorm began before the book had really been read by anybody. It is not the book, in other words, but the idea of the book that gets people’s dander up.
Partly, it is an understandable dumbfoundedness. Steve Weisman, who is on the Times editorial board, is assigned the Sunday review in August. With no explanation, preface, or warning with regard to the book’s approach (now widely referred to as “the device”), he begins to read the galleys for Dutch; he reads and rereads the impressionistic opening introducing the autobiography of its fictional author or the fictional autobiography of its real author, checking the fake footnotes, consulting with his wife, who had interviewed Morris before – “How old did you say he was?” Then, suddenly, Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath, at just about the same point in the book, is in Weisman’s office, and they are each saying holy shit and looking at the other wild-eyed. What did they have on their hands? A literary scandal? A subversive political act? A potty author?
The story went to the newsroom and, in late September, onto the front page.
While Weisman, who covered the White House during the Reagan years, would get deeper into the book and finally write a sympathetic review – concluding that he’s more comfortable with Morris’s accuracy than he is, for instance, with Bob Woodward’s reality reconstructions – the Times itself, in two front-page accounts, daily inside coverage, an admiring daily review, and a savage attack by its culture critic, can’t seem to decide whether Morris is some errant literary worthy or the infamous Howard Hughes biographical hoaxster Clifford Irving.
And indeed, suddenly it is as though there were no one in the political-media Establishment (this is, arguably, not really a literary dispute; Morris’s book is certainly not the first to play with fiction and fact; in many ways, he is more scrupulous about their commingling than most) who isn’t in deep consternation about the book.
Betrayal is a piece of it. Dashed expectations too – all these years waiting for the unveiling of the monument. Still, it is only a book. So it’s not unreasonable to presume there is something else that’s fueling this fire. I think it’s fear. The fear that Morris has gone crazy. And how can you predict what a crazy man will do or say?
The fear is that crazy Edmund has the story – has found a way to tell this heretofore unbelievable tale. The reality distortion that dare not speak its name.
This fear is not unwarranted.
There is something in the nature of the book, its weirdness, its extremes, that makes you realize – more than a well-mannered detailing of the archival evidence might – how truly bizarre the Reagan years were. Fictional bizarre. Comedy bizarre. Bizarre bizarre. Inevitably, you get to thinking, there must have been a conspiracy to create normality here – a conspiracy between the press and the Reaganites, a cabal of silence (although with much snickering) as great as when the press hid the Kennedy scandals. Or greater. Much greater. This man was strange. Really strange. Profoundly weird. Not just disconnected but gone.
Oh yes, and then there is one more thing that is ticking certain people off. It is very Reagan-era, too. With enough audacity and publicity, Morris will sell a million books. And success remakes the rules. People hate that.