Edmund Morris, who became in 1985 the choice of Michael Deaver and Nancy Reagan for a curious and unprecedented post, that of “in-house historian” at the White House, or official biographer to a sitting president, was born in 1940 in Nairobi, Kenya, the son of a pilot for East African Airways, a self-described “colonial boy” who grew up believing that books were written only in “another, superior hemisphere” and who after two years at Rhodes University in South Africa, opting for that “superior hemisphere,” dropped out without receiving a degree and worked, from 1964 until 1968, as an advertising copywriter in London. In 1968, he moved with his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris, to New York, where, according to the 1989 Current Biography Yearbook, the entries in which are submitted to its subjects for approval before publication, he “applied his versatile writing skills to a variety of freelance projects…including poetry, travel ar-ticles, science fiction, radio scripts, screenplays, advertising copy, and mail-order catalogs.”
By what seems to be his own account, then, Morris’s previous career was that of a pen for hire, on the go, on the come, scrambling for the next assignment or check or byline, always on the lookout for an idea to sell and a way to maximize the research, amortize the plane ticket. The idea for a project about the young Theodore Roosevelt (“It occurred to me that this period in T.R.’s life would make an excellent screenplay,” Morris later wrote in the Wilson Quarterly, “comprising his cowboy years out West, his conquest of melancholy and ill health, and his discovery that he was destined for the presidency”) led first to the screenplay itself, which its author called Dude from New York, then to a New York Times piece about traveling the Dakota Badlands accompanied (in retrospect, interestingly) by Roosevelt’s ghost. The New York Times piece attracted the attention of a producer willing to option Dude from New York, and when the option was dropped the logical thrifty move (on the maximization principle) was to turn the material into a book.
In 1979, the year he was naturalized as an American citizen, Morris duly published The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, a reassuringly ahistorical example of popular, or “personality,” biography that in 1980 (this was the year that Sylvia Jukes Morris, in another instance of maximizing the material, published Edith Kermit Roosevelt, her own biography of Roosevelt’s second wife) received both the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in biography. His entry in Who’s Who of Pulitzer Prize Winners lists, as “Selected Works,” a Time essay on Theodore Roosevelt, a Time essay on Ronald Reagan, a piece in National Geographic Traveler titled “Romance of Cornwall,” and a New Yorker “Reporter at Large” on the Reagan library at Simi Valley, in which he reported noticing Patricia Nixon’s “ravaged face” during the dedication ceremony and thinking, rather alarmingly, “Woodward and Bernstein should be here to check out their handiwork.”
This is not an unfamiliar kind of c.v., but neither is it a conventional c.v. for an official biographer of a two-term American president. The exact process by which the inner circles of the Reagan administration came to see Morris as their ideal chronicler remains obscure. There are no references to either his selection or his presence (or for that matter his existence) in the memoirs of Donald Regan, Helene von Damm, or Larry Speakes, nor are there, more interestingly, in those of Nancy Reagan or Michael Deaver. “Don’t blame me, this was Mike Deaver’s idea,” White House aide Robert Tuttle told Morris after his appointment. “We were playing tennis one day, and I told Mike, ‘What the President needs is an in-house historian.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s already done.”‘ Selwa Roosevelt, a granddaughter-in-law of Theodore Roosevelt and at the time U.S. chief of protocol, appears to have played an early role: it was she who arranged an initial 1981 lunch with Nancy Reagan and it was she who gave the Reagans a copy of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which, given its insistence on the primacy of “character,” would have presented itself as encouraging evidence that its author could be trusted to carry through on the personality-focused “morning in America” version of events preferred by the administration. At a 1983 dinner at the Georgetown house of Senator and Mrs. Mark Hatfield, the President “lit up,” Morris tells us, when Hatfield introduced him as the author of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.
“Oh!” he breathed, warmly resting his left hand on my right hand engulfed in his other hand, “I read that. And Nancy was reading your wife’s book about, uh—“
“Edith Kermit Roosevelt, sir.”
“Yes. Those first few months in the White House, we would lay in bed and read ’em side by side!”
“Happiness,” Morris tells us, “suffused my heart.”
