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Dutch : A Memoir of Ronald Reagan

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

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