Our correspondent, longtime Los Angeles Times reporter and columnist Robert Scheer, has spent several hours over the years questioning President Reagan on a variety of subjects and in a variety of venues, yielding, among other things, hours of videotape and newspaper interviews. His anecdotes are thus verifiably factual, whereas many of biographer Edmund Morris’s are of course rather notoriously fictional. But aside from this deviation from Morris’s technique, Scheer has attempted to remain faithful to the biographer’s style.
It was the spring of 1980, and the sun disappearing into the cold gray Iowa landscape as we circled for a landing could have been taken as a signal of departing optimism echoing the omnipresent doom that at that moment defined the Ronald Reagan for President campaign. A gloom that would not for long sit well with a man who had forsaken Dixon for Hollywood. A gloom that this man Dutch would himself forsake, as was his style, upon disembarking to greet an awaiting audience, pompadour and smile frozen tightly in time for his entry onstage–scripted, confident, ever alive onstage, only alive onstage, but let’s not suggest that this is the whole story or there would be no reason to read on. There is a man beyond the actor, and I will find him, or there is no justification whatsoever for this enormous waste of an opportunity. (Dutch is that man, this is his story, and we continue quite marvelously without the faintest sense of obligation to indicate where we are headed, because the restraints of traditional biography would obscure that which is most interesting about Dutch and his world: his officially authorized biographer, or AB as we shall from time to time refer to him.)
–Notes of AB scribbled hastily
eight years later in bathroom of Air Force One
as it was preparing for a landing
* * *
Back to 1980. Bush up in polls, Reagan judged too old, headlines couldn’t be worse, NR is bowling apples down the aisle of the campaign plane, [Mike] Deaver and [Stu] Spencer and [Ed] Meese are permanently stuck in a goopy huddle, and the comely blond volunteer smiles at AB. AB will not actually be present for another ten years, but even in his fictional incarnation he is clearly more interesting, sexually and in every other which way, even to her uncultivated mind, than that boy/man called Dutch. Although no one ever refers to him as Dutch, preferring Old Ron or Governor or later Mr. President, except AB, for whom the common moniker of Dutch clearly connotes the status of a subject unworthy of AB’s attentions. What a relief, if AB would only forget all about Reagan and play exclusively with himself as the book’s subject, which is all that really seems to interest him.
—Notes of RS on Post-it note stuck
in Dutch while force-reading
for overdue Nation review
* * *
Still the despair saturated the very air of that campaign plane circling the Iowa airport and was so compelling in its ability to detract from the larger purpose at hand that the candidate’s handlers, even so dreadfully early in the primary season, had surrendered the prime seat next to their man on the plane, shiny cheek to scraggly jowl as it were, to an unruly leftist left over from the sixties. This was not a sixties leftist that AB needed to invent but, in a surprising discovery made by the reviewer rather than the author, was an interlocutor who had actually existed and sat in that very seat next to Dutch. Improbably, as are all things connected with California, the scraggly fellow, a cross between beatnik and hippie with equally unappealing elements of both, had edited a magazine called Ramparts, located in San Francisco, and was long known to Dutch. Although never referring to him as such, this very editor had first interviewed Old Ron, as he called him, when he was a candidate for governor, up in the lake country in a motel; the editor had fallen asleep in a chair, only to awaken and find the campaigner in his skivvies, unaware that a reporter was in the room. Shock, the hint of scandal–what if the Ramparts editor had been wearing a thong or the would-be governor was so dressed? Being by then a Californian for more years than the typical native, Dutch had shaken off his prudish Midwestern roots sufficiently to handle the interruption with aplomb, which may or may not tell you all you need to know about this man. But an open and otherwise straightforward Reagan would not have provided the mystery of a subconscious soul justifying the thirteen-year attention of an official AB. (“Can there ever be such a legitimate character as an official AB if AB is either paranoid or objectively not trusted by his subject or his handlers, or so stupid an interviewer that no conversation of import between him and his subject ever transpires?”)
–AB, in a rare moment of honest
introspection, writing by candlelight
in the very White House bathroom
where Teddy Roosevelt once urinated
* * *
AB is probably all of the above because Reagan, even in his dotage, gave some fine interviews. Annoyed by the dismissive tone taken by AB toward Reagan, I rush to review my own transcripts of our discussions on all sorts of subjects–abortion as murder, catalytic converters as polluters, redwoods being too numerous and homosexuals as a collection of Oscar Wildes to be tolerated. Wrong he could be, but never inarticulate or lacking in considerable experience, authoritative anecdote and logical argument to back up his point of view. For God’s sake, the man had been around the block many more times than AB, and what’s this big deal about Reagan being onstage all the time? You can learn a lot from a life centered around the arts. How else to explain the impressive smarts of Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty?
