After winning appointment in 1985 as the first authorised White House biographer, Edmund Morris struggled for 14 years to find Ronald Reagan. For the first three years, he shadowed Reagan as president. He then spent 11 more pawing through personal and official records, drawing confidences and intimate recollections from family, friends and foes. Everyone co-operated, because he was official, wasn't he? (Even if he insisted that he was also independent.) And Nancy Reagan herself, Ronnie's best bodyguard, had pushed hard to get him to take the assignment, so he had to be trustworthy, right?
In the end, Morris decided that what he had uncovered constituted insufficient material for a traditional biography. Instead, he adopted an elegant, postmodern literary style to produce a historical novel (at the rate of one page a week), incorporating the devices of fiction to disguise his guilt at admiring a character so at odds with his own politics.
The Reagan whom Morris came to know ranks among the strongest and most successful presidents in the nation's history. To the surprise of many, he wrote and usually spoke his own words beautifully and clearly, if sentimentally. He focused on a handful of simple propositions and images that changed the course of history, even as they ignored the complexities swirling around him. He believed fervently in the US constitution and in human rights, even as he drew to him those who gained their own authority from intolerance at home and torture abroad.
Morris was hesitant, even ashamed, to take the assignment, because he worried what his East Coast media friends would say about his "authorised" relationship with a politician they had despised for a generation. He may also have been embarrassed to accept the $3 million advance. He was certainly apologetic that he found Reagan to be so powerful a leader and so magnetic a personality. That may help explain why he retreated into fiction.
Many hazy moments in Dutch come to life in the form of screenplays, complete with camera directions, a suggestion that Reagan lived as if all the world were a stage and he but a leading player. Morris devises fictional characters, manufactures conversations and imagines incidents that might have happened. He dreams himself to be a contemporary of Reagan and weaves himself into the story of Dutch's early years, pretending that Reagan as a teenaged lifeguard had saved him from drowning one summer in Illinois. (Morris grew up in Africa, in a different age.) He even invents a son for himself so that Reagan's evolution from liberal Democrat to reactionary Republican can have a foil who evolves from liberal student to violent underground radical. With a straight face he quotes non-existent letters from the fictitious son, providing authoritative references in the endnotes.
Dutch has reaffirmed Morris's reputation as a gifted writer but it has destroyed his credibility as a biographer. He came to broad public attention in the early 1980s with the first volume of his biography of Teddy Roosevelt, which won him a Pulitzer prize. Because of that work, Nancy Reagan, with Ronald's acquiescence, pursued him to become the official scribe. Rather than embrace the portrait that has resulted from this experimental relationship, the family now describes it as one of the great wasted opportunities in literary history. Dutch himself has left for an unvisitable world, his memory erased by Alzheimer's. No other writer will ever have access to the material that was in his mind.
The media world that Morris was so eager to please now reviles him for devaluing the currency of history. American newspaper columns and TV talk shows have devoted acres and hours to the debate over his techniques, not Reagan's legacy. Morris responds that with his past he has proven his reliability and that we should trust him. Besides, he argues, no one really takes the literary devices as fact.
Indeed, it is possible to distinguish fact from fiction in Dutch by careful and simultaneous study of endnotes and loose inserts provided by the publisher. However, few of us will ever carry this fat volume to the dinner table for reference during conversation. The images from the book, even the invented ones, will enter the argument without time to consider whether they be fact or fiction, just as so many images entered Reagan's consciousness: that we are being crowded into the sea by rampant redwoods, which are themselves the cause of acid rain; that a federal regulatory agency had issued 42 trillion decisions (which would have amounted to 56 billion an hour); that Alaska has more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia.
Critics and talk-show hosts might have forgiven Morris his fictionalisation if only he had dealt more effectively with Reagan's most destructive contribution to American politics, the introduction of new propaganda techniques that have changed political campaigning not only in America but also around the world. In the mid-1960s, when he was running for governor of California, Reagan took on as consultants a group of social scientists who remained at his elbow for the next 20 years to counsel him about what voters wanted to hear. Using computer analysis of the electorate and such relatively new techniques as focus groups, these consultants parsed the population into hundreds of segments. To ensure that Reagan would later trigger the proper response, they tested words and word groups that might cause a certain reaction with one small segment while allowing others to ignore the implications completely.
Republicans at every level quickly adopted the Reagan techniques, soon winning control of all three branches of the federal government and many state houses for the first time ever. Not until Bill Clinton absorbed the same methods wholesale did the opposition finally regain its footing. Others who have adopted them to great effect are Tony Blair, Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel, Gerhard Schroder in Germany and Jesse Helms in North Carolina. Yet Morris devotes less attention to Reagan's revolutionary campaign techniques than he does to the dinner he and his wife hosted at home to celebrate the 39th anniversary of the first date between Ron and Nancy. Are we to be amused that he took the time to tell us that the dinner was tax-deductible as a business expense?
This is what Washington writing has come to. First, Bob Woodward interviews a comatose CIA chief and then asks us to believe he held a meaningful conversation with him. Now, a presidential biographer proves so self-absorbed that he elevates his own role to that of his subject.
The controversy has not hurt sales. Dutch was at number three on some American best-seller lists. However, one news organisation was debating whether to move it to its fiction list. Morris, meanwhile, is turning back to the second volume of his Roosevelt biography. That should soon leave room for the honest biographical assessment of Ronald Reagan that Dutch is not.