Morris’s After the Morris deserves So Dutch Morris, Morris’ Justifying There are In the end, Back to Form So here But then Gore Caves
recon mission has been tainted, though, by the now famous–and infamous–device
he used to write Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan: he created a fictitious
version of himself to serve as narrator. I was one of those critics who pounced
on Morris before the book was even available for perusing. Call me a conventionalist,
but biography ought to serve truth before literary form.
first round of wrath descended on him, I wondered if I might have been too rough
on the man, but when the first excerpts emerged it turned out that he’d
gone beyond concocting an imagined narrator: he had written several fictitious
people into the book and had crafted fictitious scenes in which the unreal people
interact with the supposedly real Reagan. At one point, Morris, writing as "Morris"
(who happened to have been born 28 years earlier than the author and who grew
up in Illinois, conveniently in the vicinity of the young Reagan), tells the
reader: "I was introduced to Dutch several times, and each was the first
as far as he was concerned. Paul [another fictional character] asked if he recognized
us from the beach at Lowell Park, whereupon he tapped his glasses and shook
his head, smiling." None of this happened. To depict it as the truth is
all the available scorn. If he’d wanted to create a new form, he could’ve
labeled the book fictory, or fi-hi. But Dutch is not, as Newsweek
(which ran a lengthy excerpt of the book) calls it, "a controversial memoir."
A memoir is purportedly true, even if most memoirists recreate past events.
Morris, who perhaps deserves credit for being honestly dishonest, manufactures
the reality of another and blends it with the "realities" of those
who do not exist. One more example: When Morris, in four paragraphs, takes on
the matter of Reagan’s non-policy on AIDS, he rightfully notes that Reagan
remained "unconcerned" with the disease during the early 1980s. To
attach a human face to Reagan’s neglect, Morris reports that fictitious
Paul died of AIDS in 1982. This was laziness on Morris’ part. Who cares
about Paul? To bring to life Reagan’s irresponsibility on AIDS, Morris
should have sought out the public health advocates or gay activists who tried
to convince the White House to care about AIDS. The story of their interaction
with the Reagan administration would have been more telling than Paul’s
demise (actually, on the last page of the book Morris then notes that Paul died
in 1985. Even the fiction in the book is not consistent).
is not to be trusted, which is too bad, since Morris has more or less sided
with the airhead view of Reagan–although, covering his bases, he hails
Reagan as one of the great presidents. He refers to Reagan’s "encyclopedic
ignorance" and describes him as a man who lived in an alternative reality
of his own–one in which Lenin had a plan for invading the United States
through Mexico, Bolivians speak Portuguese, private cars have "exactly
the same" fuel efficiency rating as a bus, acid rain is caused by too many
trees, coal plants produce more radiation than nuclear plants, he’s younger
than most other heads of state, South Vietnam and North Vietnam were "separate
nations for centuries." Morris attempts to be a bit sympathetic, explaining
that Reagan dished out idiotic replies because he had to answer hundreds, if
not thousands, of questions a day, frequently when he was groggy with fatigue.
But Morris adds, "What horrifies, though, is that Reagan says exactly the
same things when he is fresh, and after he has been repeatedly corrected;
his beliefs are as unerasable as the grooves of an LP. The only reliable way
to recognize the approach of a Reagan untruism is to listen for signal phrases:
I have been told… and, As I’ve said many times…"
after spending years near Reagan, concluded that the ex-president was something
of a dunderhead, but one who believed in core principles (Communism is evil,
charity begins at home, more military spending is better than less, government
is bad) and was able to communicate these notions with masterful skill. Thankfully,
Morris notes, most of the work of a president–at least, this president–entailed
"initialing the recommendations of underlings."
conclusions, however, are trumped by his means. He’s merely reignited the
debate on Reagan when he was in a position to settle it. There was much evidence,
after all, that Reagan lived in a factual fantasyland. When he was in the White
House, Mark Green, now New York City’s public advocate, put out two editions
of Reagan’s Reign of Error, a delightful and frightening compendium
of the foolish things Reagan had said before and during his stint at 1600 Pennsylvania.
