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To Tell the Truth

Lou Cannon is the author of three biographies of Ronald Reagan, including "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime." He covered Reagan's gubernatorial terms for the San Jose Mercury News and his national campaigns and presidency for the Washington Post

I

Ronald Reagan, the most pleasant of modern presidents, was a frustrating interview. While usually friendly and invariably polite, he preserved the mystery of leadership by keeping himself to himself. When pressed, he deflected questions with well-worn anecdotes delivered with a practiced twinkle.

White House correspondents affectionately called Reagan “the Gipper” but would come reeling out of the Oval Office after an interview wondering how to explain to their editors that an hour with the president had produced no news. Nor was such frustration confined to journalism. In writing three biographies of Reagan, I often pored many times over transcripts of extensive interviews, hoping to find some neglected scrap of information.

Edmund Morris, author of a well-regarded biography of Theodore Roosevelt, was commissioned as Reagan’s official biographer in 1985 and soon learned that access did not guarantee learning much about “Dutch,” as Reagan was called in pre-Hollywood days. After numerous interviews, he found himself wondering, “How much does Dutch really know?” The difficulty of answering his question drove Morris to despair. At a forum of historians at the University of Virginia in 1991, he said he had endured “a year or so of depression because I felt that with all my research, how come I can’t understand the first thing about him?” Morris emerged from his depression only when he realized that others with better access, even Nancy Reagan, were similarly bewildered. Reagan, he told the historians, is “the most mysterious man I have ever confronted. It is impossible to understand him.”

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In an administration where loyalty was preached more than practiced, Morris’ problems were compounded by a proliferation of what Kenneth Adelman called “kick-and-tell” books by former aides who repeated gossip usually left for biographers. Morris had access to Reagan’s diaries but found them of little value, especially after the best entries were skimmed off the top by Reagan for his 1990 memoir, “An American Life,” a book Morris uncharitably calls “the most boring book of its kind since Herbert Hoover’s ‘Challenge to Liberty.’ ”

Then, in 1994, after a courageous letter to the American people explaining his plight, Reagan passed into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease. Morris was left to unravel Reagan on his own. This task was so daunting that it led him to abandon the hardscrabble methods of traditional biography. Incredibly, Morris, who was born three decades after Reagan in 1940, decided that he would project himself back in time as Reagan’s fictional contemporary and narrate his climb from Illinois obscurity to the White House. Morris is quoted by the publisher as saying this is “a new biographical style.” It is in fact a common device of historical novels and works well enough in good ones. Adapting the technique to biography, however, requires a fidelity to facts and some recognizable distinction between the subject’s life and the narrator’s inventions. These qualities are lacking in “Dutch,” in which Reagan is reduced to a supporting role by the imaginings of narrator “Arthur Morris” and his family and friends. Then, as soon as the narration gets rolling, Edmund Morris interrupts it with other techniques, notably a fake screenplay called “The Ronald Reagan Story.” He also confusingly breaks into Arthur’s narration with comments of his own.

II

Even if one tolerates the techniques, “Dutch” suffers from Morris’ tendency to rework familiar material and present it as original. He writes, for instance, that in an Oval Office conversation with the author, Reagan’s eyes flashed “blue anger . . . when I boasted that I had tracked down his first fiancee.” Reagan responds, “Oh, you found out about her, huh.” But what was there to find out or track down? Reagan wrote about this fiancee, his college sweetheart, Margaret Cleaver, in his 1965 autobiography, “Where’s the Rest of Me?” Her whereabouts in Richmond, Va., where she was Margaret Cleaver Gordon, was no secret. When Morris calls on her, she tells him exactly what she told my researcher in 1981 and various reporters at other times: Reagan is a “nice man,” and she doesn’t want to say anything negative about him.