There appears to have been a distinct and prolonged courtship of Morris by the White House. There had been, in 1981, the lunch with Nancy Reagan. There had been an invitation to a state dinner. There had been, Fred Barnes wrote in The New Republic in 1986, certain discussions between Michael Deaver and Richard Darman, who was concerned that future historians might not see a way to let “the ‘real Reagan’ come through, the guy who changed the nation’s sense of itself by the strength of his personality.” There had then been the Hatfields’ dinner, to which not only Morris but a number of more academically grounded biographers and historians, including Daniel J. Boorstin, Frank Freidel, George Nash, and Arthur Link, were invited. “It was not until some time afterward,” Morris tells us,
that I learned that the real purpose of the Hatfield dinner had been to set me up as Reagan’s “chronicler.” So that was why Mrs. Reagan had stared so hard over her volaille de poulet aux champignons. That was why Richard Darman, the Administration’s resident intellectual, had invited me to the White House for a follow-up discussion. Presumably, I was expected to offer my pen to the Reagan Revolution.
Presumably, I was expected, offer my pen. The maidenly constructions here are worth noting. There is over much of Dutch an odd erotic cast. “He was deeply tan” is the way Morris renders an imagined moment in the life of the young Reagan as lifeguard, previously identified as he of “that hard, splendid body, those bruising arms and knees.” “He began to read. The day was hot and still. Presently he shrugged off the top of his damp suit. The loops fell away, leaving behind pale ghosts of themselves. Midges sang.” Reader, that day we read no more: this nagging undertone makes it difficult to gauge the extent to which Morris encouraged or even pressed the courtship. He tells us in Dutch that he did not.
I was at work on another volume of the life of Theodore Roosevelt, and had reason enough to keep my distance. Ironia ironorum, that I of all people should be charged with rescuing the old Lifeguard from the chill current of history!
Still, two years later, in March of 1985, he and his wife are present at “a private dinner upstairs” at the White House, a seductive occasion of “tall white freesias and tall white candles” during which Deaver “glared a message through the fragrant flames: You blew it at the Hatfields’, buddy. This is your last chance.” How Morris blew it we are not allowed to know, but on the way home that night, in “the luxury of a limousine,” he pictures himself again wrestling with temptation. There was the sight of the Capitol, which in Morris’s eyes “wavered whitely, like some Tennysonian vision. Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful. Never had Washington looked so beautiful, so full of promise.” It would be two months later, when Reagan was on his May 1985 visit to Bitburg and Bergen-Belsen, before Morris would finally succumb: swept away, he tells us, by CNN, less by watching the President on screen than by hearing, on the soundtrack, a skylark.
That bird called not only around the curve of the world separating me from Reagan in his agony, but back and back through all our years. Primarily, I suppose, it sang of loss. Loss, the biographer’s torment: longing for treasures unrecoverable, hardly assuaged by the recovery of trifles—an oar or a floating hat, after everything else has gone over the weir. Private loss, too. So many other “last chances.” Budding opportunities unblown, breasts not cupped in my hand, scripts unfilmed and books unfinished, a marriage in ashes, a boy gone underground. Loss of youth, of middle age, of Time itself. Sydney Ann. Gavin. Father. And before them all, before everybody who ever lived, young and beautiful and wise, Bess—lost, too!—singing Schubert in our big music room on Lake Shore Drive in the spring of 1919.
Well, there we are. Five pages into Dutch and already careering helplessly into its famous peculiarity, the fancy that biographer and biographee share a minutely detailed, and entirely invented, common history, bit players in each other’s lives. “Bess,” a.k.a. “the Kentish Skylark,” is the biographer’s imaginary mother, a student of lieder in Dresden and bel canto in Milan before her marriage to the equally imaginary “Father,” who spends the considerable income from the imaginary family firm (“Chicago’s leading cattle feeder, with a thirty-acre plant at Racine and Twenty-third”) on philanthropy and the Republican Party. “Sydney Ann” is the biographer’s imaginary first wife, a moody first violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. “Gavin” is the biographer’s and Sydney Ann’s “son,” and emerges in some ways as the most interesting and realized figure in the book.
