In response to:
Reconstructing Ronald Reagan from the March 1, 2007 issue
To the Editors:
When ancient news stories harden into received opinion, there is little one can do to rewrite them. But Russell Baker’s prestige as a reviewer impels me to deny his allegation [“Reconstructing Ronald Reagan,” NYR, March 1] that I wrote Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan the way I did, because I was “baffled” by my subject.
In September 1990 the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia invited me, as Mr. Reagan’s authorized biographer, to address a forum of its members about the progress of my work. The understanding was that the session would be closed to the press. Thinking myself to be among fellow scholars, I confessed that for a year or two after beginning to interview him in 1985, I had been mystified and depressed by his opaque personality. I could not understand how so magical a public performer, and so acute a political intelligence, could be so banal, even boring, in private.
I had kept quiet about this while he remained in office, because if any of his senior staff (let alone his wife) felt that I was disillusioned with him, my White House pass would have been withdrawn with the speed of a subway ticket machine. But as anyone who writes honest biography knows, the profession is a lonely one, and there are times when one needs to schmooze with one’s peers. Unfortunately, the Miller Center’s press office did not honor its promise of confidentiality, and released a transcript of my remarks.
By good luck I heard about the resultant story (“President’s Biographer Can’t Understand Him”) while it was still humming along the wires, and managed to telephone a mea culpa to Nancy Reagan before she read it in her morning newspaper. She was willing to accept that periods of frustration, even despair, are normal in the early stages of that most presumptuous of tasks, the effort to write—and make imaginative sense of—a man’s life.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “We all have our problems with reporters.”
My free access to Mr. Reagan continued through 1994, when he announced he had Alzheimer’s disease and retired from public scrutiny. By then, I had long since passed out of darkness in my perception of him—stepped, as it were, through the “wall of light” that he had found so protective, as a young movie actor in Hollywood.
I make no defense here of the unorthodox technique I used to write his life: it deliberately invited controversy, and people are entitled to say what they choose about Dutch. But they should know that the book remains the documented fruit of fourteen years’ study, and has been praised as much for its revelations of a very strange man as it has been criticized for its method. Three of Mr. Reagan’s four children publicly stated that in reading it, they came to comprehend their father.
New York City
Russell Baker replies:
My conclusion that Edmund Morris had been baffled in his attempt to understand the essential Reagan was not based on an ancient newspaper story but on my own reading of his book immediately after its publication. I went back for a fresh look at Dutch a few months ago, and found no reason to change my judgment.
April 12, 2007