The Book On Reagan

He seemed placid, even becalmed, but Ronald Reagan swept over the nation like a wave. Was he, as so many of his detractors believed, an amiable dunce? If so, how did he change the course of history? As president, he restored national confidence, launched an economic boom, and, with Mikhail Gorbachev, ended the cold war. Reagan led the West (and much of the rest of the world) away from Big Government to an era of Free Markets. Republicans pine for him; even many Democrats grudgingly grant Reagan the president's greatness. Yet to friends and foes alike Reagan the man seemed familiar yet enigmatic--elusive, mysterious, just out of reach.

He flummoxed his authorized biographer, too. In 1985, Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," was given complete access to President Reagan, his papers, his aides, his friends and his family--and a $3 million contract from Random House. Seven years later, Morris was, by his own account, "desperate. I wrote a lot, but it was sterile stuff," says Morris. "I knew something was seriously wrong. Reagan was eluding me even as he eluded everyone else." In contrast to Teddy Roosevelt, who was "all exterior--everything he said or wrote revealed the man," Morris says Reagan was "totally interior. He lived inside his head, in the proscenium of his own imagination. He was not a deliberate deceiver. It never occurred to him to let anyone in his thought processes because that was where he lived all the time." And so Morris cast about for a way to break his writer's block and tell Reagan's story.

The method he chose is already provoking controversy among scholars and critics, and it may befuddle many readers. Morris created an imaginary character, a fictional contemporary to observe "Dutch," Reagan's nickname as a youth. The early narrator is given a fictional, detailed family background, a school history and friends. Along about 1968 in the narrative, the character becomes Morris himself, and by the Reagan presidency Morris is watching his subject at first hand, often perceptively and always vividly. Though there are brushes between the imagined narrator and the protagonist, Morris is careful not to put words or thoughts into the mouths or minds of historical characters, including Reagan. In an interview, the author described his tortured 14-year effort to craft "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," which NEWSWEEK excerpts this week. The author is well aware that his unorthodox approach is risky, but he defends it as both intellectually honest and the only way to let the reader see the world as Reagan sees it: cinematically and imaginatively.

Does the book work? Did Morris go too far in inserting a fictional figure into a work of presidential biography? Readers will have to decide for themselves, and the early evidence is mixed. When news of the device broke last week, Maureen Dowd called it "Forrest Gump biography" in The New York Times; Stanford University historian David M. Kennedy told NEWSWEEK that though he has not yet read the book, word of Morris's technique has "all my claxons and alarms... going off." One NEWSWEEK editor was confused when he read the opening chapters, unable to understand how Morris, whom he had met and who is 59, could possibly be in his mid-80s--the age the narrator of the first half of the biography would have to be. True, the jacket copy cryptically refers to the device, but otherwise there is no warning to the reader that nearly half the book to come, although based on fact, is told through fictional eyes. Looking to the footnotes won't necessarily help: Morris uses some of them to offer supporting documentation for his narrator's family background. The book is massively documented and gracefully written, but the author--and the cast of fictional characters who form a circle around the imagined narrator--can intrude on the story; there is, at times, too much narrator and not enough Reagan. This is not anything like traditional biography, and readers looking for a chronological, analytical assessment of Reagan's life and legacy will be disappointed--and many will no doubt view this cinematic biography as yet another assault on the ever-weakening line between fact and fiction.

How did this happen? When Morris first met Reagan at a state dinner in 1981, he found the president to be "large, benign, an attractive but bland personality. I couldn't conceive of writing more than a paragraph about him." Seated next to the president at a lunch a year later, "I thought he was shatteringly banal," says Morris. When friends close to the president began to broadly hint that Reagan would welcome Morris as his biographer, the author, deep into volume II of "Theodore Roosevelt," brushed them off. But he began to have second thoughts. Invited to dine with the Reagans at the White House residence in the winter of 1985, Morris found Reagan staring across the Mall at a statue of Thomas Jefferson. "I stand here and he looks back at me," Reagan explained, majestically, yet somehow quite unselfconsciously. The moment charmed Morris--and piqued his sense of grandeur and romance. He was beginning to see the possibilities for a dramatic narrative, and decided he wanted to write about Reagan after all. "So I went right to the top," Morris recalls. "I went to Nancy." The First Lady was agreeable and set him up with White House imagemeister Michael Deaver. "It was astonishingly quick and easy," Morris recalls. The Reagans made no demands. "Nancy's a control freak, but she never once even asked to see the book." (Morris sent her a copy via FedEx to arrive last Saturday.) The author was granted reasonably free access within the White House, though wary aides barred him from some sensitive meetings. He met alone with the president about once a month.