“Gavin,” who was born, as Morris was, on May 27, 1940, would seem from one angle to be the author’s idealized alter ego, even his cautionary tale: there but for a deadline at National Geographic Traveler went un homme engagé. “Gavin” does not merely write or read history. Gavin is history, so ubiquitously on the scene that he could seem crafted to answer any reader of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt who happened to notice that its 886 pages remain entirely unsullied by reference to the social and intellectual movements that shaped America during its subject’s lifetime. In Dutch, by way of filling any such possibly perceived lacunae, we have Gavin, who no sooner graduates from Berkeley (summa cum laude, in philosophy and French) than he is plunging into the thick of it, off first to Port Huron to help Tom Hayden found SDS, then to Algeria to discover (before it is translated) The Wretched of the Earth. Back in Berkeley, Gavin hooks up with Mario Savio for the Sproul Hall sit-in, finds time to send his “father” prescient observations on Ronald Reagan, and, on the evening the Berkeley Academic Senate votes 824-115 in favor of “complete political freedom” at Berkeley, calls the “father” collect to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” on his harmonica. “Piper, pipe that song again!” the father/biographer reflects. “Sweet yet inevitably spending itself, it resounds across time as the very note of doomed youth.”
In dizzying montage, Gavin is next glimpsed introducing Frantz Fanon to the Black Panthers, jetting to Paris for May 1968 (“The situation’s pure Fanon”), “planning a little ‘offensive”‘ for the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, pitching in to advise Michelangelo Antonioni on the Mojave location of Zabriskie Point, and, in 1969, after Ronald Reagan as governor of California sends the National Guard into Berkeley, vanishing, never to reappear.
And that was the end of Gavin, apart from two communications. The first was a simple, unsigned telegram, dated June 23, 1969: GONE UNDERGROUND. The other, much bulkier, reached me from Oregon more than a year later when Ronald Reagan was campaigning for a second term as Governor. It was addressed in a round female hand and contained nothing but my son’s political manuscripts….
Gavin cannot have been the only Weatherman to “drop out”—awful phrase—as the Sixties became history. Hundreds of other old men, I’m sure, nurture querulous hopes that one day their graying sons will come back home from Sweden or Vancouver. But Gavin won’t. Child of the south, beach boy, desert lover, he never took to northern light. Going underground, where there was no light at all, meant the same to him as to any ancient Greek.
And it was you, Dutch, who sent him there.
Literary conceits are tricky, hard work. They can be an efficient, even elegant way of structuring intractable material, but they demand skill, craft, a kind of sapper’s nerve, the ability to direct and point and control the narrative, to locate the reader at unseen junctures, to cut invisible but carefully strung wires without detonating the device. When this kind of thing works, it works unnoticed. When it does not work, it swamps the narrative, and leaves the reader totting up errors or misapprehensions (Isn’t the restaurant in Sacramento where the politicians go named Frank Fat’s, not “Wing Fat’s”? Wouldn’t the “aggression” with which James Baker combined the “poise of Princeton” have been more “cojones-grabbing” than “huevos-grabbing”? Wasn’t it draft resisters, not Weathermen, who went to Sweden and Vancouver?) and wondering querulously why Gavin must be saddled with relieving Morris himself from the potentially sticky burden of assessing Reagan’s performance as governor of California.
“He’s got a new idea about how to write this book, which I don’t want to talk about right now, which is controversial, but it worked,” Morris’s editor at Random House, Robert Loomis, said on C-SPAN in 1997. Christopher Buckley, according to The Washington Post, was shown a few chapters by Morris at about the same time. “He had to present this new approach to Random House,” Buckley told the Post, “and I guess he was canvassing some friends for some judgment on whether it works. I said, ‘Yes, it works.”‘
There must be very few writers who would not recognize the ragged desperation in this, the sense of a writer who found himself burdened with a huge advance (three million dollars and counting, since the accrued interest due in any payback would by that point have almost doubled that figure) and a house on Capitol Hill and a book he seemed, on the evidence, to find himself further and further from getting: a man in hock to the company store. “I’ve never understood the patronizing neurosis among our print editors and our television producers that everything these days, whether it be a report from Chechnya or a new series on ‘Masterpiece Theatre,’ has to be announced, introduced, explained, ‘made easy,’ by some authoritative figure,” Morris told Newsweek, which had bought serial rights to Dutch:
Why can’t an original approach be allowed to explain itself? What’s to be afraid of in a story full of human incident and moral drama—a story that casts its own spell (I mean here the spell of Reagan’s powerful personality, and the improbable variety of his many careers) from the moment I hand the president a leaf from the tree he used to sit under as a boy, to the moment, 670 pages later, when I return to the tree and bring the huge narrative to an end?
