Biography

Imagining Reagan

Andrew Phillips October 11 1999
Biography

Imagining Reagan

Andrew Phillips October 11 1999

Imagining Reagan

Biography

An unconventional look at an important president

No doubt about it, Edmund Morris can write. Here he is describing Ronald Reagan in his twilight years, an old man cast cruelly adrift in his own mind by the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease: “He will rake leaves from the pool for hours, not understanding that they are being surreptitiously replenished by his Secret Service men. Perplexities crowd upon him. . . . Who is this big brown-suited man in the television documentary, saluting and smiling? Why are ‘the fellows’ so unco-operative at three in the morning, when he dresses for an urgent appointment?”

Moving stuff, but is it true?

At the end of Morris’s authorized book on Reagan (not biography after all, but what the author calls “memoir”), we aren’t quite sure. In the Alzheimer’s case, the answer seems to be yes; the passage is footnoted to interviews with one of Reagan’s doctors. Elsewhere, confusion reigns. Morris interweaves reality and imagination so thoroughly that it takes an effort greater than most readers will want to make to untangle them. Maybe it doesn’t matter— certainly Morris might argue that. Early in Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (Random House, $49.95), he writes that “the past is delusion, the future illusion.” His book follows that precept, with fictionalized characters, letters, film scripts, even footnotes. How terribly postmodern. How terribly unhelpful, though, for anyone trying to figure out the central mystery: how the man who co-starred with a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo morphed into the president who won the Cold War.

Morris’s central conceit, under attack even before Dutch was published last week, is to imagine himself as an older contemporary of his subject who interacts

with him at crucial points throughout his life. The half-fictional “Edmund Morris,” three decades older than the real biographer, encounters “Dutch” Reagan as a young lifeguard, in Hollywood, as an upand-coming politician. He invents a son and a close friend who also interact with Reagan, further muddying the waters. The device has the merit of evoking a vibrant intimacy with Reagan’s early life in

small-town Illinois. Morris uses it, though, in decidedly odd ways.

He is obsessed with Reagan’s physical presence. At their first (imaginary) encounter on a football field, “the squarecut youth and I briefly exchanged glances ... his wet sleeve brushed my hand.” Later “Morris” watches Reagan the lifeguard on a beach as his bathing

suit “steamed in the sun____The day was

hot and still. Presently he shrugged off the top of his damp suit. The loops fell away. ...” After Reagan as B-movie heartthrob and Reagan as resolute cold warrior, Morris at least gives us something completely different: Reagan as the object of homoerotic obsession.

All is not lost, however. Morris was Reagan’s authorized biographer, with

Biography

regular access to White House meetings and monthly sessions with the man himself. (Those proved so unenlightening that Morris says he was driven to his unconventional methodology to overcome paralyzing writers block.) During 14 years of research he has uncovered some fascinating details. Reagan, he writes, tried to join the Communist party in Hollywood in 1938—only to be rejected as a “flake.” Morris discovered that Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, had a daughter, Christine, in 1947, who lived for only nine hours (without explanation, he dedicates the book to her memory). And in 1981, Morris claims, Reagan lost more than half his blood after being shot by John Hinckley: “We had no idea how close the president actually came to dying that afternoon.”

The world outside the United States is largely absent from this account— with the notable exception of gripping accounts of Reagans summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva and Iceland. Two Canadians make minor appearances. Pierre Trudeau, Morris writes, “made no attempt to conceal his contempt for Reagan” at a Group of Seven meeting in Canada in 1981, but later is bullied by Reagan and Margaret Thatcher into going along with deploying nuclear weapons in Europe. And Brian Mulroney turns up at the end boasting to the author that of all the G-7 leaders, “I was the one Ronnie felt closest to.”

Morris freely acknowledges Reagans shortcomings as a man of “encyclopedic ignorance” who remained bizarrely aloof from even those closest to him (failing, for example, to recognize his own son, Michael, at the boys high-school graduation). In the end, though, the seemingly impossible things that he believed—that government could be rolled back and the Soviet empire dissolved—came to be. Reagans remarkable life deserves a monumental biography. Dutch, unfortunately, is not it.

Andrew Phillips