Monday, July 22, 2002

Dutch by Edmund Morris

The controversial book about Ronald Reagan, controversial because Morris inserts himself into the story as what I presume is a fictional character. It’s so far (118 pages) an interesting technique, but I can see how it would upset “serious” historians. It did give me an idea for a story, however. What if the narrator of a story was the imaginary friend of another character? Everything would be told from the point of view of some unrealized portion of the character’s psyche. Might get kind of hard when the character starts interacting with others (I mean, if the narrator is there observing everything, why aren’t the other characters interacting with him?). It would be tough to keep the reader in the dark until the end, but maybe that’s not necessary. Maybe a story in which the narrator is imaginary would be interesting enough in its own right.

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One thing I can tell you about this Dutch book—it’s very well written. I’m not sure how much I like this biography told from fictional character idea, but the prose is certainly fun to read. Everything about the fictional narrator seems okay so far, except his son Gavin who, I assume, is also fictional since his dad clearly is. He seems just a little too “out there” to be believable. I mean, I know there were radicals in the sixties, but did most of them really think that way? Interesting how even they try to distance themselves from Communists. I also get the sense that Gavin and his friends are rebelling against something that may have existed back then but seems all too rare today—universities that are beholden to the conservative governments that fund them and their research. If there was a time in our history when the GOP controlled what was being taught on college campuses, it seems clear that is something the counterculture was able to overturn, perhaps tipping the balance too far in the other direction.

But for Reagan himself, who of course is the focus of the book, I’m still trying to decide if the author is on his side or not. He certainly allows the voices of Reagan’s critics to sound through his narrative, but he also frequently comes to Dutch’s defense in the voice and “actions” of the narrator. There’s almost an admiration of the man there, if not for his politics, at least for his ability to speak the universal thoughts that tie so many together and his clear-headed vision of what’s right and what’s wrong. Such clarity has always appealed to me, probably because I so often find myself seeking it.

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The portrait that Morris is painting of Reagan is a very complex one. I’m beginning to understand why the conservatives demonized him so much. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to Reagan’s seeming imbecility. Except Morris doesn’t paint it as imbecility, rather as disinterest and selection of focus. Reagan, according to Morris, consciously decided what he was going to focus on—for his own rather than political reasons—and then pursued those things to the exclusion of all else. He also supposedly had the tendency to believe fictional accounts as facts—if they supported his beliefs—and disregard any amount of true facts if they ran counter to something he had decided he was going to believe in. It’s almost scary to think of him directing foreign policy through eight critical years with a mindset so irrefutably focused as his was. As things turned out, I guess his focus might actually have been the right thing at the right time, but how might things be different if his notions of right and wrong skewed ever so slightly in one direction or another? I find myself wondering just how much of what he accomplished was tactical and how much was just plain Dutch. Was Truman the same way? Put into the job at an extremely critical moment and singularly focused on his own perceptions of right and wrong to guide him through? And how many of those perceptions were shaped by the same small town American values that shaped Reagan’s?

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Dutch by Edmund Morris
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