Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan
written by Edmund Morris
published by Random House, 1999
674 pages of text; 200 pages of notes and index


The furor caused by the publication of Dutch reminds us of how polarizing an icon Ronald Reagan has been since the 1960s. To most conservatives and rightists, Reagan has been the handsome and eloquent standardbearer of all the sublime American verities. To most liberals and leftists, Reagan is an incarnation (or a tool) of every evil that America had wrought upon itself and upon the world.

One of the main reasons why Dutch has received generally negative reviews is that it ignores the icon and looks at the man. Who was Ronald Reagan? What formed him? How can we understand his life and his actions? Morris for the most part addresses those questions rather than questions of Reagan's holiness or iniquity, and his ability to answer those questions provides the brilliance in his book.

What provides the dullness in Dutch is the other main reason why Morris' effort has been critically panned: his faux-first-person narrative technique. The technique is clever and often well-executed, and it allows Morris to include some worthwhile (and often colorful and amusing) surmises about how Reagan existed and how he was perceived by others.

Ultimately, however, Morris' style of narrative is distracting and unnecessary -- most of what Morris accomplished by using it could have been accomplished with a straight narrative. (For example, Francis Russell's The Shadow of Blooming Grove conveyed the same kinds of biographical texture about Warren Harding that Dutch excels at providing for Reagan, and did so without any awkward artifices.) Morris' technique also makes the first 30 or so pages of the book seem pretentious and weird, because the reader cannot understand some of the references in those pages until after reading the last page of the book's epilogue. Edit out the faux-Morris parts, and Dutch would be a much better book.

Regrets aside, Dutch is a strong book written by a skilled historian; a work of erudition produced by 14 years well-spent. Morris gets behind the plaster saint (or plaster devil) called "Ronald Reagan" and animates Reagan the man, giving us a sympathetic and convincing account of Reagan's character and actions.

According to Morris, Reagan had two major traits that defined much of his life. The first trait was Reagan's willful superficiality -- Reagan was a man who did not dig deeply into his self (nor did he like other people digging there), preferring to live in the surface world of sentimentality and solitude rather than the deep world of emotion and connection. The second trait was Reagan's sense of good will and his belief in the goodness of humanity and the goodness of America -- he wanted others to be as free as Americans and to be able to find in that freedom the happiness that he himself had.

These two traits combined to form a personality that puzzled most of the people who considered themselves to be close to Reagan over the years. To these people, Reagan seemed from a distance to be a friendly and approachable person, yet when approached seemed distant and inaccessible.

Morris traces these traits and their consequences throughout the 80 years of Reagan's sentient life, showing how events acted upon Reagan and how Reagan acted upon events. He focuses mainly on Reagan the man rather than Reagan the politician, delving into Reagan's political life only when doing so is necessary in order to illuminate Reagan's character (Morris' light coverage of Reagan's political affairs is one reason why the chapters that cover Reagan's life after 1976 often seem so insubstantial -- interested readers should turn to Lou Cannon's two biographies of Reagan for a fuller picture of his political side).

In the process, Morris uncovers a Reagan who surprises both the left and the right. Against the left, Morris presents Reagan as an intelligent, principled, effective, engaged, and even (at times) heroic politician who was a clear improvement over what the Democrats had to offer during the 1980s. Against the right, Morris presents Reagan as a man who became even more dogmatic, stubborn, and mentally vague during his post-1981 dotage than he had been before it.

And to us all, Morris presents Reagan -- presents him convincingly and powerfully -- as a human being, a man of heroic virtues and horrific flaws, a man who inspired and led the major political movement of our time, a man who filled and filled out the Presidency as no one else has since Franklin Roosevelt. Sad as I am at how much better Dutch could have been, I am impressed with how excellent it is.


Review posted: 12 December 1999