–RS writing on a laptop in a
bathroom no President ever used
* * *
All said, this man from Ramparts, whom AB never met but might have, quite by chance as he was visiting with his second cousin from England, whom he had formerly detested but who happened to have opened a delightful teashop in Santa Monica, was by virtue of background and bearing just the sort of lout that Dutch should have loathed. If–and here lies the subdued brilliance of that man Dutch–he had the capacity to loathe. Later in Malibu, people who might have been called Pete and Rose might have served drinks, talked deprecatingly of Ring Lardner and stared at the stars made clear by their vantage point on just the right side of the bluff and been at a loss for words to justify Reagan’s lack of loathing despite the temper he had demonstrated in the SAG days when he wanted so much to be a Communist but the party would have none of it. The Dutch of post-SAG battles–whose skin was clean when that of Dalton Trumbo crawled–would surely have loathed this ex-Ramparts cur. But loathe he did not, which was his saving grace when intelligence and knowledge failed him. There was to Dutch the certain confidence of the Dixon lifeguard about to spring into the shallow end, if need be, to save one not worthy of being saved, although, being that he was a Christian of the Midwest neo-Calvinist school, who was, after all, not worth saving?
–AB, dictating while strolling
on the beach at Sag Harbor
* * *
What profound conversations AB and Dutch should have had, nicking up the Teflon presidency, and whose fault is it that we didn’t have them? And was the fault Reagan’s opaqueness or AB’s arrogance? There were those moments of real insight, if you get what I mean. Oh? You don’t? Too bad, because what I have to say is important and true, in parts, and by screwing around like this with the biographer’s stylebook, I’ve mucked up my insight, which is nowhere clearly stated, other than to suggest that there is no insight to be had. Which as old Theodore Roosevelt, who made me what I am, might have observed, is perhaps the true measure of a man’s greatness, when it resides in a quality so imperceptible to ordinary observation that its very existence or lack thereof could only fuel one’s speculation.
–AB, grown desperate and
writing notes on bathroom walls, with his
editor banging on the door outside
* * *
Dutch was always like that, never changed from the man who was never a boy even when he was a lifeguard, or rather the boy who was never a man even when he was President, the difference not being worth debating except to fill pages and contractual obligations. Why would anyone want to read another word about Dutch and its author after the confusion of snatches of fact–sometimes hopelessly distorted as to context of time and space–with fiction, quite fanciful, relevant always to the author’s psyche and never to that of his subject? The book has been sufficiently ridiculed by critics to remove it as a threat to truth or the art of biography. Yet it is such tough going after the snappy prose style and scrapbook clippings become painfully repetitive in content as well as tone, that one wonders if anyone, principal editors included, ever actually read it. By which I mean people who did more than flip through the book to see if it properly celebrated their own role or made fun of Reagan, as their own prejudice would dictate, or (as seems to have been the case with critics) to check the index to see if their own previous writings about the man were properly credited. By that standard, I have to confess to finding the book deeply, as the critics say, flawed. Not one word about my five hours of interviews with Reagan in 1980, beginning with that plane trip to Iowa, during which he discussed the winnability of nuclear war, the necessity of civil defense and other absurdities with this former editor of Ramparts. That, and there being no blacklist in Hollywood, and that it was necessary to kill a young man when Reagan called out the National Guard to suppress the students at People’s Park in Berkeley, and how, also as governor, he had solved the problem of poverty in Los Angeles, which despite Reagan’s repetitive boasting of this accomplishment, I could find no trace of in the clippings of the Los Angeles Times or in the memory of other living men.
Too late to bring it up now, what with Old Ron in his dotage, but he deserved a better biographer. Any of us could have done better, even that neighbor of mine who claims to be a writer but who hasn’t published a word. Yes, too late now, with Reagan not saying much after his daily lunch of meatloaf and mashed potatoes at his office in the annex off his beloved Century Plaza Hotel, where a presidential suite was only recently named after him, the opening of which I, ever reverential, duly attended. Why not? The guy was governor for eight years and President for two terms, and the world didn’t fall apart. In the end, he made peace with his Communist devils, befriended Gorbachev and his charming wife, and if Reagan were all there and Raisa hadn’t recently died, they could have formed a wonderful foursome for bridge. I don’t know if Old Ron plays bridge, but if I were AB, I could find a clever way to imply that he did. It makes for a better story. But AB blew it because AB cares only to write about himself. Which is why the President spurned him so. Nancy and Deaver may have wanted this boob around because, although they both have other excellent virtues, they are both easily taken in by the appearance of class, particularly if it is represented by the appearance of a variant of the British accent. A convict from Australia could even fill the bill. Not Ron, he saw right through you, and when he didn’t like what he saw, he tuned you out. The best moments in this book are when Reagan forgets, as he frequently does, just who AB is and what he’s doing there–certainly in this instance a proper defense mechanism and hardly proof of Alzheimer’s.
–RS in closing e-mailed review