Dutch: A memoir of Ronald Reagan

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9780007102624: Dutch: A memoir of Ronald Reagan

The authorized life of Ronald Reagan written by America’s most innovative and Pulitzer Prize-winning political biographer. This unprecedented book breaks through all conventional definitions of biography.

‘Poor dear. There’s nothing between his ears.’ So Margaret Thatcher described Ronald Reagan. But the Iron Lady, when in the ‘poor dear’s’ presence, giggled like a schoolgirl. ‘One could not talk to him for more than a few minutes without being aware of the ordinariness of his mind,’ says Helmut Schmidt. But Mikhail Gorbachev, deconstructor of communism, is now despised by his people, while the most popular boys’ name in the former USSR is Ronald. Indisputably Ronald Reagan the everyday person was opaque, pedestrian, ignorant, a hollow man – now incapacitated by Alzheimers. Yet, as President–Governor–Actor–Announcer – Lifeguard Ronald Reagan became a creature of the American folk imagination with the power to tap into vast resources of nostalgia in the American people. He is a myth; the sum total of all American fantasies. It is this Reagan that is the subject of Edmund Morris’s book. Morris has been working on the authorized biography of Ronald Reagan since 1985. He has become intimate with Reagan himself, Nancy and their children, and has had unrestricted access to all Reagan’s private papers. This would be enough to ensure a significant and lasting biography of this extraordinary American. However, Morris combines these benefits with enormous powers of scholarship and a literary imagination beyond compare. The result is a book truly revolutionary in form. Reagan’s biography is written with a biographical doppelganger following Reagan through each phase of his life, showing how the life of Reagan integrates with his times, and explaining the great and so-far elusive mystery of the extraordinarily potent link between Reagan and the American people. This book succeeds in making literature out of the life of America’s Actor-President. There has been nothing like it before.

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Review:

Why did Pulitzer Prize-winning Theodore Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris controversially choose to write his authorised biography of Ronald Reagan in the form of an historical novel? There's a clue in a quote the book attributes to Jane Wyman, Reagan's first wife. As Ronnie speechified about the Red menace at a 1940s Hollywood party, Wyman allegedly whispered to a friend, "I'm so bored with him, I'll either kill him or kill myself." This anecdote, if true, is more revealing than Nancy Reagan's charge in the book that Jane had attempted suicide to get Ronnie to marry her in the first place. Jane was no intellectual--Morris cracks that "If Jane had ever heard of Finland, she probably thought it was an aquarium"--but Morris found to his horror, after years of research, that he felt much the same as Jane. Reagan was as boring as a box of rocks and elusive as a ghost.

Decades before Alzheimer's clouded Reagan's mind, he showed a terrifying lack of human presence. "I was real proud when Dad came to my high school commencement", reports his son, Michael Reagan. After posing for photos with Michael and his classmates, the future president came up to him, looking right in his eyes, and said, "Hi, my name's Ronald Reagan. What's yours?" Poor Michael replied, "Dad, it's me. Your son. Mike."

Despite deep research and unprecedented access--no previous biography has ever been authorised by a sitting president--Morris could get no closer to Reagan's elusive soul than his children could. So he decided to dramatise Reagan's life with several invented characters--including a fictionalised version of himself witnessing scenes in Reagan's life that happened before Morris was born and an imaginary gossip columnist who makes wicked comments on Reagan's career. This is a strange tactic, forcing one constantly to consult the footnotes at the back to sort things out and Morris makes it tougher by presenting his invented characters as real even in the footnotes.

