Edmund Morris, RIP

When I interviewed Michael Deaver, one of Ronald Reagan’s senior aides from his days as governor and into his second presidential term, in the course of writing my two-volume Age of Reagan book project, he confessed that recommending Edmund Morris be Reagan’s official biographer was the second-biggest mistake he ever made in Reagan’s service. Immediately your mind will run to the obvious question, which I duly asked: What was your biggest mistake? His answer: The Bitburg cemetery visit in West Germany in 1985.

If you’ve forgotten, there were a number of German SS troops buried at Bitburg so it became a fiasco when it was put on Reagan’s itinerary during a state visit, and Deaver was blamed for insufficient due diligence on the advance team that planned the trip. I wanted to tell Deaver that most people by now had forgotten all about Bitburg, while Morris’s dreadful biography of Reagan, Dutch (it should have been called Botch), was—like the Star Wars prequels—forever. Nancy Reagan hated the book so much that she banned it from sale in the Reagan Library, and Morris returned the favor by peevishly refusing to donate his research notes and interview transcripts to the Reagan Library, where someone might be able to make better use of them. But I was talking with Deaver to get information, not argue with him, so I didn’t press the point.

Readers may recall that Morris inserted himself as a character and wrote Dutch the style of a novel. The Washington Post gently notes in its obituary yesterday that Morris “walked the line between fact and fiction” in Dutch. But in fact it was wholly incompetent even at that, because Morris found Reagan at the end of the day to be “boring.” So much for trying to understand someone as he understands himself. (I actually think his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, though great reading, is also defective in some important ways. But at least it a recognizable biography.)

I can go though a three-part analysis of why Morris went so wrong and why he was an unsuitable person to be Reagan’s biographer. Maybe some other time. I actually owe Morris a debt of gratitude in a paradoxical way. I met him only once, at a small dinner at the University Club in Washington in 1993, when he was still in the early stages of writing the Reagan biography. And while Morris has great prose gifts and is a formidable narrative stylist, and was fascinating to listen to, it was obvious from his remarks on how he was going about the book that he was going to produce a book that was too narrowly focused on Reagan’s personality and quirkiness. He had nothing to say about Reagan’s political thought, despite several questions to elicit his views and analysis. That was when a light bulb when off in my head: hardly anyone was working on Reagan because everyone thought Morris would produce a definitive work akin to Martin Gilbert or William Manchester on Churchill, or Lord Charnwood on Lincoln. My premonition was that Morris’s book might be a disappointment. There was going to be room—and the need—for some complementary work on Reagan.

So I decided shortly after to start a competing project, which I intended to be just one single large volume that emulated Arthur Schlesinger’s Age of Roosevelt—not biography as such but an ensemble political chronicle with Reagan as its main character—but when Morris finally came out with the insane and bizarre Dutch, it was so incompetent and inadequate that my project expanded and became two volumes, which is almost unheard of today for any American author not named “Robert Caro.” It ended up dominating ten years of my life—maybe the best ten years of it, though, because nothing was as fun as that. Had Deaver and Nancy Reagan picked David McCullough (he was under consideration) instead, I doubt I ever would have taken up the subject.

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