On the copyright page of Edmund Morris’s Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, its publisher, Random House, has printed the following note:
This is an authorized biography and a work of extensive scholarship. All the words (written or spoken) of Ronald Reagan, all his recounted thoughts and acts, and indeed those of every historical character in the text, are matters of fact and record. Full documentation is available in the Notes, and the contributions of other writers or interlocutors indicated under “Acknowledgments.”
This is a peculiar preface to an “authorized biography.” Normally such works do not have to advertise the veracity of their details. Normally such works are monuments to careful scholarship, famously attentive to documentation and the verifiability of quotations; but then Dutch is not a typical authorized biography. Edmund Morris has turned a venerable genre on its head, and in doing so he has wasted an invaluable opportunity.
It is unlikely that Dutch is the book that Morris’s champions in the Reagan administration expected when they began encouraging him to undertake the task of writing an official biography. Morris had attracted the attention of Nancy Reagan and Reagan aide Michael Deaver through the success of his biography of the young Theodore Roosevelt, which received the accolade of a Pulitzer Prize. Morris’s account of Roosevelt emphasized his subject’s colorful personality and paid little attention to the social forces shaping late nineteenth century America. Such a biographical style appealed to the Reaganites, who viscerally subscribed to the “great man” school of historical interpretation, seeing their president as a hero who almost singlehandedly turned back the four horsemen of recession, malaise, liberalism, and communism. Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984 quickened their interest in Morris. Already they were pondering the aging chief executive’s place in history. It was a propitious moment. The “Reagan Revolution” was riding tall. Americans were basking in prosperity and a renewed sense of national purpose. The appointment of a presidential biographer harmoniously fitted the expansive mood of the times. Certified with the imprimatur of a major literary award, and having demonstrated both a biographical affinity for robust Republicans and a penchant for iconography congenial to the administration, Morris seemed an ideal candidate for the post. The moment and the man appeared to meet.
After a period of mutual courtship, a bargain was struck. In 1985, Edmund Morris was appointed the authorized biographer of Ronald Reagan. For many scholars, Morris’s new status would have been a dream come true. He received a pass to the White House, attended certain policy meetings, and enjoyed monthly access to a sitting president. With the requisite effort, Morris was in a position to write a definitive account of the Reagan presidency. He could have shaped the agenda of Reagan biographers for years to come.
However, Morris chose to make no such contribution to knowledge. As the years passed, and Ronald Reagan first left office and then slipped into the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, Morris wrestled with the obligation he had assumed, which, in addition to his moral responsibility to the president and his family, included a three- million-dollar advance from his publisher. At some point the sober virtues of a traditional work of scholarship lost their charm for him. Perhaps Morris grew bored with his subject. Perhaps he decided that the famously enigmatic character of Ronald Reagan had eluded him. In any case, he embarked on a literary course at once fashionably daring and fundamentally dishonest.
Morris very carefully avoids terming his work a biography. Instead, he calls it a “memoir.” This distinction is important. To have designated his life of Ronald Reagan a biography would have weighed it down with the expectation that it would provide an authoritative portrait of its subject. A memoir is a much more evanescent sort of narrative. A biography would have meant accountability and drudgery. Styling his book as a memoir freed Morris to indulge his subjectivity, and this Morris does, on a scale breathtaking for a work still loosely mantled in the garb of an “authorized” life. He has crafted a book designed to pander to the postmodern ambience of thefin de siècle. Morris transforms the narrative of Ronald Reagan’s life into a text—something more fluid, multifaceted, and presumably more interesting than the man himself. Dutch is a hall of mirrors, self-referential and distorted. The image of Ronald Reagan is broken into fragments, reflected from various perspectives.
Morris attempts to justify himself early on, asserting that “the original’ person we think we are seeing and hearing is but a refracted image (bent, wavering, prismatic perhaps, but never quite still or solid) of someone who perceives us with equal mystification.” Had Morris’s kaleidoscopic approach added up to something, and shed new light on Ronald Reagan or his times, this unorthodox method would have justified itself. Alas, what readers are left with...
(The entire section is 2111 words.)