Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan

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9780394555089: Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan
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This book, the only biography ever authorized by a sitting President--yet written with complete interpretive freedom--is as revolutionary in method as it is formidable in scholarship. When Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in 1981, one of his first literary guests was Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt. Morris developed a fascination for the genial yet inscrutable President and, after Reagan's landslide reelection in 1984, put aside the second volume of his life of Roosevelt to become an observing eye and ear at the White House.

Coming and going with Reagan's benign approval ("I'm not going to ride up San Juan Hill for you"), Morris found the President to be a man of extraordinary power and mystery. Although the historic early achievements were plain to see--the restoration of American optimism and patriotism, a repowering of the national economy, a massive arms buildup deliberately forcing the "Evil Empire" of Soviet Communism to come to terms--nobody, let alone Reagan himself, could explain how he succeeded in shaping events to his will. And when Reagan's second term came to grips with some of the most fundamental moral issues of the late twentieth century--at Bitburg and Bergen-Belsen, at Geneva and Reykjavík,publicly outside the Brandenburg Gate ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"), and deep within the mother monastery of the Russian Orthodox Church, Morris realized that he had taken on a subject of epic dimensions.

Thus began a long biographical pilgrimage to the heart of Ronald Reagan's mystery, beginning with his birth in 1911 in the heart of rural Illinois (where he is still remembered as "Dutch," the dreamy son of an alcoholic father and a fiercely religious mother) and progressing through the way stations of an amazingly varied career: young lifeguard (he saved seventy-seven lives), aspiring writer, ace sportscaster, film star, soldier,union leader, corporate spokesman, Governor, and President. Reagan granted Morris full access to his personal papers, including early autobiographical stories and a handwritten White House diary.

The pilgrimage climaxes in 1993, when, in a moment of aching poignancy, Morris escorts his aged and failing subject back up the stairs of his birthplace. "An odd, Dantesque reversal of roles had occurred, as if I were now the leader rather than the led."

During thirteen years of obsessive archival research and interviews with Reagan and his family, friends, admirers and enemies (the book's enormous dramatis personae includes such varied characters as Mikhail Gorbachev, Michelangelo Antonioni, Elie Wiesel, Mario Savio, François Mitterrand, Grant Wood, and Zippy the Pinhead), Morris lived what amounted to a doppelgänger life, studying the young "Dutch," the middle-aged "Ronnie," and the septuagenarian Chief Executive with a closeness and dispassion, not to mention alternations of amusement, horror,and amazed respect, unmatched by any other presidential biographer.

This almost Boswellian closeness led to a unique literary method whereby, in the earlier chapters of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan,Morris's biographical mind becomes in effect another character in the narrative, recording long-ago events with the same eyewitness vividness (and absolute documentary fidelity) with which the author later describes the great dramas of Reagan's presidency, and the tragedy of a noble life now darkened by dementia.

"I quite understand," the author has remarked, "that readers will have to adjust, at first, to what amounts to a new biographical style. But the revelations of this style, which derive directly from Ronald Reagan's own way of looking at his life, are I think rewarding enough to convince them that one of the most interesting characters in recent American history looms here like a colossus."

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Review:

Why did Pulitzer-winning Theodore Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris controversially choose to write his authorized biography of Ronald Reagan in the form of a historical novel? There's a clue in a quote the book attributes to Jane Wyman, Reagan's first wife. As Ronnie speechified about the Red Menace at a 1940s Hollywood party, Wyman allegedly whispered to a friend, "I'm so bored with him, I'll either kill him or kill myself." This anecdote, if true, is more revealing than Nancy Reagan's charge in the book that Jane had attempted suicide to get Ronnie to marry her in the first place. Jane was no intellectual--Morris cracks that "If Jane had ever heard of Finland, she probably thought it was an aquarium"--but he found to his horror, after years of research, that he felt much the same as Wyman. Reagan was as boring as a box of rocks, as elusive as a ghost.

Decades before Alzheimer's clouded Reagan's mind, he showed a terrifying lack of human presence. "I was real proud when Dad came to my high school commencement," reports his son, Michael Reagan. After posing for photos with Michael and his classmates, the future president came up to him, looked right in his eyes, and said, "Hi, my name's Ronald Reagan. What's yours?" Poor Michael replied, "Dad, it's me. Your son. Mike."

Despite deep research and unprecedented access--no previous biography has ever been authorized by a sitting president--Morris could get no closer to Reagan's elusive soul than Reagan's own kids could. So Morris decided to dramatize Reagan's life with several invented characters--including a fictionalized version of himself and an imaginary gossip columnist who makes wicked comments on Reagan's career. This is one weird tactic, forcing the reader constantly to consult the footnotes at the back of the book to sort things out, and Morris makes it tougher by presenting his invented characters as real, even in the footnotes.

Ultimately, the hubbub over Morris's odd method is beside the point. His speculative entry into Reagan's life and mind is plausible, dramatic, literary, and lit by dazzling flashes of insight. The narrator watches the young Reagan as a lifeguard (years before the real Morris was born):

One tunnels along in a shroud of silvery bubbles, insulated from any sight or sound.... Others may swim alongside for a while, but their individuality tends to refract away, through the bubbles and the blur. Often I have marveled at Reagan's cool, unhurried progress through crises of politics and personnel, and thought to myself, He sees the world as a swimmer sees it.

We cannot verify Morris's notion that Reagan probably approved the illegal Iran-Contra funding without having a clue it was illegal, or that the "Star Wars" program sprang from his love of Edgar Rice Burroughs's first novel, A Princess of Mars, which featured glass-domed cities. But however bizarre and ignorant his thoughts were, however cold his heart, Morris believes, the guy did crush the Evil Empire and achieve greatness. Morris achieves a kind of greatness, too, but one wishes he had written a more straightforward dramatization of history. --Tim Appelo

From the Back Cover:

"A compelling, richly informative, conceptually courageous book that constitutes a relentless pursuit of truth . . . the most insightful book in print about Ronald Reagan and the meaning of his presidency."
-Baltimore Sun

"A powerful and surprising portrait of a great world leader."
-USA Today

"An absolute page-turner . . . [Morris's] book is not just a riveting read. It takes as its model what is generally regarded as the greatest biography in the English language, James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson."
-The Washington Post Book World

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9780375756450: Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan

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