He lied about the Iran-Contra affair, stating at first his administration did
not trade weapons for hostages. (Morris notes that even when Reagan eventually
conceded this was false, he maintained he still believed it to be true. Such
was Reagan’s powers of belief.) While commander-in-chief, he commented
that submarine-based nuclear missiles once launched could be recalled. They
cannot. Of the brutal military in El Salvador, he said, "We are helping
the forces that are supporting human rights in El Salvador."
his constructive engagement policy with the racist government of South Africa,
he said, "Can we abandon this country that has stood beside us in every
war we’ve ever fought?" The leaders of the ruling Afrikaners of South
Africa had been Nazi sympathizers. He claimed real earnings were increasing
when they were decreasing. In 1983, he maintained, "There is today in the
United States as much forest as there was when Washington was at Valley Forge."
Wrong. The U.S. Forest Service estimated only about 30 percent of forest lands
of 1775 still existed 208 years later. He once told the story of a brave WWII
bomber commander who stayed behind with an injured subordinate and went down
with the plane, noting that this commander was posthumously awarded the Congressional
Medal of Honor. Lars-Erik Nelson of the Daily News checked and found
no such event had occurred–except in a 1944 movie. In 1985, Reagan quipped,
"I’ve been told that in the Russian language there isn’t even
a word for freedom." (It’s svoboda.)
scores of other "Reagan untrusims" recorded in Green’s book.
In the 1987 book, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, Garry Wills
notes that on two occasions, Reagan told White House visitors that when he was
in the military he’d filmed the Nazi concentration camps. That was false.
He had served in Los Angeles, where he made training films. Even Reagan’s
devotees could not avoid the obvious. In Triumph of Politics, David Stockman,
Reagan’s White House budget director, writes of one meeting with the boss:
"What do you do when your president ignores all the palpable, relevant
facts and wanders in circles? I could not bear to watch this good and decent
man go on in this embarrassing way. I buried my head in my plate."
Morris was an appropriate selection as Reagan’s chronicler: To catch a
weaver of fiction send a weaver of fiction. It is unfortunate that the grand
opportunity offered Morris–to tell us what life was really like in Reagan’s
world–was subsumed by the author’s ego, arrogance and misjudgment.
Reagan may have received the biography he deserved. The reading public did not.
reassuring to see Republicans act like Republicans. But then budget fights do
bring out the worst in Washington, for that’s where the money is. Last
week, as the GOP-led Congress wrestled with the legislation that funds the government
(measures that should have been passed weeks earlier, before the Oct. 1 deadline),
the Republicans in the House passed spending bills that gutted Bill Clinton’s
100,000-new-teachers initiatives and the AmeriCorps volunteer program. They
also whacked at funds for low-income housing, cut money for the Wye River Middle
East peace accords and revived a plan to delay the benefits of an earned income
tax credit for the working poor. Despite all this activity, they were not too
busy to shove into these bills numerous provisions that weaken environmental
regulations. These riders would allow mining companies to dump more waste on
federal lands, permit companies to log in national forests before wildlife surveys
are conducted and defund international efforts to fight ozone depletion.
we have the GOPers cutting money for teachers, student volunteers and the poor
and protecting polluters. It was almost enough to make one believe there
is a difference between the two parties.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who’d previously supported the congressional
Republicans’ budget-busting tax-cut scheme, denounced the House Republicans
for their attempt "to balance their budget on the backs of the poor."
Here was Bush ripping off a Bill Clinton riff. Remember how Clinton tried to
distance himself from congressional Democrats? Welcome to GOP triangulation.
Will Republicans desperate to win the White House with W sit back and take it?
I hope not. There’s always room for more infighting within the Republican
months ago, I noted in this column that Vice President Al Gore was part of a
U.S. government effort to force South Africa to cease efforts that would make
AIDS medicines more affordable and accessible to its citizens. Responding to
the health crisis ravaging southern Africa, the South Africans had passed legislation
that would allow the manufacture of generic AIDS medicine and the import of
AIDS medicines from countries where they’re less expensive. Drug companies
were not keen on these steps, which could cut into their massive profits, and
the administration threatened South Africa–where as many as one out of
six people may be HIV-positive–with trade sanctions. Because Gore is the
co-chairman of a U.S.-South Africa binational commission used by Washington
to bully South Africa, AIDS activists and others directed protests at him. Demonstrators
interrupted his presidential announcement in June. At other Gore campaign events,
they chanted, "AIDS Drugs for Africa" and "Gore’s Greed
Kills." The pressure was too much for Gore and the Clinton administration.
Recently, the U.S. trade representative and the South African government announced
the United States would end its campaign against the South African laws. Score
a win for citizen activists.
In the end,
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