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Dutch bio loses votes
Few politicians attract as much praise and scorn as Ronald Wilson Reagan. Some view him as a visionary leader under whom the Cold War was won and big government was finally brought to its knees. Others see him as a conservative extremist with outlandish opinions. It is fitting then, that the man who caused so much debate while in power should be the very subject of a controversial new biography.
Edmund Morris' Dutch is unlike most other historical biographies. Allowed unprecedented access to the president during his final years in office, Morris has produced an intimate look at this normally evasive and guarded man.
Reagan's views on issues, such as the AIDS epidemic ("maybe the Lord brought down this plague" because "illicit sex is against the 10 commandments,") are often startling when heard for the first time.
Yet, what is even more startling is Morris' decision to insert himself into the narrative. In an attempt to better illustrate the complex nature of the man he is writing about, Morris gives his own views on Dutch as he grows from actor to American president.
In a further flight of fancy, Morris has added fictional characters to the book in an attempt to emphasize, among other things, the many sides of Reagan and the effect he had on different people. Confused yet?
The book does not explain much in the way of policy. Morris is far too obsessed with Reagan's personal charisma and elusive nature to concentrate on matters of real substance, leaving the contentious issues of the Reagan era untouched on the surface. To his credit, however, he does shed new light on the unique and historic relationship he developed with Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as a glimpse of Reagan now.
As misguided as many of Morris' literary inventions are, this is a well-written book. It is an interesting read with many colourful stories and insightful asides. However, despite its strong suits, Dutch cannot be considered the work of great historical importance its author intended it to be. It is far too confusing to be taken seriously.
In a sense, Morris can be forgiven for not writing the definitive volume on Ronald Reagan. After all, regardless of what one may think of the Gipper, he was one of the most prominent figures of the 20th century. It is almost certainly too soon to begin the writing of his legacy.
Edmund Morris has tried and failed.