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On Knowing When to Shut Up

Edmund Morris failed at one of his most important undertakings.

By From the December 2012 - January 2013 issue

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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.

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.”

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).