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In fairness, the mother lode of Reagan’s childhood had been thoroughly mined by the time the Kenyan-born Morris came to the United States from London in 1968. Two years earlier, Reagan had been elected governor of California, and droves of reporters descended on Dixon, Ill., to interview anyone with even a remote connection to him. Garry Wills, who lives in Illinois, examined the record and separated fact from fiction in “Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home,” a contextual 1987 masterpiece that also dissects Reagan’s radio and acting careers. Wills showed that Reagan from an early age displayed qualities of tenacity and courage--notably as a lifeguard who worked six summers from 1925 to and rescued 77 people from the swift currents of the Rock River, which flows through Dixon. Thanks to Wills, the perception that Reagan was a lifeguard in a larger sense became a central metaphor for other biographers, including me and Morris.

Reagan biographers are drawn, as poor swimmers seem to have been to the Rock River, to the nurturing influence of Reagan’s mother Nelle and the alcoholism of his father Jack. On Jack’s drinking, no biography matches the emotional force of “Where’s the Rest of Me?” In a searing passage, Reagan recalls that when he was 11 he came home on a cold winter day to find his father “flat on his back on the front porch and no one there to lend a helping hand but me.” Jack Reagan’s arms were spread out “as if he were crucified--as indeed he was.” The slender boy managed to drag his muscular father off the snowy porch and deposit him in bed. Morris patronizes the autobiography as “eccentric” and fails to recognize what a valuable clue the book provides to Reagan’s rectitude. Reagan knew from a tender age that his father’s binge drinking cast a deep shadow on his family. Traumatic experiences such as dragging one’s drunken father out of the snow teach children of alcoholics to guard their private lives. Reagan was aware of this; he discussed it with me, knowing that I was also the child of an alcoholic father. Though he did not reveal the innermost secrets of his life to me or anyone else, the reason for his reticence is no mystery.

As Morris glides through Reagan’s radio days in Iowa and film career in Hollywood, Arthur Morris takes over the story, indulging sensual reactions (his, not Reagan’s) to feminine anatomy, including the breasts of Reagan’s mother. Arthur is preoccupied with sex. He describes Reagan and Patricia Neal in London during the 1949 filming of “The Hasty Heart”: “The popular nose for sexual chemistry is acute, and these two tall splendid American animals with adjoining suites gave off no whisk of musk.” Why tell us that two people were not having an affair? Morris might better have devoted his “new biographical style” to examining Reagan’s film career and how he used it as a springboard to politics. Instead, he dismisses Reagan as “a bad actor” in “Brother Rat,” the 1938 movie that paired him with his future wife, Jane Wyman. There is more to Reagan’s acting than that. Though Reagan was no great star, he showed a talent for light comedy and for self-deprecating humor that served him well on the political stage. Readers seeking a balanced assessment of Reagan as an actor should turn to “The Films of Ronald Reagan” by Tony Thomas or Wills’ “Reagan’s America.” Wills concluded that Reagan succeeded in playing “the heartwarming role of himself.”

In exploring Reagan’s first marriage, Morris accepts the conventional explanation that it failed because Wyman became “bored” by her husband’s preoccupation with Screen Actors Guild issues and politics. Wyman told this story in court at a time when it was necessary to show “extreme mental cruelty” or worse to obtain a divorce in California. But Wyman remained active on the Guild board without any show of boredom after divorcing Reagan in 1949. A better explanation is that she had lost interest because she had leaped beyond Reagan as an actor. Wyman won an Oscar for “Johnny Belinda” (1948) and attended the award ceremonies with co-star Lew Ayres, prompting Reagan to quip, “I think I’ll name ‘Johnny Belinda’ as co-respondent.” Morris relegates this tell-tale comment to his chapter notes. These notes, by the way, are often more polemical than scholarly. Morris has a disconcerting habit of praising books when they serve his purpose and derogating their authors when they do not. For instance, after many citations to Anne Edwards’ interesting “Early Reagan,” he gratuitously lambastes her book as “error-ridden.”

