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December, 1999

book review


By Jonathon Alter

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan

By Edmund Morris
Random House

Click on the title to buy the book
Fittingly enough for a book about Ronald Reagan, I forget who told me this, but it makes sense:

Bob Loomis, the Random House editor responsible for Edmund Morris, apparently fell down on the job. Loomis should have told Morris during his "writer's-block years" to go ahead with the fictional device as a way of getting going, then stripped all of it (including Morris' poems) out of the final draft.

If Loomis had done so, Dutch would have been less controversial (maybe that's why he didn't) and a helluva lot better. The fictional world Morris creates, complete with a radical son and a group of ancient friends, is jarring, phony, boring and totally unnecessary. Most of the insights conveyed by the fictional characters could have been stated in the author's own voice, which would have been completely in tune with the quirky, epigrammatic, non-biographical tone of the rest of the book.

For instance, a fictional character explains that Nancy Reagan and Jane Wyman were cut from the same cloth: "Both bruised, flinchy, pushy, short fused to the point of paranoia, neurotically tidy, love to give orders." Good point; no need to adorn it with fiction. Same with the pithy characterizations of Reagan's men.

The biggest revelation in the book is how astonishingly ungrateful the Reagans were. When long-time devoted aide Mike Deaver got into legal trouble, they never called him. When the Bush family gave them expensive gifts, there were no thank you's. Morris asks Holmes Tuttle, a rich California car dealer and supposedly close friend, if there was anything he ever wanted in return for bankrolling Reagan's entire political career and serving in the kitchen cabinet that got him into government. Tuttle said that all he ever asked for was a night in the Lincoln Bedroom. The Reagans finally invited him just as they were about to vacate the White House. "Too late," Tuttle told them. Isn't there something between selling the place off, la Clinton, and stiffing those who helped you most?

Morris makes occasional good use of his access, telling us, for instance, what those Reagan-Bush weekly lunches were like. (Reagan at one point simulated masturbation with a Tabasco Sauce bottle.) Some deftly told anecdotes succeed in conveying just how distant and ultimately cold Reagan really was. Even now it still amazes me that he didn't even recognize his own adopted son Michael at his graduation.

But if the book works as impressionism, it fails as history. The larger conclusions ("There was never a politician less interested in the past") are forced and often false. And Morris is disturbingly uninterested in American politics. The critical 1980 campaign gets all of a page. When, during their last White House interview, Reagan starts to tell the story of the 1968 convention, Morris, by now deeply bored by Reagan, starts daydreaming (about Lord David Cecil of all people) and he never tells us what Reagan said. This is valuable history, obtainable by no one else. Having chosen to be a "writer," Morris should turn all of his notes and tapes over to a real historian.

Jonathan Alter is a columnist at Newsweek and a contributing correspondent to NBC News.

Jonathan Alter is a columnist at Newsweek and a contributing editor to NBC News

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