Why did Pulitzer-winning Theodore Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris controversially choose to write his authorized biography of Ronald Reagan in the form of a historical novel? There's a clue in a quote the book attributes to Jane Wyman, Reagan's first wife. As Ronnie speechified about the Red Menace at a 1940s Hollywood party, Wyman allegedly whispered to a friend, "I'm so bored with him, I'll either kill him or kill myself." This anecdote, if true, is more revealing than Nancy Reagan's charge in the book that Jane had attempted suicide to get Ronnie to marry her in the first place. Jane was no intellectual--Morris cracks that "If Jane had ever heard of Finland, she probably thought it was an aquarium"--but he found to his horror, after years of research, that he felt much the same as Wyman. Reagan was as boring as a box of rocks, as elusive as a ghost.
Decades before Alzheimer's clouded Reagan's mind, he showed a terrifying lack of human presence. "I was real proud when Dad came to my high school commencement," reports his son, Michael Reagan. After posing for photos with Michael and his classmates, the future president came up to him, looked right in his eyes, and said, "Hi, my name's Ronald Reagan. What's yours?" Poor Michael replied, "Dad, it's me. Your son. Mike."
Despite deep research and unprecedented access--no previous biography has ever been authorized by a sitting president--Morris could get no closer to Reagan's elusive soul than Reagan's own kids could. So Morris decided to dramatize Reagan's life with several invented characters--including a fictionalized version of himself and an imaginary gossip columnist who makes wicked comments on Reagan's career. This is one weird tactic, forcing the reader constantly to consult the footnotes at the back of the book to sort things out, and Morris makes it tougher by presenting his invented characters as real, even in the footnotes.
Ultimately, the hubbub over Morris's odd method is beside the point. His speculative entry into Reagan's life and mind is plausible, dramatic, literary, and lit by dazzling flashes of insight. The narrator watches the young Reagan as a lifeguard (years before the real Morris was born):
One tunnels along in a shroud of silvery bubbles, insulated from any sight or sound.... Others may swim alongside for a while, but their individuality tends to refract away, through the bubbles and the blur. Often I have marveled at Reagan's cool, unhurried progress through crises of politics and personnel, and thought to myself, He sees the world as a swimmer sees it.
We cannot verify Morris's notion that Reagan probably approved the illegal Iran-Contra funding without having a clue it was illegal, or that the "Star Wars" program sprang from his love of Edgar Rice Burroughs's first novel, A Princess of Mars, which featured glass-domed cities. But however bizarre and ignorant his thoughts were, however cold his heart, Morris believes, the guy did crush the Evil Empire and achieve greatness. Morris achieves a kind of greatness, too, but one wishes he had written a more straightforward dramatization of history. --Tim Appelo [via]