May 13, 2013 | 8 comments
April 12, 2013 | 35 comments
March 25, 2013 | 5 comments
January 31, 2013 | 35 comments
November 29, 2012 | 10 comments
Edmund Morris failed at one of his most important undertakings.
This Living Hand: And Other Essays
By Edmund Morris
(Random House, 500 pages, $32)
IN A PIECE APPEARING in TAS in 1993, and included in this collection, Edmund Morris, a Kenyan educated in South Africa who had made his living as an advertising copywriter before writing an award-winning biography of Theodore Roosevelt, lauded Ronald Reagan for publishing “an extraordinary essay, ‘Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation,’ in the Human Life Review.”
The president’s essay, written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, was later reprinted in a book published by Thomas Nelson, along with contributions by C. Everett Koop and Malcolm Muggeridge. “Taken together,” Morris wrote, “the three pieces read today as eloquent but dated testimonials to a time when—for a shining moment even briefer than Camelot-—it seemed that the Constitution might be amended (or reinterpreted) in defense of our least articulate, most vulnerable minority.”
Morris believes the premature death of Ronald Reagan’s daughter Christine, born to his first wife, Jane Wyman, and dying nine hours later, intensified his abhorrence of abortion. “Whatever the cause, one has to admire, in these days of presidential pusillanimity, the courage with which Mr. Reagan confronted a fundamental human problem.”
Then, half a dozen years later, Morris’ biography of Reagan appeared, and Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (as has been noted by many, an odd use of the term “memoir”; also somewhat odd was the dedication to Christine Reagan) brought on a storm of critical denunciation (except from anti-Reagan liberals, who loved it), perhaps best summed up by the splendid if caustically honest New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who called it “bizarre, incomprehensible and monstrously self-absorbed.” (Morris called her review a “hissy fit.”)
The book featured a fictional narrator, and criticism was intense among those who believed that such techniques had no place in biography. One of the milder responses came from a reviewer in Library Journal, who cautioned librarians to think twice before cataloguing Dutch as nonfiction.
But Morris didn’t back down. “I see no reason why [biographers] should not broaden our technique to employ those of arts more fully developed than ours—fiction above all,” he writes. Whether fiction is “more fully developed” than biography is open to argument. But that aside, to many it seemed that Morris had taken the precepts of New Journalism as practiced by Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese one step further—instead of applying fictional techniques to writing nonfiction, he just fictionalized his subject.
What happened? A Pulitzer Prize biography of Theodore Roosevelt in his back pocket, a demonstrated talent, a huge publisher’s advance, the run of the White House, unprecedented access to papers, people, and the president himself—how could he fail? But as the years ticked by, the rumors began to swirl; the word in the writing/talking/publishing world was that Morris’ production was sputtering, and his publisher was getting nervous about that advance.
And as is often the case in Washington, the rumors turned out to be true. The problem, as borne out by the final product, was that Morris just couldn’t get a handle on his subject. Morris, an intellectual and literary man of high attainment, was unable to believe that Ronald Reagan was exactly what he seemed to be: a strong, principled man who knew exactly who he was and what he believed, and who never for a moment doubted the rightness of his cause.
But where’s the irony in that? Where’s the conflict between base and noble motives? Where are the kinks and quirks? The hidden weaknesses? The buried secrets? Not there? Not possible. He’s human, after all, and all humans are flawed.
“[A] couple of years of observation and research,” he writes, “compelled me to admit (if only to myself) that the orthodox presidential biography I had begun was likely to be stillborn.”
And so, compelled by conscience (and no doubt the prospect of having to return some of that splendid advance), he started over, making Ronald Reagan into a fictional character, inventing a ubiquitous character named Edmund Morris and a female gossip columnist, and turning it all into something very much like a second-rate historical novel, with a flawed central character. And in the process, his admiration for the man he once praised in these pages for his forthright stand on abortion appeared to fade into active dislike.
IN THE BEGINNING, there was a touch of romance, a Chris Matthews moment. Because of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris and his wife were invited to a state dinner in 1981, at which he briefly spoke to Reagan on the receiving line (and assumed, of course, that Reagan had read his book cover to cover). Later in the evening, he writes, Michael Deaver told him that if he wanted “to apply to become the president’s authorized biographer, he and Nancy would probably say yes.”
At first Morris chose not to. But then, “Over the next few years it became obvious that Reagan was becoming a seriously important president…the balance of world power was dipping in Reagan’s direction, and that his was the muscle forcing the change.” Then came the controversial visit to Bitburg, preceded by a stop at the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, where he laid a wreath and made a speech on the Holocaust. Morris watched on television:
What he [Reagan] saw in there [Bergen-Belsen] put an expression on his face of such anguish that I felt my heart constrict. A skylark sang out, its trill vibrating across the Atlantic and into my living room. At that moment, I was overcome with literary desire.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online