October 4, 1999
Author Edmund Morris defends his use of fact and fiction in the newest biography about President Reagan. Then, presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist Haynes Johnson and journalist Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times, discuss the technique.
TERENCE SMITH: "Dutch," the long-awaited account of the life and presidency of President Ronald Reagan, started generating controversy even before it arrived in bookstores last Thursday. Former Reagan aides immediately challenged many points in the 874-page memoir by historian and biographer Edmund Morris.
TIM RUSSERT: Mike Deaver, you know the Reagans well. Were the Bushes treated as "downstairs people?"
MIKE DEAVER: I never saw that. I was there until May of 1985. I never felt that way. I just didn't see it.
SPOKESMAN: If what is printed in Newsweek is all that he wrote about it, Iran-Contra, he has it wrong.
TERENCE SMITH: Morris himself has defended his work in repeated appearances on the "Today Show," "Larry King Live," and "Meet the Press." But the greatest furor erupted over Morris's literary technique. CBS news correspondent Lesley Stahl described it on the broadcast "60 Minutes."
LESLEY STAHL: What Morris decided to do, unlike other biographers, was put himself in the book as a fictional character, a fictional friend of the young Ronald Reagan. This will certainly open Morris to criticism, and even he admits, the device is revolutionary.
TERENCE SMITH: The Kenyan-born Morris introduces the device in the opening pages when he records his own birth in the American Midwest in 1912, years before he was actually born, in order to establish himself as a fictional contemporary of the president-to-be. He gives the reader an early hint of what he is doing when he writes: "The past is delusion, the future illusion; one locates one's center where one can. Or, in cases like Reagan's, where one wishes." But the author never explicitly explains to the reader what is fact and what is fiction. At one point, for example, he depicts the fictional Morris and Reagan in college together. "I was introduced to Dutch several times, and each was the first as far as he was concerned."
In addition to this fictional version of himself, the author invents a son, a late wife, and a lifelong friend. Morris even footnotes some of the references made by his fictional characters. The facts in the footnotes are real, but the characters, of course, are not. To the author's supporters, the device is a creative, even inspired, literary technique that improves the book; to his critics, the device blurs the line between fact and fiction and leaves the reader confused as to what to believe.
|A biography in the form of a memoir|
TERENCE SMITH: And with us now is Edmund Morris, author of "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan." Mr. Morris, welcome.
EDMUND MORRIS: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: The reviews are in; some are positive, and some are scathing -- words like "disappointing," "a travesty." There's been a great deal of this all week. I wonder your reaction, what you feel about the way it's been received.
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, I knew from the start that the method was going to create violent controversy. I knew that in 1992, when I conceived of the method, and I welcome the controversy because I think the art of biography needs shaking up. The only part of the controversy I do not like is criticism of pre-judges who have not read the book, Reagan loyalists, who had not read it and had to confess they hadn't read it on national television, but that didn't stop them from assailing it, and historians, oddly enough -- for example, one Douglas Brinkley and "Newsday" - I seem to have an inimical effect on historians named Brinkley, but this guy spent three and a half columns berating the book and ends up -- his final paragraph - well, I'm really looking forward to reading "Dutch: A Memoir." That kind of criticism I can do without it.
TERENCE SMITH: You call it "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan."
EDMUND MORRIS: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Not a biography
EDMUND MORRIS: A memoir.
TERENCE SMITH: Why?
EDMUND MORRIS: It's a biography in the form of a memoir; it's a study in the phenomenon of memory -- not only my own memory of him, as the President that I followed around and interviewed at length, but the memory that we all have now of this man who on the jacket of the book is receding from us. He lingers fondly in the American memory and is getting larger and larger the more we remember him.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it a memoir of Ronald Reagan or of Edmund Morris or of the fictional Edmund Morris or of the relationship between those people?
EDMUND MORRIS: It is a memoir of Ronald Reagan. It's a story of Ronald Reagan told by myself but in an intensely nostalgic and memoiristic form and woven into it is the fabric of his own memories of himself and his life. And I should say one thing, if I may, about the quality of this narrator. He is not, as Lesley Stahl said, a friend of the young Dutch; they're never friends. Reagan, in fact, is never aware of this narrator. I think of the narrator in terms of a projector.
All I ask of the reader at the beginning of the book is to accept a projector, as we all did as when we were children, we went to the movies, and we were aware of this projector behind us sending out these magic fingers of light, projecting a movie. The rest of our lives we've been going to movies unconscious of the projector. I am the projector of a documentary movie about Ronald Reagan, which is absolutely authentic and thoroughly documented.
|Projecting a movie|
TERENCE SMITH: Why the technique? Why did you find it either necessary or desirable to do?