Human incident, moral drama, leaf from the boyhood tree. Whether this particular book by this particular author could ever be “got” was in question from the outset. The project seemed, on the face of it, ridiculously overblown, even delusional: the granting of access, most writers realize, know as instinctively as they know how to listen, is less than entirely flattering, a trade-off that tends to invite accusations of bad faith. When Morris decided, in May of 1985, that he would like after all to do the biography, he wrote first to Nancy Reagan. A breakfast was arranged, at the Four Seasons, with Michael Deaver. Already retreating like smoke now that the object of the courtship had capitulated, Deaver began qualifying the terms:
“Both the President and Nancy will be writing their own books. That going to be a problem?”
I said I thought not.
“And I’m no longer in their employ, you realize that. I can get you into the White House, but after that you’re on your own.”
“Any chance of a seat on Air Force One to Geneva?”
“You’ll have to take that up with Don Regan,” Deaver said, signaling for the check.
Predictably enough, the promised access proved not entirely productive. Morris was allowed, as promised, to meet once a month with the President, each meeting lasting thirty minutes and monitored by Scheduling Director Frederick J. Ryan Jr. Even the most unpracticed interviewee can deflect even the most focused interviewer for thirty minutes, and this was an interviewer with no apparent interest beyond the personal. “What are the first memories you have of your father, Mr. President?” Morris would ask, and invite Reagan’s response to news of long-forgotten acquaintances (“Guess what—Glen Claussen’s still alive. He gave me this photograph of you singing barbershop quartet!”), or to that leaf from the oak under which, at least in Morris’s wishes, the President “used to sit as a boy.”
Given a president with no notion that the conventions of the “presidential biography” involved reference to actual events, a president who could deflect a question about the Geneva summit into a monologue on Mission to Moscow (“Somebody in the story department approved a script, uh, Mission to Moscow, without lookin’ too closely at what was written between the lines, agitprop and so forth…”), thirty minutes had a way of flying by with somewhat less in the can than a full shot.
Morris was also allowed to travel “with the President,” but not necessarily “with” him, as he learned when he flew to the Geneva summit seated between a speech researcher and a copy typist near the rear toilets of a backup 707 that left Andrews thirty-five minutes after Air Force One. Morris was allowed to attend meetings, but not meetings deemed to touch on “national security,” a pervasive area in any administration and perhaps particularly so in this one, since by the time the “in-house historian” arrived at the White House in November of 1985 the HAWKS were already in transit to Iran and the funds were already in the Credit Suisse account for the contras and Robert McFarlane was already receiving what he called “think pieces” from Adnan Khashoggi. “By the summer of 1986,” Morris rather astonishingly tells us, “I had but two vague indications that something was not right in the Reagan White House.”
Maybe expressions would be a better word, since each of them was simply a matter of the way a man looked. On the first occasion—about three weeks after we got back from Geneva—I had come across Robert McFarlane standing in black tie outside the men’s room at the Shoreham Hotel…. I stopped short, transfixed by the abject misery on his face….
The other expression that gave me pause was Pat Buchanan’s…. I was asking him about the President’s contra-aid policy…[when] he suddenly said, “Have you talked to Ollie?”
“Ollie North. Down in NSC.”
“No, what about?”
Buchanan sat silent for five or six seconds, staring at me with a quizzical look that slowly turned to disdain. I sensed that I had been weighed in some balance, and found too light.
“Nothing,” he said. But there was something.
