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Fittingly, I feel compelled to interject a story from my own life as I begin this review.  You see, I believe that there is a personal episode which illuminates the controversy surrounding this book.  When I attended Colgate University (Class of '83), I was a History major, which required completion of a Senior Seminar including a major research project and paper.  But, truth be told, I was not a particularly good student and as the deadline for this paper approached, I realized that I could not possibly hope to complete the volume of research that was expected of me.  So I approached the professor, on the day the paper was due, and received tearful permission to alter my topic slightly, but this seemingly minor adjustment allowed me to essentially write an extended essay instead of a true research paper.  Freed from the requirement that I actually go through the drudgery of research, I rattled off a really good twenty page essay in a couple days.

It seems to me that Edmund Morris found himself in much the same position and resorted to a similarly dishonest ploy in order to complete his Reagan biography.  It is obvious that he did extensive work on Reagan's early life (say up to the end of his acting career) and, of course, he was in attendance for several years of the presidency.  But what is missing here is the context and the background for Reagan's political career, let alone a detailed account of those years.  Among the really pivotal events that go unmentioned or are dealt with in passing are all three presidential campaigns, the Panama Canal debates, the PATCO strike, the Tax Reform bill, etc.  These are not little things.  In fact, they are central to an understanding of what makes Reagan a seminal figure in recent history.  No serious biography of Ronald Reagan can conceivably be complete without tackling them.  So what happened?

Well, this is a really interesting illustration of my maxim that the commonly accepted wisdom is always wrong.  Edmund Morris was hired to be Reagan's semi-official biographer on the strength of his Teddy Roosevelt biography, which truly is a great book.  But there is one vital fact that noone realized at the time, and which still seems to elude critics and commentators; the book ends before it gets to the presidential years.  We all just assumed:  major political figure as topic + great book = ability (and or desire) to write a great political biography.  But there is really no evidence that Morris understands, nor is curious about, the actual mechanics of politics and the impact of political ideas.  In retrospect, it should have been seen as troubling that he was willing to set aside the Roosevelt story just as he got to what most biographers would consider the crux of the tale.

So we have here a terrific author, but foreign born and apparently uninterested in politics, trying to take on a man who transformed the political world.  In order to begin to understand what had happened, Morris would have had to immerse himself, not just in personal interviews and old yearbooks and the like, but in research on the Cold War on American anti-Communism on the growth of the New Deal and the Great Society on Goldwater and Bill Buckley and so on.  So he did what I did, he figured out a way to get around the heavy lifting.  All the dodges and devices that he trots out are simply there to disguise the fact that he didn't feel like learning what he needed to in order to produce a genuine political biography.  Instead, he gives us a book that is almost entirely personal.  There is one particularly revealing passage late in the book, Morris's Diary entry of December 31, 1988:

    For whatever reason, there was born here, far from the mattering world, an ambition as huge as it
    was inexorable.  Out of Tampico's ice there grew, crystal by crystal, the glacier that is Ronald
    Reagan: an ever-thrusting, ever-deepening mass of chill purpose.  Possessed of no inner warmth,
    with no apparent interest save in its own growth, it directed itself toward whatever declivities lay
    in its path.  Inevitably, as the glacier grew, it collected rocks before it, and used them to flatten
    obstructions; when the rocks were worn smooth they rode up onto the glacier's back, briefly
    enjoying high sunny views, then tumbled off to become part of the surrounding countryside.  The
    lie where they fell, some cracked, some crumbled: Dutch's lateral moraine.  And the glacier sped
    slowly on.

    In that sense, I suppose, one could say that the story of Reagan's life is a study in American
    topography.  Thirteen hundred miles southeast of Tampico this winter day, the glacier has at last
    stopped growing.  The nation's climate is changing; so is that of the world.  New suns, new
    seasons, are due.  Yet when all the ice is gone, when fresh green covers the last raw earth and
    some future skylark sings heedlessly over the Ronald Reagan National Monument, men will still
    ponder Dutch's improbable progress, and write on their cards, How big he was!  How far he
    came!  And how deep the valley he carved!

First, to give him his due, it is writing of this quality that had folks so excited about the prospect of a Ronald Reagan biography by Edmund Morris.  But, to borrow his metaphor, the essential problem with the book is that it is completely focussed on the glacier and, when you get right down to it, we don't really care as much about glaciers for their intrinsic qualities, we care about the massive change that they wreaked on the environment that we now inhabit.  Morris recognizes that Reagan changed the American topography, but he never examines that change.  For him, the remarkable thing about Ronald Reagan is that he became president.  For humankind, the remarkable thing about Reagan is that in the depths of the Cold War, when the USSR and Communism seemed to be winning and thirty years of Big Government had left America ill equipped to fight back, he imagined the West's eventual victory and the renaissance of an unfettered American economy and he imposed that dream upon an unwilling Western intellectual establishment, American Congress and seemingly ascendant Eastern Bloc.  Today we live in the world that Ronald Reagan, but precious few others, envisioned.  While Edmund Morris pursues the glacier to its end, he fails to comprehend the change left in its wake, perhaps because he fails to understand the constancy of purpose and the force of ideas which drove the glacier's progress.

