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Reagan Biographer Makes Himself Historical Figure--Literally

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a man whose biography of Ronald Reagan has touched off a cultural storm, Edmund Morris is remarkably soft-spoken and polite, flinching only slightly at the questions that dog him wherever he goes: Why did he thrust himself and fictional characters into the story of an American president? Has he written a biography that can be believed?

Eyes narrowing, the historian conceded in an interview Wednesday that he has taken liberties, but in no way diluted the veracity of his newly published book. Frustrated by a subject who he said “is incapable of self-analysis,” Morris suggested that he had no choice but to blaze a novel trail into the former president’s inner life.

“I wanted to bring to his first 70 years the same closeness of observation, visual and auditory, that I was able to bring to his presidential years,” said Morris, who was appointed Reagan’s official biographer in 1985. The nattily attired writer, interviewed in Random House’s Manhattan offices, enjoyed extraordinary access to the White House--interviewing Reagan regularly and sitting in on innumerable meetings. But he conceded that the device of adding fictional characters to describe earlier events was needed to “enrich” his epic story.

Invents an Earlier Life for Himself

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At key junctures, for example, Morris the narrator invents an earlier life for himself and encounters the young Ronald Reagan, long before he entered politics. During the turbulent ‘60s, the intense dislike many college students felt for Reagan is conveyed chiefly through the eyes of Gavin, the narrator’s fictitious son. To embellish the story, Morris offers footnotes “documenting” the lives of these unreal characters.

Whether Morris’ gambit succeeds with readers or not, his book sparked a heated debate among historians and cultural critics over the meaning of historical truth, weeks before “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan” even appeared in bookstores. Morris has been accused of being a mixed-up post-modernist, a writer with an epic block, a biographer nonplused by a great subject, and a historian who blew the chance of a lifetime and in the process degraded the art of biography. The fact that Kenya-born Morris, 59, is a highly respected historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for the first volume of a 1979 life of Theodore Roosevelt, has only deepened the furor.

“Morris added to the myth about Reagan, but he hasn’t penetrated it, like a good historian should,” said Robert Dallek, who wrote a two-volume biography of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. “This was supposed to be a serious work of nonfiction, but instead it’s marketed as a titillating commercial product.”

Readers will tire of the fiction in “Dutch,” critic Camille Paglia predicted, suggesting that “it just sounds like very bad, very lazy writing. I mean, who’s more important here--Morris or Reagan? What he [Morris] has done seems almost masturbatory.”

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Yet others refuse to condemn Morris’ novel approach. “My first reaction was, this could be a stroke of genius,” said Eric Lax, who has written books about Woody Allen and Humphrey Bogart. “What Morris has done here is either very revolutionary or it could be a huge, huge error.”

In some respects, the hubbub is simply the latest wrinkle in a long-running clash between traditionalists and innovators over the chronicling of public lives. Lytton Strachey, a Victorian considered to be the progenitor of modern biography, sparked controversy for putting the “imagined thoughts” of subjects into his portraits. The technique blossomed with the “New Journalism” of the 1960s, giving writers free rein to interact with their nonfiction subjects. More recently, author Joe McGinniss drew critical heat for putting the imagined thoughts of Edward M. Kennedy into “The Last Brother,” a much-maligned 1993 biography of the Massachusetts senator.

The surprisingly intense argument over “Dutch” comes when more people are reading biographies--and watching them on TV--than ever, feeding a national hunger for stories about celebrities and grand narratives that seem lacking in much of contemporary American fiction, or life.

But the flap also highlights concerns over the impact of an entertainment-driven culture on serious nonfiction writing. How far can a biographer go in bringing his subject to life? It was a vexing problem for Morris, because he said that Reagan in private was not a particularly loquacious man. At times, Morris said, he despaired of being able to finish the book.

“Reagan illustrated the phenomenon that actors have no real identity unless they have a great role to play,” the author noted. “His conversation in private was stultifyingly banal. He had no intellectual interests, no irony, no perceptions. But as soon as he had an audience, he began to emerge. And when he stepped onto the world stage, he became transformed.”

To flesh out his narrative, Morris created vivid characters and drew on their commentary to provide crucial witness at important moments in Reagan’s life. This enabled him to become the “fly on the wall” that biographers long to be. And although some may express dismay, Morris said he and others are exploring a new frontier in biography, “the imaginative and actual relationship between biographer and subject . . . all the mysterious minglings and refractions which so often occur.”

Writing Boring, Filled With Jargon

Historical writing needs a shot in the arm, because much of it is boring and riddled with jargon, he added. Many academics “are going through a period of profound angst because their discipline has become so sterile, so abstract, and they are doing quite a bit of soul-searching to revive the form.”

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Some historians, recognizing this, say Morris should not be criticized so hastily, especially since few have even read his book. Richard Norton Smith, a biographer who has directed the Reagan, Hoover, Eisenhower and Ford presidential libraries, suggested that Morris “wrote an unconventional book about an unconventional man. And I think biography is a wide enough field that we shouldn’t rush to denounce any innovation. History should be more generous.”

As history, “Dutch” is a decidedly mixed bag: Riveting passages about the attempt on Reagan’s life in 1981 are blended with imaginary Hollywood “scripts” detailing key moments in Reagan’s development. Morris unearths high school fiction written by Reagan, explores the theory that his first wife, Jane Wyman, forced a marriage proposal by threatening suicide and tells the little-known story of the death of Reagan’s day-old child Christine. Much of “Dutch” is a fascinating read, and it is clear that the author has immense regard for Reagan, the man and president. But is it biography?

“I think it’s absurd to say that making up something helps you tell a historical story better,” said Joyce Appleby, a UCLA historian and past president of the American Historical Assn. “This kind of book is the product of an anything goes culture, where you can write what you want and imagination is rewarded, even if it’s shown to be harmful to scholarship.”

Amid the debate, however, there is broad consensus that Morris has unwittingly shed light on many biographers’ deepest secret--that they are highly active characters in their books, making crucial choices about what to write, what to ignore and frequently putting their own words in a subject’s mouth.

“He [Morris] has outed us,” said James Atlas, who has spent 11 years on a biography of novelist Saul Bellow. “Biographers have always been secret characters between the lines of their books. It’s like that moment in the Wizard of Oz, when you see the little man behind the screen, pushing the buttons.”

Given the dance between biographers and their subjects, it’s not surprising that imagination takes some writers much farther than others, said essayist Calvin Trillin. But the danger of too much creativity, he added, is that “life is not full of great transition sentences, and you have to respect the facts when you’re writing the biography of an American president.”

“When I heard why Morris felt so frustrated, I said to myself: ‘Here’s the ultimate case of writer’s block.’ The pressure has finally driven one of us around the bend.”

Others suggest that Morris, who got a $3-million advance for the book, may be moving beyond the biographical fraternity into more lucrative but uncharted waters. “Given all this controversy, he’s become a pop culture figure, so there’s a plus,” said historian David Halberstam. “But in doing so, he’s damaged his credentials with his profession. He was under a lot of pressure to deliver the Big Book, and pressure can cause an author to do strange things.”

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Historians aren’t the only people eager to consider Morris’ book. Slowly, Reagan’s children have begun weighing in, the author said.

“I know that Patti [Davis], Michael Reagan and Ron Reagan Jr. have said the book re-creates the father they know,” Morris noted. “But Maureen is leading the opposition.” As for Nancy Reagan, Morris said he hasn’t heard from her, and expects that he may never get a direct response. “I wrote her a letter, saying I hope she sees it as an honest portrait--after her initial shock.”


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