Ultimately, the hubbub over Morris's odd method is beside the point. His fictionalising is rooted in Bob Woodward-like research, and his speculative entry into Reagan's life and mind is plausible, dramatic, literary and lit by dazzling flashes of insight. We cannot verify Morris's notion that Reagan probably approved the illegal Iran-Contra funding without having a clue it was illegal, or that the "Star Wars" program sprang from Reagan's role as Brass Bancroft, who used an Inertia Projector to zap bad guys, and his love of Edgar Rice Burroughs' first novel Princess of Mars, which featured glass-domed cities. But however bizarre and ignorant his thoughts were, however cold his heart, the man did crush the "Evil Empire" and, in Morris' opinion, achieve greatness. Morris's book is as bizarre as its subject but he achieves greatness too. --Tim Appelo

From the Publisher:

The only biography ever authorized by a sitting President
This book, the only biography ever authorized by a sitting President - yet written with complete interpretative freedom - is as revolutionary in method as it is formidable in scholarship. When Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in 1981, one of his first literary guests was Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt. Morris developed a fascination for the genial yet inscrutable President, and after Reagan's landslide re-election in 1984, put aside the second volume of his life of Roosevelt to become an observing eye and ear and the White House.

Coming and going with Reagan's benign approval, he found the President to be a man of extraordinary power and mystery. Although the historic early achievements were plain to see - restoration of American optimism and patriotism, a re-powering of the national economy, a massive arms build-up deliberately forcing the `Evil Empire' of Soviet Communism to come to terms - nobody, let alone Reagan himself, could explain how he succeeded in shaping events to his will. And when Reagan's second term came to grips with some of the most fundamental moral issues of the late twentieth century - at Bitburg and Bergen-Belsen, at Geneva and Reykjavik, publicly outside the Brandenburg Gate and deep within the mother monastery of the Russian Orthodox church, Morris realized that he had taken on a subject of epic dimensions.

Thus began a long biographical pilgrimage to the heart of Ronald Reagan's mystery, beginning with his birth in 1911 in the heart of rural Illinois (where he is still remembered as `Dutch', the dreamy son of an alcoholic and fiercely religious mother), and progressing through the way stations of an amazingly varied career: young lifeguard (he saved 77 lives), aspirant writer, ace sports announcer, film star, soldier, union leader, corporate spokesman, Governor and President. Reagan granted Morris full access to his personal papers, including early autobiographical stories and a hand-written White House diary.

This pilgrimage climaxes in 1993, when in a moment of aching poignancy, Morris escorts his aged and failing subject back up the stairs of his birthplace. `An odd, Dantesque reversal of roles had occurred, as if I were now the leader rather than the led.'

During thirteen years of obsessive archival research and interviews with Reagan, his family, friends, admirers and enemies (the book's enormous dramatis personae includes such varied characters as Mikhail Gorbachev, Michelangelo Antonioni, Elie Wiesel, Mario Savio, Francois Mitterrand, Grant Wood and Zippy the Pinhead), Morris lived what amounted to a doppelganger life, studying the young `Dutch', the middle-aged `Ronnie', and the septuagenarian Chief Executive with a closeness and dispassion, not to mention alternations of amusement, horror and amazed respect, unmatched by any other presidential biographer.

This almost Boswellian closeness led to a unique literary method whereby, in the earlier chapters of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, Morris's biographical mind becomes in effect another character in the narrative, recording long-ago events with the same eye-witness vividness (and absolute documentary fidelity) as he later describes the great dramas of Reagan's presidency, and the tragedy of a noble life now darkened by dementia.

`I quite understand', the author has remarked, `that readers will have to adjust, at first, to what amounts to a new biographical style. But the revelations of this style, which derive directly from Ronald Reagan's own way of looking at his life, are I think rewarding enough to convince them that one of the most interesting characters in recent American history looms here like a colossus.'

Edmund Morris was born in Kenya and educated at the Prince of Wales School, Nairobi, and Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. He worked as an advertising copywriter in London before emigrating to the United States in 1968. His biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt won the Pulitzer Prize and American Book Award in 1980. In 1985 he was appointed Ronald Reagan's authorized biographer. He has written extensively on travel and the arts for such publications as the New Yorker, The New York Times and Harper's, and is a music critic for the Washington Post. The second volume of his Roosevelt biography, Theodore Rex, is currently under way, and will be followed by a third. Edmund Morris lives in New York and Washington D.C. with his wife and fellow biographer, Sylvia Jukes Morris.

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