A Biography at War with Itself

A Memoir of Ronald Reagan
By Edmund Morris
Random House 874 pp $35

Believe me, I longed to be the first reviewer of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan to find value in author Edmund Morris' use of ''semi-fictional'' characters, including himself, to tell the life story of one of the great Presidents of the 20th century. After all, in his Henry IV plays, didn't Shakespeare use a fictional character named Falstaff to disclose truths about a historical figure, the young Prince Hal? And didn't Reagan, the Hollywood actor, constantly make himself up? So why couldn't Morris debut a heroic protagonist in order to shed light on a President that the author had come to know so well?

Alas, I can only offer some advice if you decide to wade into this long and maddeningly confusing tome: Read the prologue, then skip immediately to chapter 28. In this 23-page snapshot that covers the period from Reagan's 1981 Inauguration night until he was shot two months later, Morris is exquisite, showing the promise of what the biography could have been. The author manages to imbue this one chapter with the treasure he was given--10 years of regular access to the Gipper, wife Nancy, Reagan's children, and all his top aides and closest associates. Then keep reading until you get to the epilogue. You will see an author sailing (and sometimes adrift on) a sea of anecdotal riches. The material is so bountiful that the reader senses why Morris may have lost his way in the first 400 pages. And thankfully, the author largely abandons the ''let's invent me'' technique.

None too soon, either. For this was supposed to be a book about Reagan, not Edmund Morris. As others have observed, most of Dutch is a tortured amalgam of fact and fiction that constantly leaves the reader wondering: ''Did this really happen or is Morris making this part up?'' Worse, the author drones on about his own made-up life (and really, you just don't care) at the expense of Ronald Wilson Reagan's, whose journey from Tampico, Ill., to Hollywood, to Sacramento, to the White House is the stuff of a rich American tale.

It's not that the insights aren't here. Reaganites fume that Morris needlessly deprecates Reagan as a buffoon whose rise to President still mystifies the author. Not true. Provided you can get through the author's constant sidetrips into his own bogus life, you won't be mystified any more by Ronald Reagan. On that score, Morris is a genius.

Of the Gipper's early years, Morris writes, ''There was something attractive about the simplicity of his enthusiasms--Eddie Cantor, the Olympics, last night's social, next week's game--and his urgent desire to tell us what we already knew.'' As President, Reagan prevailed, Morris explains, ''by simply not noticing obstructions. Thus, when one deflects him, he assumes he has changed course voluntarily, and if it rolls out of his way, shows neither surprise nor gratitude.''

There are some new revelations: Morris says that Reagan lost half his blood when he was shot and was closer to death than most people realize. His portrait of Ronnie as a young man is amusingly insightful. Reagan appears as a handsome, earnest, but somewhat boring guy. An actress-acquaintance, Joy Hodges, tells a story of trying to avoid going on a horseback-riding date with him by hiding in a closet. When Reagan arrives at heR door, ''he just keeps ringing, ringing, ringing. I thought he'd never go away....You can't believe that purposefulness!'' First wife Jane Wyman was often driven from the breakfast table by Reagan's attempts to read whole pages of the morning newspaper to her.

One of Morris' best insights: Reagan never stopped viewing life as he did during his summers spent as a teenage lifeguard at Lowell Park beach. ''The swimmer enjoys a loneliness greater, yet oddly more comforting, than that of the long-distance runner. One tunnels along in a shroud of silvery bubbles, insulated from any sight or sound other than vague perspectives of water, and the muted thunder of one's own arm strokes and breathing. Others may swim alongside for a while, but their individuality tends to refract away, through the bubbles and the blur. Often I have marveled at Reagan's cool, unhurried progress through crises of politics and personnel, and thought to myself, he sees the world as a swimmer sees it.''

And Reagan was hardly a simpleton. ''The perfectly paced jokes, the easy, apt quips scribbled on the bottoms of thousands of photographs, and above all the clarity of his diaries, letters, and speech drafts all testify to the fact that he retained a useful intelligence through two terms as President,'' Morris writes. The author's conversations with Reagan elegantly reinforce this point.

Clearly, Morris should have gone one way or the other. A good writer, he could have woven his research into a truly outstanding biography. Or he could have gone for what Joe Klein attempted in Primary Colors or Robert Penn Warren did in All the King's Men, writing a historical novel to reveal higher truths. What we are left with here is the literary equivalent of an elaborately staged historical production, marred by an impromptu puppet show put on for no apparent reason. While not exactly a disgrace--for this book will be referenced for years to come by historians--it's truly one of the strangest biographies to emerge in years.


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A Biography at War with Itself

PHOTO: Cover, ``Dutch''

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