EDMUND MORRIS: It was the only technique. I started off writing an orthodox political biography about Reagan and found within the space of two years that it was dying on the page. He resisted orthodox analysis because Reagan was a performer. He was a performer as a boy. He was a performer as an old man, and a performer is not comprehensible unless he is witnessed, unless there's a spectator there, unless there's an audience. I became his biographical audience.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you have any second thoughts about it, given all the criticism?
EDMUND MORRIS: No. No. I rejoice in the method because I know the movie I project, the story I tell is true and good; I know that my intentions as a biographer are honorable; everything's documented. It's a true story.
TERENCE SMITH: Could you have written the book without it, without the technique?
EDMUND MORRIS: No, I could not. I'm not Lou Canon. I'm not an orthodox political reporter, and Lou has, in fact, written several splendid biographies of Reagan from that reportorial point of view, but they don't capture his mystery; they don't capture the nature of Ronald Reagan and that's what fascinated me.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, some critics have described it as a distraction; in other words, they're forever sorting out -- is this the fictional Edmund Morris or today's Edmund Morris, or exactly who is what -- does that concern you?
EDMUND MORRIS: I expected that. The world is divided into those who can accept the machinations of leaps and those who cannot. But as we all accepted as children the personality of our mother reading to us as storytellers or the projector in the movie, that's all I ask of the reader. The story explains itself -- its action and character. Ronald Reagan is a narrative phenomenon.
TERENCE SMITH: There have also been comments and criticisms, as you mentioned yourself, from former Reagan aides who have sprung to his defense, and taken great issue, umbrage even with some of your descriptions of him. Any surprise in that?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, not one of those aides to my knowledge at the time they made these criticisms had yet written the book -- read the book -- although I'm sure some of them would have loved to have written it. Mike Deaver is to me the most patient. He keeps saying, I have to read the book. And I'm waiting to hear what Mike things. But Ed Meese, for example, said it is not true that the President made any decisions with regard to Iran-Contra in hospital. It's not only true, it's in Reagan's own diary, which I quote. He talks about Bud McFarland coming in and authorizing the first contact with the Iranians.
|Magic on the public stage|
TERENCE SMITH: I wonder if these criticisms of what you have said about Ronald Reagan have backed you into any sort of corner in which you are making more positive statements these days about Ronald Reagan than you perhaps otherwise would have offered.
EDMUND MORRIS: The book is overwhelmingly positive. It's a very critical of him in private; you know, I recognized the fact on the page that Reagan could frequently be alarmingly boring, and banal in conversation. He came up with the most astonishing displays of ignorance. I once remember him telling me that even the most polluted river in the world could be purified by flowing across two miles of gravel. Statements like that took your breath away. But the book is very meticulous in its description of how this surpassingly ordinary person in private became somehow magical when he went out on to the public stage. He was indeed a potent and hugely effective President.
TERENCE SMITH: You haven't felt on the defensive, any need to say more about him than you otherwise might because of all the criticism?
EDMUND MORRIS: I'm not defensive because I admit frankly to the -- I own up to the fact that I have written many pages that are going to distress his wife and distress his acolytes. We must always remember that these Reaganauts have him on their resume, and their golden years with him are all they look for; they talk about it all the time, and if the great man is in any way criticized or represented to be fallible at moments, it calls into question their whole career. So I understand why they feel that way.
TERENCE SMITH: Have you heard, directly or indirectly, from Nancy Reagan about the book?
EDMUND MORRIS: Not directly. Indirectly through George Will, who I gather is her mouthpiece in this case - and not at all from anybody -- other than -- well, I've heard from three of the children, Michael, Patty, and Ron.
TERENCE SMITH: And their reaction?
EDMUND MORRIS: They're all very supportive. Mind you, this is back in the time of "60 Minutes." I know they're all reading the book and I'm waiting to hear what they think about the book, but they all told me in private that this is the father they remember.
TERENCE SMITH: A final thought. This is such an age of public cynicism about what's true and what's not true, about the age of the docudrama and Oliver Stone's conspiracy movies? Any concern about contributing to that in any way?
EDMUND MORRIS: No, because the dividing line in my book is very clear. The narrator is fictional, yes; you just have to accept that. You can agree with what he thinks and how he feels, if you want, but the story he tells is a documentary story.
TERENCE SMITH: Edmund Morris, thank you very much.
EDMUND MORRIS: Thank you, Terry.