New Reagan biography shows a man absorbed in a fantasy world

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The Independent Online
THERE IS an old man in California who spends his days sweeping leaves from his swimming pool - leaves that are quietly put back by his guards so he has something to do. He is Ronald Reagan, once President of the United States of America, now reduced by Alzheimer's disease to a shadow of his former self.

This is just one image from a new biography of Mr Reagan, Dutch by Edmund Morris, to be published later this week.

Mr Morris has shocked and upset many old Reagan aides by his strategy of inserting himself into the book as a fictional character. This Edmund Morris has a fictional birthdate, fictional family, and a series of fictional encounters with Mr Reagan as he moves from sports announcer in Des Moines to the White House and retirement in California.

Mr Morris explained his methods to Newsweek magazine. His work with the President was getting nowhere, he said: "When you asked him a question about himself, it was like dropping a stone into a well and not hearing a splash."

It was then he decided to take the step that would make Mr Reagan's character come alive: he would imagine himself there with Reagan at every stage of his life, just as Reagan himself used imagination to create a fictionalised version of his own life. "He lived inside his head, in the proscenium of his own imagination. He was not a deliberate deceiver."

This is, as Morris puts it, "a strange book about a strange man". The picture of Reagan which results is richly detailed yet strangely elusive, and not just because of the narrator. Did Jane Wyman stage a suicide attempt to inveigle the young Reagan into marriage? Did the assasination attempt on him in 1981 fatally compromise his health? And what does he really think about the great world issues that passed by him (or passed him by)?

"In fairness toward Ronald Reagan," said Morris, "even those most horrified by his encyclopeadic ignorance must accept that a President-elect has been fielding hundreds, sometimes thousands, of questions a day, and often has to improvise policy or call up anecdotes on the spot. What horrifies, though, is that Reagan says exactly the same things when he is fresh, and after he has been repeatedly corrected."

Morris leaves us with a wistful portrait of a man who lived inside his own mind, now finding that there is nowhere to go any more, as his sense of self fragments. Whatever one thinks of Reagan, it will bring tears to the eyes of anyone who has watched a relative or friend suffer the same changes.

Morris describes him clutching a small replica of the White House from his fish tank. "He takes it home, wet in his fist: `This is ... something to do with me ... I'm not sure what'."

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