“Something?” There was something? Since “Ollie” was by the summer of 1986 a well-known name to anyone with even a casual interest in “the President’s contra-aid policy” (a year before, in August 1985, The Washington Post had pretty much blown his cover in a piece by Joanne Omang called “McFarlane Aide Facilitates Policy; Marine Officer Nurtures Connections with Contras, Conservatives”), Buchanan could scarcely have been accused of employing an uncrackable code. “Notwithstanding my extraordinary access to [Reagan] as a person—extraordinary in the sense that no independent writer had gotten that close to a President before—it was not access to high affairs of state,” Morris complains, and then, this astonishingly passive statement: “The executive sessions I did manage to attend might as well have been conducted in Serbo-Croatian, for all I understood of them.” Right there, in the very DNA of Morris’s offhand dismissal, was the problem: however limited he might believe his White House entrée, his fatal lack of access derived from what seems to have been a striking reportorial inertia, a failure to notice, to pick up cues and follow through: what he was not given, he could be absolutely trusted not to go after.
I sensed that I had been weighed in some balance, and found too light, Morris said of his conversation with Buchanan. This “found too light” business strikes a chord. There is in Dutch a dispiriting absence of gravity, of anchoring, of actual original information. The “four hundred pages of meticulous notes,” the “massive” documentation mentioned by Morris on 60 Minutes before the book’s publication, refer to a surprising extent to accounts published by other people. The 1980s do not yet comprise a period rendered entirely unknowable by time: Deborah Hart Strober and Gerald S. Strober, for their 1998 oral history, Reagan: The Man and His Presidency, managed for example to interview, on the subject of Reagan and Iran-contra, Frank Carlucci, John Poindexter, Edwin Meese III, Lawrence Walsh, Duane Clarridge, Colin L. Powell, Terry Anderson, Oliver North, Donald Gregg, Fawn Hall, Howard Teicher, Martin Anderson, George P. Shultz, David Jacobsen, Richard Secord, Benjamin Weir, Giandomenico Picco, Robert C. McFarlane, Donald T. Regan, Eitan Haber, Adnan Khashoggi, Roy Furmark, David Kimche, Albert Hakim, Abraham Tamir, Caspar Weinberger, Craig Fuller, Nimrod Novick, Michael Ledeen, Yaacov Nimrodi, Shimon Peres, Richard Murphy, John Hutton, Uri Simhoni, Rafi Eitan, Judy Nir Shalom, Alexander M. Haig Jr., David Abshire, Barry Schweid, King Hussein, Adolfo Calero, Bernadette Casey Smith, Craig Johnstone, Cal Thomas, Elliott Abrams, James Baker III, Charles Hill, Harry Shlaudeman, Miguel D’Escoto, Manuel Antonio Noriega, Michael Reagan, Sophia Casey, Constantine Menges, Abraham Sofaer, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, William P. Clark, Stuart Spencer, William J. Crowe Jr., Michael Deaver, Geoffrey Kemp, Joseph Metcalf, John C. Whitehead, Lyn Nofziger, and Joan Quigley.
Morris, by contrast, refers mainly in his notes on this period to other people’s books, including the Strobers’, and, in the text of Dutch, rather petulantly dismisses the potential question of independent research:
Since I am writing Dutch’s personal story, and not correlating the millions of impressions of the hundreds of witnesses whose testimony fills more than fifty thousand pages of documents with titles such as Testimony at Joint Hearings Before the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, I will convey his experience of the next few months—the nadir of his Presidency—as briefly as possible, in terms of the way he heard and saw and spoke.
This is not adequate, and its inadequacy has nothing to do with the device that tends to mask it, the much-discussed “fictional” technique. Morris has frequently said that he never fictionalized anything Reagan actually said. There is no reason to believe that Morris did, since what Reagan says in Dutch so exactly reflects what we already knew of him, but neither did Morris even begin to illuminate the enduring enigma of the administration’s failure and success.
The actual “novel” in Dutch is one its author surely did not intend, and comes alive not in its obvious fictions or inventions but in those moments when the biographer himself, the living and breathing but professionally insentient researcher, reveals himself at work, tormented by the increasing divergence between the story and his understanding of it. He pays a visit to a longtime Reagan acquaintance, the late screenwriter Philip Dunne, who during the course of the interview decides to search for Jupiter with the Celestron on his Malibu bluff. “Searching for Jupiter,” Morris said, or so he tells us. “I might just call my book that!” Philip Dunne asks why, giving Morris a chance to explain: “Well, it’s an attempt to fix on a large, diffuse, amorphous object with a huge gravitational force.” Philip Dunne, Morris tells us, “pondered the metaphor.” Morris lunches with Nancy Reagan at the Bel Air, and searches for character clues. Patricia Neal leans on his arm at the Carlyle, and again he is on the track of the character, the “inner” Reagan. In November of 1987, he finds Nancy Reagan in flagging spirits, “weighed down by recent loss of her mother.”
