White House, white lies

A box of silly tricks makes this biography as credible as a clock that strikes 13.
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Dutch: a memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris (HarperCollins £24.99)

Dutch: a memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris (HarperCollins £24.99)

In 1980, Edmund Morris published the first volume of a biography of Theodore Roosevelt. It was an excellent book, and it led to a commission: to write the life of the incumbent president of the US, Ronald Reagan. As the years went by, rumours surfaced in Washington about the project: the length (more than 600 pages of text and another 200 of notes); the advance (more than $3m); the enviable access Morris had been given by the President, his wife Nancy, the White House staff and Reagan's friends.

What no one was prepared for, and indeed what the publisher kept secret, was the bizarre way in which Morris tackled his assignment. It is not just that he has used a whole cupboard full of literary techniques, from more or less straight narrative to fantasy, scrapbook, screenplay and verse, so as to produce a sort of mixed-media tribute. The result is political biography as magic realism.

Morris is no stranger to pretension. He drags in French and Latin words, then misspells them. But the most bizarre self-indulgence is that he has invented a doppelgänger version of himself, to recount episodes from Reagan's early life as if he were an eyewitness. This involves imagining a cod biographer, 20 or so years older, who purports to remember things that he has in fact learned about in the usual, boring way, by reading books and archives and interviewing people who were there.

To manoeuvre this proto-Morris into position to have been a fly on the wall of Reagan's early life, he has to be manipulated through some implausible pseudo-biography of his own. Morris compounds this trick by inventing a wholly bogus persona for this imaginary Morris's son as a Berkeley sixties radical. As it happens, I was in Berkeley in the 1960s, and Morris's account is pure cliché.

The result of this box of more or less dishonest tricks is like the thirteenth stroke of a clock. It casts doubt on all that preceded, and on all that follows. The best that can be said of Morris's silly games is that with luck they may finally bring an end to the fashionable toleration of mixing truth and fiction in biography - which is a polite way of saying mixing truth and lying.

In the case of Reagan, I should declare an interest. In 1988-9, Phillip Whitehead and I made three films about Reagan's life for Channel 4, which were sold to the Boston public TV station WGBH. It is, I admit, galling to run into interviews I did myself, quoted by Morris with the sole attribution "WGBH Archive".

That is trivial. Having interviewed more than 100 people who knew Reagan well, and having spent far less time than Morris, but still some time, with Reagan himself, I think that Morris has done his research with impressive diligence. What makes it worse is that he writes well, sometimes very well. His ability to evoke this enigmatic and misunderstood man, to bring him to life, is remarkable. Were it not for the box of tricks, in fact, this would be a fine biography, As it is, it is rendered all but unreadable by the biographer's conceited and crazy assumption that he is as interesting as his subject.

Ronald Reagan deserves better. For his is an extraordinary story. He emerged from a series of small Illinois burgs, through which he was dragged as a child by an alcoholic Catholic father and a driven, and driving, Protestant mother. As a young man, he saved 77 lives as lifeguard at the local swimming hole, and without fanfare he took off his coat and saved another drowning girl when Governor of California, aged 55. He played football, mediocrely, at Eureka, a backwoods college, and got a job as a sports announcer on a powerful radio station. He parlayed this into a job as a contract actor at Warners, and acted in a string of films which varied from the odd but interesting to the baldest turkeys.

In Hollywood he passed through a series of ideological avatars. He began as a Roosevelt Democrat. At one time, according to Morris (but how can we tell which bits to believe?), he thought of joining the Communist Party. At another, according to my own research, he became a fink for the FBI. For whatever reason (Morris believes because he was irritated by the Hollywood communists), he began to move to the Right.

When his screen career was fading, he was lucky to land a job as an ideological barker for General Electric, and after the collapse of the Goldwater campaign in 1964 he was taken up by the growing conservative movement as the Moses who would lead it to the Promised Land. This he proceeded to do. Elected President in 1980 at 69, the oldest man to enter the office, he became immensely popular only after an assassination attempt in March 1981.

As President, he was sneered at, by American liberals and especially in Europe, as a shallow buffoon. In reality, as Morris understands, he was complex and contradictory, both as a politician and as a human being. Interestingly, Morris has turned up some of Reagan's early writings, which show a modest talent but a real interest in writing.

As President, Reagan was indifferent to detail, but impressively right and courageous on the big issues. He allowed some dodgy political entrepreneurs - both the economics snake-oil salesmen and the wild men of the National Security Council - to get him into some fairly hot water. Yet in the end he was a massively successful President. He restored American self-confidence after the national near-breakdown of the 1970s. And he won the Cold War. Not single-handedl - but because he never wavered in his belief that the Soviet system was doomed as well as evil, he put pressure on it that made it crack.

Morris never really commits himself to a view of Reagan's failures and achievements. Yet this would be a considerable biographical achievement, but for the hokum. I end with a single example. Morris describes the encounter between Reagan and Gorbachev at Geneva in 1985. His sources seem to have been excellent, but conventional - subsequent interviews with both Reagan and Gorbachev, Donald Regan's autobiography, and so on. But Morris insists on suggesting that he was present, observing the meeting through a crack in the door. Was he there or not?

At one level, it doesn't matter. At another, it matters a great deal. Because for whatever reason, he has chosen to write his otherwise intelligent and talented book in such a way that we literally don't know what to believe. The clock, I'm afraid, has struck 13.