When Edmund Morris' Dutch was published ten years ago, it created a firestorm within the historical and political community. Morris - a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt - had created a fictional character to accompany Ronald Reagan and to help tell his story. At the time, I remember being shocked that a writer of Morris' credibility would 'stoop' to such a tactic. I refused to read the book at the time. Over the years, though, I've been intrigued by it and often thought of finally picking it up. I'm glad I finally did.
For one thing, Morris' publisher does a far better job than the author ever did during that tumultuous book tour ten years ago in explaining why he used this tactic. Morris was announced as Reagan's 'official biographer' by the White House in 1985. Morris was given unprecedented access to Reagan throughout his second term - with the notable exception of when the Iran-Contra scandal exploded. Even then, though, Morris was privy to far more than most biographers. A few years into the project, however, Morris came to a startling revelation: he no more knew Reagan the man after spending nearly three years with him than he did when he started the project. Reagan was impenetrable to biography. There was so little intellectual curiosity in Reagan's mind, and so much 'acting' that knowing the real Reagan - indeed, if there was one - was impossible.
It was while trying to figure out how to write the biography with this major roadblock that Morris stumbled upon the idea of creating a fictional character. This character would be able to color in the blank spots on the pages of Reagan's life. Granted, it would no longer be biography in the strict sense of the word. Undoubtedly, the author's own hypotheses and opinions about aspects of Reagan's life - and why he did what he did - would make total objectivity impossible.
I'm not sure if Morris was right to do it this way, but he was right about one thing: it works. Dutch is an amazing book. The fictionalized character really does add tremendously to the book as a whole. But where it really helps is in the pre-presidential years. All of the quotes in the book from characters other than Morris' fictional one are true: they were obtained by Morris through years of research and interviews. Nothing in the story is 'fiction' in so far as everything everybody says in the book is something they really said to Morris, or that he really overheard during his three-plus years shadowing Reagan around the White House.
There were three 'wow' moments in the book for me: facts that I never knew, and that by themselves make the book a worthwhile read. First, the assassination attempt. By now, we all know that Reagan was far closer to death than we had ever been led to believe. In conversations with the lead emergency room surgeon that saved Reagan's life, and with Reagan's lead Secret Service agent that day, Morris reveals that a single right turn in the motorcade was the difference between Reagan living and a Bush Administration in 1981.
At the moment that John Hinkley fired his shots at Reagan, one bullet hit the presidential limousine's armored right-rear panel. In doing so, it changed shape and became a tiny high-speed circular "saw blade-like" object that spun into Reagan's chest with such surgical precision that there was no apparent entry wound. Indeed, as Jerry Parr - Reagan's lead security agent - threw Reagan onto the floor of the car and screamed at the driver, "Haul ass! Let's get out of here!", Reagan felt tremendous pain in his chest and said, "Jerry, get off, I think you've broken one of my ribs." Parr took one look at Reagan's mouth and saw that he was coughing up blood. Parr, too, believed that Reagan had punctured something internally. Not sure whether he was looking at a world-wide conspiracy, Parr's training took hold. He grabbed the car radio and lied to the agent in the car behind, telling him "Rawhide not hurt" using Reagan's code name. This was to throw off anyone in the area eavesdropping on the Secret Service frequency. With that done, Parr made the key move that would save Reagan's life: he made a split second decision to redirect the motorcade [which was heading back to the White House] to George Washington University Hospital instead. Had he not done so, Reagan's physicians told Morris, the President would most certainly have died.
As it was, getting him to the emergency room as quickly as Parr did almost wasn't enough. The treating physicians assumed the President was suffering from a punctured lung, caused by a broken rib. It was only when a nurse lifted Reagan's left arm to insert an IV line that she saw a neat slit on the side of Reagan's chest open up. "Oh-oh, he's been shot!" she screamed. Reagan - still conscious - looked stunned when he heard this. Reagan would tell Morris that it was only then that he realized he was dying.
In the end, Reagan's incredible physical health prior to the assassination attempt saved his life. Because he was in such good shape, and his chest muscles were like those of a 40-year old, his body was able to withstand the trauma.
The second 'wow' moment in the book concerns the controversial visit by Reagan to a Nazi burial ground in Bitburg in 1985. I could never understand how a White House as incredibly detailed in planning as the Reagan administration was could have allowed him to accept an invitation by Helmut Kohl to tour a site that held the remains of Hitler's SS troops. Well, there is a very simple explanation. When Mike Deaver went to Bitburg to advance-scout the cemetery, snow blanketed the graves and their stone markers. Deaver could not see the markers. Had he been able to, he would have clearly seen "SS" on the many graves.
While you might think he should have brushed the snow off a few of them, that is hindsight talking. Deaver joked to Kohl, "Will any of these graves embarrass my President?" Kohl's protocol chief reacted defensively saying, "You think maybe Mengele is buried there?" With that, Deaver left. Had he visited a few weeks earlier or a few weeks later - when there was no snow - the whole embarrassing episode could have been avoided.
The final 'wow' moment concerns the weeks after the Iran-Contra scandal broke. Aides became quite alarmed at how disoriented Reagan appeared. New Chief of Staff Howard Baker was stunned by the deterioration in Reagan's mental acuity. So alarmed was Baker that on March 2, 1987, before lunch in the Cabinet room, Baker and his aides purposely positioned their chairs so that they would be able to observe Reagan literally from all angles. Prior to that lunch, Baker's assistant, James Cannon, wrote an emergency transition paper to set in motion the invocation of the 25th Amendment [Presidential Disability] if Baker and his aides found Reagan to be "disoriented" at that lunch. As it happened, Regan was lucid and "on his game" throughout the lunch. Baker shelved the position paper and the 25th Amendment.
In conclusion, if you haven't read Dutch, do so. While Morris became a little too close to Reagan to truly be objective, the narrative is wonderful and the details extraordinary.”
copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.