The Wreck Of The Edmund Morris
By Timothy Noah

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris Random House, 874 pages

"Sad things can happen when an author chooses the wrong subject," the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed once wrote. "First the author suffers, then the reader, and finally the publisher, all together in a tiny whirlpool of pain." The whirlpool is bigger than usual in the case of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, by Edmund Morris. As you have no doubt heard, Morris is Reagan's official biographer, who, after years of trying to get a handle on the man, finally resorted to inserting a fictionalized version of himself into Reagan's past. The result is a book narrated by "Edmund Morris," who resembles the author but is several decades older, has known Reagan since the 1920s, and has a son named Gavin who joined the Weather Underground in the 1960s. None of those details are actually--what's the word?--true.

This mixing of fact and fiction has furrowed many brows in the literary and journalistic communities, but a more urgent question is whether this biographical experiment works on its own terms. Alas, it does not. The fictional parts aren't sufficiently compelling to make Dutch work as a novel, and the narrative flow of the nonfiction parts is disrupted by all the make-believe. The effort necessary to keep track of what's true and what isn't--Morris frequently uses phony dialogue to convey fact--makes Dutch a difficult yet unrewarding read.

Ronald Reagan is clearly the wrong sort of person for Morris--a prober of human character rather than an interpreter of political controversies--to be writing about. Morris' portrait adds a shade here and there, but mostly confirms the opinion of both Reagan's admirers and his detractors that Reagan was intellectually incurious, passive, and narcissistic. (The latter quality apparently made him stand out even in Hollywood, the narcissism capital of America.) It is as a political force that Reagan is remembered--for leading an insurrection against big government at home and for luring the former Soviet Union into an accelerated arms race that may have quickened the Soviet collapse. But Reagan's political accomplishments get cursory treatment. I counted exactly two sentences devoted to the 1986 Tax Reform Act, arguably Reagan's best domestic legacy. Not many more sentences describe his worst domestic legacy--the creation of gigantic budget deficits that lasted late into the 1990s.

Even if Morris was frustrated in his search for depths of character that weren't there, he could have written a conventional biography that would have been useful and readable. Even a moderately good examination of Ronald Reagan's presidency would have real value right now: Enough time has passed for the partisan passions surrounding it to have cooled, and it ought to be possible, in 1999, to interpret the political events of the 1980s more objectively. Morris could have done so: He is a graceful and erudite writer and a very disciplined researcher. Instead, he sabotaged his own book. It's as if Morris took a can of spray paint to a canvas he'd labored over for a dozen years.

That said, there are some insights to be found in Dutch, most notably the account of Reagan's bizarre political development. According to Morris, Reagan may have expressed interest in joining the Communist party during his early Hollywood days, when he was something of a leftist. By 1952, when he had evolved into an anticommunist liberal, he still seemed to despise Richard Nixon; he wrote a friend that year that "the thought of Nixon in the White House is almost as bad as that of 'Uncle Joe [Stalin].' " By 1960, Reagan had changed his mind; he campaigned for Nixon and wrote him that "under the tousled boyish haircut" of John Kennedy "is still old Karl Marx." (That prompted Nixon to scribble onto the letter, for his staff, "Use him as speaker whenever possible. He used to be a liberal!")

But interesting bits like these are rare and are hardly worth the slog through long expanses of maundering prose. Even as a literary traffic accident, Dutch will probably defeat all but the most determined rubberneckers.

--Timothy Noah

TIMOTHY NOAH writes about politics and policy for Slate and for George magazine