Stranger than any of the chapter notes is the book’s dedication: “In memoriam, Christine Reagan, June 26, 1947.” She was the premature baby of Reagan and Wyman, whom Morris says in “Dutch” lived only nine hours. An article by Morris in the American Spectator of August 1993 was titled “In Memoriam, Christina Reagan” and says the infant survived three days. What was her name--Christine or Christina--and how long did she live? And what is the significance of this puzzling dedication? Morris doesn’t tell the readers. Much later, when Reagan speaks at the former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen on May 5, 1985, Morris writes: “Did the ghost of Christine Reagan hang in that damp air?” Why would it? More likely, any ghosts who hovered at Bergen-Belsen were of the 60,000 persons whom the Nazis murdered there.

As a reporter who covered Reagan in Sacramento, Washington and on the campaign trail, I checked out numerous wild stories that never made it into print. None of them was as farfetched as the one Morris tells about Reagan’s supposed application to become a member of the Communist Party. Reagan was a New Deal Democrat in the 1930s. After World War II, when some liberals still held warm and fuzzy feelings toward the recent Soviet ally, Reagan joined three Communist-influenced organizations. He soon became disillusioned and emerged as an ardent anti-communist and, as later revealed, an FBI informer. Morris’ contribution to this oft-told account is an improbable accusation that Reagan sought to join the Communist Party in 1938 and was rejected because “word came back that Reagan was a flake.” Morris said he was told this, 52 years after it supposedly happened, by writer and ex-Communist Howard Fast, who named two people he said could confirm it. But when Morris goes to the two sources, they do not provide confirmation. Had the accusations been valid, the Communists surely would have revealed it during the 1950s, when Reagan as president of the Screen Actors Guild was helping implement the notorious Hollywood blacklist. Absent evidence--or common sense, for Reagan was not considered “a flake"--Morris should have dropped this story from his book.

III

As the years passed, Reagan’s film career declined, but he prospered in his new marriage to the supportive Nancy Davis and in his new job as spokesman for General Electric. He also became a conservative Republican. In 1964, Reagan burst onto the national scene with a resonant televised address for GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. The speech, a version of the patriotic anti-government message he had given since his GE days, established Reagan overnight as a leading conservative politician and launched him on a successful bid for the California governorship in 1966.

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Morris does not do justice to the 1966 campaign or to the nature of Reagan’s political appeal. Reagan’s opponents scoffed at the idea of an actor becoming governor, but it was hardly outlandish in a state that even during the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964 had elected Reagan’s friend, song-and-dance man George Murphy, to the U.S. Senate. Reagan sensed that his reputation on screen and off as a wholesome good guy would immunize him against attempts to demonize him as an “extremist,” the Democratic strategy that destroyed Goldwater. As Michael Barone observed in “Our Country,” Reagan “spoke in the idiom of the 1940s movies . . . which had been universally watched [and] which had appealed winningly to almost every segment of society.”

In “Dutch,” realistic political analysis wages a losing battle with novelistic technique. Reagan is seen through the eyes of yet another fictional character, “Gavin Morris,” the narrator’s tormented son. As a teenager, Gavin was haunted by nuclear nightmares: “I saw God’s face burning, filling the whole sky, and he looked just like a Chinaman.” By the time Reagan runs for governor, Gavin is an alienated student at UC Berkeley who reads Herbert Marcuse and talks of revolution, sounding more like a European leftist than an American one. Because so much of the campaign is told through Gavin’s letters, Berkeley overshadows everything else. In defeating two-term incumbent Gov. Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown, Reagan certainly exploited what he called “the mess at Berkeley.” But he also took advantage of the Watts riot of 1965, which Morris mentions in passing, and a lesser but high-visibility riot in San Francisco six weeks before the election, which Morris does not mention at all. Morris might have benefited from the account in Bill Boyarsky’s “The Rise of Ronald Reagan,” a useful book not included in the bibliography. By 1966, racial conflict had frayed the Democratic coalition, casualties were mounting in Vietnam and the steam was gone from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and from Brown’s administration in Sacramento. An orthodox biography such as “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” would surely have explored this context. But “Dutch” focuses on the travails of Gavin Morris, who joins the Weathermen and goes underground and out of the book with a curious epitaph: “And it was you, Dutch, who sent him there.”