The end result of all this is that Morris delivers up:

    1) An excellent novel

and

    2) The best written memoir we are ever likely to have by someone who knew Ronald Reagan

but

    3) An extraordinarily inept and inexcusably lazy biography
 

GRADE: as a novel: A; as a biography: F

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -ESSAY: The dynamo:  Who was Henry Adams?  And how did he write - in the opinion of the Modern Library Board - the century's #1 nonfiction book? Board member Edmund Morris explains (Edmund Morris, At Random Magazine)
    -BOOKNOTES: Title: Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan  Author:Edmund Morris (CSPAN)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Edmund Morris  Dutch : A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (Yahoo! Broadcast.com)
    -PHOTO GALLERY (Booknotes: Life Stories)
    -Summary,   Reviews,  Author Bio,  Excerpt (Book Browse)
    -ESSAY: Stranger Than Fiction  (JAMES ATLAS, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Joan Didion: 'The Day Was Hot and Still...', NY Review of Books
        Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris
    -REVIEW: 'Dutch': A Guy Who Wasn't There Meets the Guy Who Was (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Dutch by Edmund Morris (James Q. Wilson, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: A box of silly tricks makes this biography as credible as a clock that strikes 13 (Godfrey Hodgson, Independent UK)
    -REVIEW: Ronald Reagan and his Imaginary Friend (Robert D. Novak, The Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of Dutch (Jonathan Alter, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: Morris narrates 'Dutch' with a deft touch (Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW: No Dutch Treat (Claude R. Marx, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW: of Dutch (Glen Garnett, Toronto Sun)
    -Biography does Reagan grave injustice (Charles Krauthammer)
    -Edmund Morris: Writer Behind the Throne  (Wendy Smith, Publishers Weekly)
    -Public Lives: Edmund Morris; Reagan's Biographer, Memory and Teacher (ELISABETH BUMILLER, NY Times)
    -INTERVIEW: Harry Smith's interview with Ronald Reagan biographer Edmund Morris (Biography.com)
    -INTERVIEW: Interview with Edmund Morris (Eric Wittmershaus, Flak Magazine)
    -INTERVIEW: (The American Enterprise)
    -CHAT TRANSCRIPT: Edmund Morris  A chat about the book "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald  Reagan" (CNN)
    -CHAT TRANSCRIPT: (Newsweek)
    -Reagan biographer bites back  Edmund Morris answers his critics in an online chat (Craig Offman, Salon)
    -Reagan Biographer Takes Poetic License, Acting as If He Were There (DOREEN CARVAJAL, NY Times)
    -Reagan Biographer's Technique Raises Questions (DOREEN CARVAJAL, NY Times)
    -CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: Biography as a Mirror Reflecting Biographers (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    - Where's the rest of me? (GLORIA BORGER, US News)
    -In 'Dutch,' Biography With a Twist  (Linton Weeks,  Washington Post)
    -LIBERTIES / By MAUREEN DOWD   Forrest Gump Biography (NY Times)
    -Washington Post book critic defends Reagan biographer:  After an attack by the New York Times' Maureen Dowd, Jonathan Yardley comes to the rescue. (Craig Offman, Salon)
    -Leaping to Edmund Morris's Defense  History and Fiction (Frances Richardson Keller, TomPaine.com)
    -Reagan biographer Edmund Morris fought through writer's block by inserting himself into his subject's life  (Robert T. Nelson, Seattle Times)
    -ESSAY : Echoes in "Dutch" of a 1994 short story:  The narrator and his son, it turns out, aren't the only  things that Edmund Morris faked. (Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Dutch by Edmund Morris (Rick Perlstein, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (Michael Rogin, American Historical Review)
    -REVIEW : Biography as screenplay Edmund Morris has conceived the life of Ronald Reagan as a movie. And it's a bomb.  (Charles Kaiser, Salon)
    -REVIEW : The Third Edmund Morris: More fantasies from Reagan's fictographer (Franklin Foer, Slate)
    -REVIEW : INFLATED RHETORIC:  Double Dutch (Ryan Lizza, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : In 'Dutch Fiction is stranger than truth in fractured Reagan biography (Colleen Cason,  Star online)
    -REVIEW : In Search of Presidential Greatness (Everett Carll Ladd, Intellectual Capital)
    -REVIEW : A Biography at War with Itself (DOUGLAS HARBRECHT, Business Week)
    -REVIEW : "DUTCH": LESS THAN MEETS THE EYE (Lee Edwards, Heritage)
    -REVIEW : of 'Theodore Rex' by Edmund Morris and 'The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt' edited by H.W. Brands (Michael Lind, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris (Steve Weinberg, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris (David Brooks, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex (Gerard J. DeGroot, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex (Ted Widmer, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : of  Theodore Rex (Bruce Clayton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex (H.W. Brands, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex (Max Boot, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex (PHILIP SEIB, Dallas Morning News)
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex (John Carman, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris and The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt edited by H.W. Brands (Christine Stansell, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of 'Reagan: A Life in Letters' edited by Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson and Martin Anderson (Edmund Morris, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: The Real Reagan: Think you know what made him tick? His letters may surprise you (MICHAEL DUFFY AND NANCY GIBBS, 9/21/03, TIME)
    -ESSAY: Reagan's heartfelt letters illuminate his presidency: Collection of letters provides new glimpse of the former US president. (Peter Grier, 9/03, CS Monitor)

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