The Magazine

Ronald Reagan and his Imaginary Friend

Edmund Morris's "memoir" of the fortieth president

Oct 11, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 04 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Somewhere in this collage of fancy, notes, and errant musings might be found a legitimate biography of the fortieth president of the United States. Certainly, Edmund Morris did not spend the last fourteen years idly waiting for the muse to seize him. Quite apart from his unprecedented access to Ronald Reagan and the presidential diary, he poured through thousands of boxes in the Reagan library and interviewed hundreds of sources. If the literary affectations and fictional aberrations were ruthlessly torn from Dutch, might a skilled editor uncover a valuable account of Ronald Reagan?

Not really. Strip away Morris's pretentious bric-a-brac, and what would be left is still a grossly inadequate biography. The high points of a historic presidency are consistently misinterpreted and distorted. Reagan's great accomplishments are minimized or glossed over while irrelevant failings are dwelled on. The 674-page tome (followed by 155 pages of notes) is filled with irrelevant and tedious digressions, yet hurries over an incomplete exposition of great events. It is difficult to believe that this is the Edmund Morris who wrote so elegant a conventional biography as The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

The trepidation the admirers of Reagan felt while waiting for this long-over-due book (originally scheduled for 1991) derived from two sources. It was rumored that Morris would report that Alzheimer's disease actually seized Reagan while he was still president. And it was feared that Reagan would be presented as a hollow man, a puppet king manipulated by his captains.

Neither fear now seems justified. One of Morris's least equivocal findings is that the disease did not seize Reagan until he was at least three years out of the White House. And Morris makes clear that, for better or worse, the important decisions of the Reagan administration were the president's own.

But having said this, Dutch presents -- and embroiders -- the conventional liberal wisdom about Ronald Reagan, and the book will be read with satisfaction by the president's detractors. Over the last three years of the presidency Morris (as the authorized biographer and silent observer of presidential meetings) had the opportunity to view Reagan closely, and in Dutch he refers to the president's "encyclopedic ignorance" and "hardening of his mind." Reagan lacked "intellectual energy" and "had long since abandoned inquiry for the reiteration of old certainties." "Reagan was, after all, an old man, with scar tissue near his heart and steadily atrophying powers of concentration." "An apparent airhead" emerged in the interviews with the author. "Beyond amazement, I was distressed by the relentless banality, not to say incoherence, of the president's replies."

This surely was not what Nancy Reagan and Michael Deaver had in mind when, entranced by the Pulitzer prize-winning biography of Roosevelt, they selected Morris to write about the man whose greatness they wanted to preserve for posterity. Whatever the inherent merits or demerits of court biographers, the choice of Edmund Morris was monumentally bad.

A native Kenyan and naturalized American, Morris is neither an academic historian nor a professional political writer. An advertising copywriter in London and New York before surprising the world with his Roosevelt book, he makes it clear that he neither likes nor understands politics. Dutch disposes of Reagan's 1980 campaign in a page and a half and his 1984 reelection in half a page. It is as though David Halberstam disdained basketball when he set out to write his biography of Michael Jordan.

Just as Jordan is essentially a basketball player, so Reagan was quintessentially a politician, from all the way back to his early manhood. Morris's failure to come to grips with this reality leads him to complain about his "unfathomable" subject, with secrets "buried in the alabaster depths of Ronald Reagan." He quotes a supercilious Canadian ambassador to Washington as calling Reagan "the most enigmatic character of modern times." When Morris tells Reagan this, the president replies in shock: "That's me? I think I'm an open book."