That Nancy Reagan might also have been weighed down in November of 1987 by the imminent release of the Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair and the extent to which the matter continued to erode her husband’s presidency seems to have remained outside the stargazer’s focus, but no matter: he would lift her and the President’s mood by giving them a dinner party.
They love to go out; I could invite a bunch of writers and solicit impressions…. Discuss it with his & her social secretaries, enjoining secrecy. Within twenty-four hours, “The President and Mrs. Reagan will be delighted.” So will Design Cuisine, Inc….
The appointed evening arrives, thrillingly. There is the communications setup. There are the Secret Service snipers. There are the guests:
…literati in formal dress (Gay & Nan Talese; Robert K. Massie; Anthony Haden-Guest; Marion Elizabeth Rodgers; Kenneth & Valerie Lynn), all peering fascinatedly out the bay window as Dutch and Nancy approach…. The park opposite crowded with press; champagne chilling, the round table dense with flowers and silver—while the air inside and out vibrates with the high, nervous featherings of a helicopter.
This is, for a biography of the most famously absent president in American history, fairly safe ground. Asked on 60 Minutes if Nancy Reagan would like Dutch, Morris said, “My guess is that she’s going to be disturbed by it, because it observes her husband very, very objectively. And I do not hide the fact that Reagan was frequently an old, spaced-out man, inattentive to details.” But what could there have been, at this late date, to “not hide”? Old, spaced out? “I don’t have any real problem with a reporter or news person who says the President is uninformed on this issue or that issue,” David Gergen said at the American Enterprise Institute in 1984. “I don’t think any of us would challenge that. What we learned in the last administration is how little having an encyclopedic grasp of all the facts has to do with governing.” Inattentive to details? “He’s a big-picture man,” Edwin Meese said of Reagan early on, during the period when it was reported that the President could not locate the office of his chief of staff. “He doesn’t have to paint that every day. He painted it a long time ago. The fact that somebody has reorganized the department of widgets doesn’t interest him.” Just two months into Reagan’s first term, Elizabeth Drew, in The New Yorker, was already reporting concern among the President’s advisers that he not appear in public as “remote,” or “disengaged,” or “a marionette President.” Where, eighteen years later, would the “objective observer” have thought to “hide” all this? Under the leaf from the boyhood oak?
“I want to do a detailed, literary work on personality as power,” Morris told Time in 1986. “Presidential biographers in particular must focus on how personality translates into real power,” he told The Washingtonian. “Personality as power fascinates me,” he told Fred Barnes. This is a perfectly meaningless formulation, but one close to the central fiction of the Reagan administration: more here than meets the eye, the great communicator, over the heads of the media, star power, big-picture man, the “real Reagan,” “the guy who changed the nation’s sense of itself by the strength of his personality,” do it for The Gipper. This fiction, that an ineffable contract not only with the electorate but with history resided in the presence of this clearly frail figure in the Oval Office, remains intact in Morris’s hands. “I think he was a great man and a great president,” he said about Reagan on 60 Minutes. Even the tendency to proceed from fantasy could be transmuted into a character trait, and a positive one: “His will was so enormous that it resisted logic,” and in any case “the fantasy worked out to our advantage.” Asked if he was talking about “the fall of communism,” he said,
Yes, and the moral regeneration of the United States. When he became president, we were full of self-doubts. The national spirit was at rock bottom. And overnight there was this mysterious change in the national self-image. It was so quick that it can only be ascribed to him.
The speaker could have been Richard Darman, or David Gergen, or anyone else who found himself or herself in the position of fronting what was from the outset this extremely novel administration; someone in the Reagan White House, way back at the inception of this project, whether it was Michael Deaver or Nancy Reagan or someone else altogether, took the measure of the man and made a shrewd calculation: this Morris was someone who could see himself on the team.
November 4, 1999