The result, Dutch: A Memoir of Reagan, is a famous, a legendary, an epochal disaster. This should have been entirely predictable. No one, before Morris or after, had ever been able to penetrate Reagan’s lacquered shell of geniality. Beyond his wife, he had no intimates. Those who worked most closely with him resorted to oxymoron when describing him. Reagan, said James Baker, was “the kindest and most impersonal man” he’d ever met. Another subordinate who idolized him, Martin Anderson, called him a “warmly ruthless man.”
“People who had worked for him much of their lives,” wrote his most dutiful biographer, Lou Cannon, “suspected that there was something beneath the surface they had never seen, but they did not know what the something was.”
Morris took it on himself to find the something—it was, he felt, his duty as a biographer and (though he wouldn’t have said it aloud) an artist. After all, the only journalist who could be said to have gotten close to Reagan—through his wife, Nancy—was George Will, who had said, “On the first nine levels, Reagan is the least interesting of men. But if you postulate a tenth level, then he’s suddenly fascinating.”
Read: Looking at Reagan
Ready to be fascinated, Morris took advantage of unprecedented access to his subject. He sat as a fly on the wall during momentous White House meetings, taking notes with his Montblanc in a tiny, elegant script, and interviewed his subject for hundreds of hours as the second half of the Reagan tenure unfolded—a more consequential four years than the presidency had seen in a generation. Everyone he wanted to talk to, talked to him.
And he came up … empty. Well, not empty. Dutch is full of beautiful writing and insight about nearly everything Reagan encountered in a long and eventful life. (Reagan was 75 when Morris, then in his mid-forties, began to tag along.) But about the man himself—the lacquer never cracked, the Reagan twinkle never dimmed to reveal what, if anything, was behind it. Reagan, Morris said years later, “is the strangest man who ever lived.”
From a biographer, from an artist, this is a cry of the heart. It means: I give up! I can’t figure him out! There was no tenth level. Reagan was a purely political creature, all the way down, and to his biographer, with no ear for politics and in search of depths to plumb, he remained incomprehensible to the end.
As a way around the wall he’d been butting his head against, Morris invented a now notorious literary device. Note the word memoir in the subtitle. Instead of postulating that tenth level, he imagined himself, Edmund Morris, as a contemporary of Reagan’s, and wove himself in and out of his account of Reagan’s life, from small-town Illinois to Hollywood to the West Wing. In flashbacks, it transpires that Reagan, as a young lifeguard, had once saved young Edmund from drowning. That heroic act then becomes a metaphor for Reagan’s rescuing of the West from the swirling eddies of Communism in the Cold War.