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Edmund Morris failed at one of his most important undertakings.
(Page 2 of 2)
As a result, he applied to become the president’s official biographer, was accepted, and was given unlimited access to the president and his papers—something previous presidential biographers would have killed for. And so what went wrong? Who strangled that songbird?
Late in the game, when things had begun to go south, he writes of popping in on Reagan unannounced. As proof of the advanced state of Alzheimer’s, he notes that the president didn’t seem to know who he was or what he was jabbering about. Memory failure, no doubt. But might it not also be that the president just never really paid much attention to him or what he was up to? He was just there to do the job he was hired to do, after all. And Reagan always gave him what he seemed to need to do that job, in the same way he gave his speechwriters what they needed to do theirs. Beyond that, it’s highly unlikely that Reagan would think of Morris as his buddy, much less his confessor. He was just a hired craftsman.
And as for of Nancy Reagan, who as he says always treated him courteously and whom he comes close to vilifying, might it not be that she sometimes wondered why this somewhat disheveled man with funny little glasses, an awful haircut, and a scraggly little beard seemed forever to be wandering around, asking strange questions in strangely accented English? (“‘Hold off! Unhand me, grey-beard loon!’ Eftsoons his hand dropt he!”)
Could it be that she just considered him one of the many odd ducks that are always hanging around the edges of presidential entourages, who, in the Reagan administration, usually had something to do with Mike Deaver? A talented writer, to be sure, but then Hollywood teems with talented writers. Or might she never have thought much about him at all—or not much until she saw his finished product? “She hated the book I eventually wrote, and has never spoken to me since I sent her the first copy.”
So apparently Nancy Reagan had a hand in silencing the skylark, driving a wedge between her husband and the man who wanted desperately to be his best friend. And thus, in a somewhat caddish fashion that he’d no doubt deplore in others, Morris began to attack her in print.
In one of this book’s interesting juxtapositions, an eloquent essay defending James Gould Cozzens and attacking elitist critics who ridicule their subjects immediately precedes a piece written for the Washington Post, in which he attempts to make a figure of fun of Nancy Reagan, at the time a frail elderly woman quietly devoting her remaining years to caring for her husband. The attempt at humor is feeble, nasty, and tasteless, and imbued with what seems to have grown into a hatred for all things Reagan underlies the piece.
In response, Wlady Pleszczynski called him out in a TAS piece titled “Edmund Morris, Blackguard.” “What self-respecting writer would drag the long-suffering and very elderly Nancy Reagan into kicking distance and proceed to ridicule her?” asked Pleszczynski. And why? Perhaps “Three years after his Titanic failure as Reagan biographer, he thinks playing to the anti-Reagan crowd will repair his silly reputation.”
Moreover, Pleszczynski wrote, “Morris has let it be known on more than one occasion [as he does again in this collection] that he has little use for Nancy. For a time he seemed to blame his own failure as Reagan biographer on her as well.”
Nor is it now just Nancy Reagan he blames for throttling the skylark, but Ronald Reagan himself. Last year, in one of his splendid movie columns, James Bowman pointed out that critics always choose Citizen Kane as one of the best movies ever made, although, in his opinion, it’s “no more than middling good.” Why the critical approval? In part, it’s because critics are journalists, and therefore
more or less required by their trade to believe implicitly in that “Rosebud” moment.…To a journalist, there is no such thing as a great man without a secret hidden away deep inside that will explain him. It must be so because it is the journalist’s job to root it out and so do the explaining. This view of the world is what ruined Dutch, Edmund Morris’ fictionalized biography of Ronald Reagan. Mr. Morris simply could not get over his obsession with finding Reagan’s rosebud, and, having failed to find it, he decided to make things up. Reagan’s real secret, however, was that there was no secret—or none that would “explain” a man who was exactly what he seemed to be, the same all the way through, like a stick of Brighton rock.
That is precisely what Morris was unable to understand. After several non-productive years, he writes, he realized “the orthodox presidential biography I had begun was likely to be stillborn. No matter how much prenatal care it got, the fundamental problem was that it lacked inner life. Which is to say, that Reagan himself was a hollow subject. There were no depths to probe, no lodes of packed complexity…he seemed describable only in metaphor.” And so, as Bowman put it, “he decided to make things up.”
By so doing, Morris probably did lasting damage to his reputation as a biographer. But although he was not equipped to write Ronald Reagan’s authorized biography (a task for which the master journalist Lou Cannon was ideally suited), the quality of Morris’s prose and his versatility, a “charivari of styles” and subjects, demonstrate why, Ronald Reagan aside, he’s a highly regarded writer.
HIS CHOICE OF SUBJECTS here is wide and eclectic, ranging from “The Bumstitch: Lament for a Forgotten Fruit,” through Beethoven, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Evelyn Waugh, to the rewards of writing by hand, having a suit made in London, or the New York Public Library. He’s adept at creating striking images. In an essay titled “The African Obama,” he describes how “the Kenyan in me…sees something atavistically familiar in Barack Obama’s loping straightness, like that of a Masai warrior emerging from his manyatta and looking about, spear poised, for any lion…lurking in the bush.”
Morris is justifiably proud of his craftsmanship and intellectual acumen. But underneath it all, poisoning much of his prose, is the sense that he knows he failed at one of his most important undertakings, but cannot admit it. And the need to rationalize that failure explains why, despite the great variety of subjects, the ghost of Ronald Reagan haunts these pages, from beginning to end; and as the years pass, the author’s early admiration for his subject continues to sour, as witness the ongoing attempts here to belittle Ronald Reagan.
There’s this, dispensed like fortune-cookie wisdom: “His [Reagan’s] bonhomie…was oddly neutral. A man who professes to like everybody is by definition a man who cares for nobody in particular.” Or this: “Adored by so many, he was a man with no real friends.” And another: “Reagan’s most regrettable characteristic was his ignorance, compounded as it was by a refusal to be budged from any shibboleth that suited him.”
Some might call that character. But enough. The skylark will probably never sing again, and it’s time to zip it up. As the years pass, and the rationalizations become more self-serving, more desperate, Mr. Morris might be well advised to take to heart a criticism he makes of Bill Clinton in this collection:
“Bill Clinton had plenty of charisma,” he writes, “but…no sense of when to shut up.”
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.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online