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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Ronald Reagan has long inspired heated opinions: His defenders think him among the greatest of presidents (Could there really have been — and not so long ago — a movement to add his image to Mount Rushmore?), and his detractors rate him among the worst.
He was a man who relied on a sort of national nostalgia; he often spoke of how things once were (or, perhaps more accurately, how he would have had us believe they once were), evoking a simpler, more innocent time that never really existed. The stories he shared in an effort to embed those memories in our collective consciousness often as not were pure fabrications. But Ronald Reagan never let such details prevent him from weaving his web of assurance and inspiration, and the greater majority of Americans readily followed him down the primrose path.
And yet, claims Edmund Morris in his controversial new biography, DUTCH: A MEMOIR OF RONALD REAGAN, Reagan was "unjustly acccused of living in the past. Few Presidents have been as forward-looking."
And that's just one of many contradictions Morris offers us. Although Reagan went years without uttering the word AIDS and even suggested, in 1987, that the virus was a plague brought against sodomizers by an angry God, Morris insists that he was adamantly opposed to discrimination against homosexuals. And though he was beloved by the Christian Right, Reagan was neither a successful family man nor a particularly devoted churchgoer. In the 1950s, he was so active sexually that Morris claims he once woke up beside a young woman he was unable to evenidentify— hardly the lovable, old-fashioned grandfatherly figure he was thought to be by many, if not most, Americans.
And yet, despite these and many other inconsistencies, Morris is of the opinion that Reagan was a great president, that he restored America's sense of national pride, that he brought about the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union, in particular.
So readers of every political disposition will find much to agree and disagree with, but it is not the book's evenhandedness, or lack thereof, that is sparking controversy. Rather it is Morris's decision to insert into his telling of Reagan's story a fictional character who is present for and narrates the book's action. It's an unorthodox approach that blurs the line between the once clearly delineated genres of biography and fiction.
DUTCH is a book that will likely inspire discussion and debate for weeks and even months, but its greatest impact may well be on the very art of biography itself.