Morris pays meticulous attention to invented characters but is careless about real-life details. He faults Ron Reagan, Nancy and Ronald Reagan’s son, for disdaining the use of “junior.” But since Ron’s middle name is different than his father’s, he is no junior. Assemblyman Bob Moretti, a Democratic leader in Sacramento during the Reagan years, was not known as “Macho Bob.” Frank Fats, Sacramento’s most famous political watering hole, is not “Wing Fats.” William P. Clark, Reagan’s chief of staff in Sacramento, left the administration not for “private life” but the judicial bench. Such small-bore errors are recurrent and bothersome, but Morris makes more serious mistakes. He asserts, for instance, that Spencer-Roberts, the political consulting firm that ran Reagan’s campaign, worried that anti-communist passages in his autobiography were too “bellicose.” But in many of his speeches at the time, Reagan was more anti-communist than he was in “Where’s the Rest of Me?” What actually concerned Spencer-Roberts was that mention of Reagan’s leftist fling after the war might alarm conservatives. Morris says that Spencer-Roberts distributed “thousands” of copies of the autobiography to reporters in a perverse tactic to persuade them not to write about it, a statement that is silly on its face. Stuart Spencer does not recall giving out any copies of “Where’s the Rest of Me?” Mine came from a Democratic operative who also believed Reagan would be harmed by his brief flirtation with the left.

Morris’ treatment of Reagan’s two-term governorship is hasty and haphazard. One would not know from this book that Reagan eventually made his peace with the University of California and increased its funding by 100% during his eight years as governor. Nor would a reader learn that Reagan supported what was then the largest (and most progressive) tax increase in state history. The tax bill was crafted by Democratic Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, who believed it was sound policy but miscalculated that it would damage Reagan politically. Unruh, his party’s nominee for governor in 1970, lost but ran more strongly against Reagan than any other Democrat ever did. He is unaccountably absent from “Dutch.”

Also absent is the historical context of the permissive abortion rights measure that Reagan signed into law in 1967, prompting Morris to accuse him of having “blood on his hands.” But this was before Roe v. Wade and the rigid drawing of abortion battle lines into “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Most Western conservatives in the 1960s believed, with Goldwater, in the nostrum that government should stay out of the boardroom and the bedroom. A solid majority of Republicans in the California Legislature adhered to this view. The abortion rights measure, introduced by a Democratic state senator, was sponsored in the Assembly by a Republican, who assured colleagues that Reagan would sign it. Morris says that Reagan felt “an undefinable sense of guilt” after doing so. My memory is that he also expressed relief, mistakenly believing that he had put to rest an issue that was just beginning to have a vital impact on American politics.

IV

In 1976, Reagan nearly wrested the Republican presidential nomination from incumbent Gerald Ford. Had he succeeded, Morris believes that he would have gone on to defeat Jimmy Carter, although Reagan himself was uncertain of this, and Spencer, then with Ford, believes Reagan would have split the GOP, as Theodore Roosevelt had in 1912. Carter was a fresh face in 1976, not the inflation-damaged incumbent of 1980 who, after failing to free the Americans held hostage in Iran, had lost the confidence of the American people. Even so, the 1980 campaign was no walk in the park; Reagan held a slight lead in mid-October before the famous debate where he flashed his trademark humor to demolish Carter with a practiced, “There you go again.”

