"Well, it's a hell of a Christmas present," I wrote back ࠬa Oscar Wilde, "One needs a heart of stone to read such stuff without laughing." EDMUND MORRIS IN DUTCH A HEART OF STONE indeed. You've heard the controversy surrounding the Reagan bio by Pulitzer Prize-winner Morris, the guy who—on the strength of his excellent book on Theodore Roosevelt—became Ronald Reagan's "official" biographer. The guy who was paid $3 million by his publisher and given unprecedented access to the President. The guy who admitted that Reagan gave him such a case of writer's constipation that it took him 14 years to squeeze the book out. And the guy who was only able to accomplish that by employing a literary emetic that involved inserting a fictionalized version of his own life into the story of Reagan's real one. Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan
by Edmund Morris (Random House, $35) He's also the guy whose book was hyped on 60 Minutes, debated before it was read, and excerpted in Newsweek, the magazine whose biggest previous claim to "biography" fame was its publication of the "Hitler diaries." The result has been a fast-selling and much criticized work. Reagan insiders bristle that Morris' fictions are utterly unnecessary and that the author simply failed to tell the obvious story that was right under his nose: Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of the 20th century, his character was exactly what you saw, his accomplishments speak for themselves. He ended the era of big government, put an end to the Red Menace, liberated 600 medical students in Grenada, and made America proud again. Morris dismisses much of this criticism as coming from conservative ideologues and Reagan insiders who resent his more unflattering judgments (including that, in private, Reagan was an incomparable bore. Shocking!). It probably doesn't help that the liberal elite have long considered Reagan a fiction in his own mind, a man who mistook his life for a sequel to Hellcats in the Navy. By fictionalizing the Reagan story at all, Morris has committed a highly subversive political act that has longtime Reagan-haters like Gore Vidal drooling with anticipation. The fact that a writer who not only knew Reagan, but voted for him twice, felt stymied by the man is vindication for liberals who have always believed that there was no there there. Other critics, including other Reagan biographers and historians, have attacked Morris' tactics, if not his dilemmas. Sure, some admit, Reagan and his popularity may be inexplicable, or his politics abhorrent, but that's no reason for Morris to turn into an Oliver Stone in search of a larger "truth." How can anyone trust what Morris says when so much in the book, including many characters and footnotes, are fictional? Did Morris really need to imagine Reagan's life through hokey made-up film scripts, a vast correspondence with a nonexistent son who floats through the important political moments of the '60s, and an imaginary flight over the Midwest via dirigible? Did Edmund Morris need to transform himself into Forrest Gump in order to understand the Gipper? WHAT MANY CRITICS are not saying, however, is that the book is just plain overwritten. While there are some lovely passages and fine description that clearly stand above the kind of plodding, academic writing one finds in many biographies of "big men," Dutch is packed with purple prose to such a degree that the debate over the moral and artistic merits of Morris' method is a minor issue by comparison. The book is at its best when it is least pretentious, taking us through the facts of Reagan's rather remarkable life and rise to power; but it is more often at its worst—throughout nearly all 700 or so pages, we see the writer trying to goose his material with Meaning. Here, for example, is Morris riffing on Reagan at age four: Parzival. Perceval. Pierce-vale—"the way of dedication, of the Heart," John Matthews writes in The Grail. All his life, Ronald Reagan has ridden a long road dissolving, at the limit of sight, into something scintillant yet ethereal. His vagueness about that vision is the typical mythopoesis of Fools or mystics. Here he is reflecting on the infant Ron's possible exposure to his mother's amateur theatrics: One can only guess how much Dutch absorbed, subconsciously, of her performance as Millie. Now that he has reverted to the equivalent of infancy, does Nelle [Reagan's mom] pace again across some dim proscenium in his brain, her face ghastly with fuller's earth, her young body showing through cotton-field tatters, raising the rafters with maternal passion? And here he is describing young Ron the lifeguard jumping into the water: Black night, black water; Dutch flinging off his glasses, plunging into a limbo whose dynamics were as fluid as anything in Einstein's theory of relativity. No fixed point of departure (he dived off a bobbing platform); no fixable point of distress; only the memory of a sound somewhere, a sound no longer audible as he swam. Yes, that's Ronald Reagan, all right: A holy fool of a lifeguard whose senile subconscious now lingers over his mom's nakedness. Scores of passages like these, some rattling on for pages, make the reader yearn for some Reagan-style simplicity or the release of an ice-pick lobotomy. (Interestingly, one case Morris does make is that Reagan, in fact, was a very good writer, and he would have done well to follow the Great Communicator's example of getting to the point.) Even worse, when Morris isn't inflating detail with Meaning, he's trying to upstage his subject. His imaginary character takes center stage time and again, taking part in the historic moments, even rubbing shoulders with Dutch in college, Hollywood, and elsewhere. But making a Zelig-like appearance isn't enough: Morris wants to tell you what he thinks and what he ate for breakfast. He wants you to know that he's immensely literate—far more so than his subject—and both the imagined and real Morris adore throwing Latin, French, and German phases in whenever they can, usually superfluously, so that terms like "critical moment" become "le moment critique." In short, Morris seems not so much an interested observer of Reagan as someone who is superior to him and must endure the indignity of being paid to write about him. We are constantly asked to compare Reagan's simplicity with the author's own, often imagined, complexity and depth. DUTCH IS THE WORK of a desperate man with a big subject and a big idea that are, apparently, beyond his skills—or more relevantly, the skills of his editors. He is more Ed Wood than Ed Morris, grappling with Dutch like a rubber octopus, inserting his own pathologies intrusively into his work with the kind of instinctive self-destructiveness you find in howlers like Glen or Glenda or Plan 9 from Outer Space. He empties his intellectual attic, he chews the carpet, he throws everything he has at you, but none of it convinces you that Zombies Conquered the White House. And you can see the strings on all his special effects. All of which is entertaining in its way, but (to keep the Wood analogy alive past its natural life), Morris should have stuck to Grant Wood. The great artist's "American Gothic" is perhaps the definitive portrait of Ronald Reagan and his heartland roots. This is a truth Morris stumbles upon early in Dutch, and one wishes he had just gone with it instead of lapsing into literary excess: Reagan's personality and the politics that flowed from it have a flat, American clarity that is both shallow and profound.