The attraction quickly wore off. Though he saw no signs of Reagan's Alzheimer's until after the president left office, Morris found his subject sometimes vacuous. "After three or four meetings, I realized that culturally he was a yahoo and extremely unresponsive in conversation. When you asked him a question about himself, it was like dropping a stone into a well and not hearing a splash. I never got anywhere in interviews, except for odd moments of strangeness, like the time I showed him a leaf and he began talking about his boyhood." Morris's spirits revived somewhat when he began to read Reagan's personal diary after Reagan finished his second term in 1989. "They were unemotional, pragmatic, thoughtful--not analytical, but cool and collected." The president, in the author's view, had a healthy ego but no vanity. Reagan did meticulously count how many times his speeches were interrupted by applause, Morris notes, "but more as a professional, measuring how well he was doing."

Despite his growing admiration for Reagan, by 1992 Morris was miserably blocked. "I felt I just couldn't do it. My subject resisted orthodox narrative and analysis," the author recalls. "The surface reality of Reagan was boring. His everyday conversation was boring. His documents were boring. He was a mystery that had to be plumbed, and I could only plumb it with this inspiration I had." The lightning struck one day as Morris stepped on an acorn as he wandered the campus at Reagan's alma mater, Eureka College, in Illinois. "I literally got the taste of electricity in my mouth," Morris recalls. "I thought of Reagan. If only I could have been there in the fall of 1928! I could describe him as vividly as I could describe him as president." Morris began to think that, in a sense, he had been there. "All biographers make an intense imaginative leap into the reality of the past. I knew literally what it was like at Eureka. I had studied old photographs, put them up close to my nose. My idea was to give physical form to the biographer's mind. It was there already. I just gave it flesh."

Thus was created the fictional narrator, born in 1912, the son of Arthur Morris, scion of a wealthy Midwestern family. The fictional narrator goes to school in England and brushes up against Reagan at a Dixon High football game, where he develops a fascination from afar. Morris did not stop at one manufactured character. He also created a newspaper columnist, Paul Rae, "to give a bitchy, gossipy, humorous point of view," and a son for the fictional narrator, named Gavin, who becomes a fierce student radical railing and plotting against the conservative Governor Reagan in California in the late '60s. "I had to acknowledge that this was a biography of someone who was violently controversial," says Morris, "who a large portion of the population detested and was afraid of."

Morris never warns the reader that these characters are fictional. "The idea would have died on the page," Morris insists. "It would be like an actor turning to the audience in the midst of a performance and talking in conversational tones. I didn't want to break the spell." At one point, Morris considered a total bluff--putting out the book under another author's name. "Obviously," says Morris, "an impractical idea."

Morris's Reagan lived in the theater of his own mind, where the president created an ideal world that sometimes bore little relation to reality. That Reagan was able to make the real world more like his imagined one at times is a testament to his will and his manipulative powers. Did the president really believe, for example, in the Strategic Defense Initiative? "To him," says Morris, "it was a twinkling, floating reality there in the sky." Reagan recalled the image of a protected city from Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Princess of Mars" and from his days playing Brass Bancroft, the federal agent who used an "Inertia Projector" to save the day. Pretty far out--and yet "Star Wars" may have finally convinced the Kremlin that it could not compete in a high-tech arms race. At times, Morris seems to shake his head in wonder. Readers, too, may be shaking their heads at Morris by the time they finish his book.

As he finished the manuscript of "Dutch," Morris noted that this is "a strange book about a strange man." About that, at least, there can be no debate.