Morris undervalues Carter. “Dutch” includes a vignette in which Carter meets with academics, including Morris, to discuss his memoirs. Morris suggests Carter should begin with his walk down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day. Carter, whom Morris renders in a cracker version of a Georgian accent, will have none of it. He wants to begin with the March 9, 1976, Florida primary. Morris thinks this idea is a real thigh-slapper, but Carter knows more than Morris about American politics. That Florida primary ended the political career of George Wallace, no mean feat, and disposed of Carter’s most serious opponent, Sen. Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson.

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Such condescension toward a wide range of targets is a recurrent and unpleasant feature of “Dutch.” Morris includes a vignette in which financial backer Holmes Tuttle angrily describes how the Reagans reneged on a promise that he and his wife could spend a night in the Lincoln Bedroom and another in which George Bush complains that Reagan didn’t thank him for an elaborate gift, while Barbara sits nearby “knitting dangerously a la Madame Defarge.” Morris even attacks “poor Arthur” Schlesinger, the distinguished historian, as being “compromised, biographically speaking, by being a salaried member of the Kennedy administration.” But Schlesinger was a Kennedy partisan long before he received any salary. Was he more compromised than Morris, who received a $3-million book advance on the strength of being Reagan’s official biographer?

V

After many circumlocutions, Morris finally gets to the Reagan presidency, which takes up less than a third of the book and is devoid of systematic analysis. When Morris became official biographer in mid-1985, the focus of the administration had shifted from domestic to foreign policy. Morris was not allowed in discussions involving national security issues and makes no pretense of knowing what happened behind the scenes beyond the sketchy entries in Reagan’s diary. Through no fault of his own, he necessarily relied on previously published accounts in analyzing the foreign policy achievements and setbacks of Reagan’s presidency.

The most important of these setbacks was the Iran-Contra affair, which damaged but did not destroy Reagan’s reputation. Morris gives a one-sided account, putting the entire blame for the Iran arms sales on national security advisor Robert (“Bud”) McFarlane, an earnest ex-Marine who in a moment of stress tried to take his own life because he also faulted himself for the fiasco. But more is needed than to take McFarlane’s emotional reaction at face value. McFarlane did, with Israeli encouragement, initiate the arms deal in an attempt to cultivate supposed Iranian moderates. But the arms sales were ordered by Reagan, in a well-intended but mistaken attempt to gain the freedom of American hostages held by pro-Iranian militants in Lebanon. Amazingly, Reagan took this action over the opposition of Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who realized that using hostages as currency inevitably would lead to the capture of additional hostages, as it did. Reagan deserves responsibility for the arms sales. Although he was slow to acknowledge wrongdoing, he did not put the blame on others and would take a dim view of his biographer’s attempt to make McFarlane the scapegoat.

Morris does better with Reagan’s achievements, notably the establishment of a symbiotic relationship with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “Dutch” provides a useful eyewitness account of the initial Reagan-Gorbachev meetings in Geneva in 1985. Reagan at these meetings is no actor following a script but a leader with strong opinions who listens carefully to the representative of the country he had called “an evil empire.” Gorbachev intuitively senses that Reagan is special. Years later he tells Morris that “at once I felt him to be a very authentic human being.” Paying attention to the body language of the two leaders as well as their words, Morris recognizes that Geneva is a prelude to bigger things. It is a compelling glimpse of what this book might have been if Morris had stuck to traditional biography.

Alas, Morris seems to have an attention span considerably shorter than his subject’s and soon drifts from what might have been the definitive account of the four substantive meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev. Morris was not permitted to accompany Reagan to the 1986 summit at Reykjavik, Iceland, which he re-creates serviceably from accounts attributed mostly to books by Kenneth Adelman, an arms control advisor, and Don Oberdorfer, then the diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post. But Morris was present at subsequent summits in Washington and Moscow, the latter a prologue to the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, and writes almost nothing about them. His most extensive comment in two skimpy pages on the 1988 Moscow summit involves an exchange between Morris and a Soviet editor who promises to publish “Dutch” in Russian and give it “an excellent review.” Such self-promotion pervades “Dutch.” Morris refers often to Theodore Roosevelt, even lamenting that sales of his TR biography were below expectations, and sprinkles the book with irrelevant quotations from Clare Boothe Luce, the subject of a biography by his wife Sylvia.

“Dutch” skimps on Reagan’s domestic programs even more than on his foreign policies. Judge Robert Bork, storm center and symbol of Reagan’s significant effort to push the federal judiciary in a conservative direction, is not mentioned in the book. Indeed, the entire years of 1987 and 1988 are reduced to a 23-page chapter called “Album Leaves,” consisting of scattered entries from Morris’ diary, some of them with peripheral connection to Reagan. Anything to do with economics gets short shrift. In his last interview of Reagan, Morris asks him to list the “seminal” moments of his presidency and writes that “my heart sank” when Reagan begins by mentioning his tax program. Morris finds this boring, but Reagan’s tax cuts are crucial to an evaluation of his presidency. Reagan’s boosters say these tax cuts created the foundation of our present economic prosperity; his critics reply that they also produced enormous and damaging budget deficits. No one denies they are seminal.

The best of “Dutch” is a moving account of Reagan’s slide into Alzheimer’s. After Reagan’s announcement of his ailment in a poignant letter on Nov. 5, 1994, there were whispers he had suffered from the disease while still in the White House. Morris himself fueled such speculation on public television in 1997 but persuasively refutes it in “Dutch,” using not fictional techniques but the traditional methods of biography. After examining Reagan’s diary, Morris writes: “The diary--all eight years of it--was uniform in style and cognitive content from beginning to end. There was no hint of mental deterioration beyond occasional repetitions and non sequiturs, and if those were suggestion of early dementia, many diarists including myself would have reason to worry.” Morris says Nancy Reagan later told him in a tearful telephone conversation that her husband’s condition soon declined dramatically “with the final letting-go coming immediately after finishing his letter.” She recalled how he had survived a bullet wound, cancer and a 1989 riding accident and concluded, “I’m a doctor’s daughter. I can handle anything medical, but not . . . this.”

Despite the saving grace of this section, this odd memoir does not explain Reagan, let alone answer the question Morris poses at the beginning of the book: How much does Dutch really know? Morris says that the Alzheimer’s letter made him realize that he loved Reagan, but much of what he writes is contemptuous rather than loving--at one point, he calls Reagan “an apparent airhead.”

Similar slurs were hurled at Reagan in his first campaign when he was a novice politician who was underestimated by his opponents. That was a mistake then, and it is astonishing to find it repeated more than three decades later in an official biography. Like him or leave him, Reagan was a leader. Walter Lippmann wrote that the greatness of Charles de Gaulle was not that he was in France but that France was in De Gaulle. So, too, was America deeply inside Reagan. As president, he displayed a sense of purpose and a resonant commitment to freedom that at its best evoked memories of Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan’s ally Margaret Thatcher wrote that “from the strong fortress of his convictions [Reagan] set out to enlarge freedom the world over at a time when freedom was in retreat--and he succeeded.” Thatcher knew Reagan’s weaknesses; he could be repetitive and awesomely stubborn. But neither she nor Gorbachev found him mysterious. Nor did the American people, to whom Reagan seemed an open book. Morris is right to think that there is more to Reagan than is seen on the surface, but a practiced reluctance to reveal himself in interviews does not a mystery make. Indeed, the real mystery of “Dutch” is why Morris thought that Reagan was such a mystery. He was a private man, to be sure, but his intentions were rarely in doubt.

At the end of the book, Morris reveals that his invented narrator was among the 77 people saved by Reagan, “the old Lifeguard,” from drowning in the Rock River. The narrator--is it Arthur or Edmund?--suggests that Dutch also rescued his country “in a time of poisonous despair.” This pat melodrama does not come close to saving this strange book, which long before this unconvincing ending has gone down for the third time.


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