The Third Edmund Morris

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Oct. 8 1999 3:30 AM

The Third Edmund Morris

More fantasies from Reagan's fictographer.

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Even if you haven't cracked Dutch, you know about Edmund Morris and his semi-fictional namesake. And you probably haven't avoided a third Edmund Morris: the tireless promoter who dogs your channel-surfing. Strangely, this Edmund Morris on the gab-show circuit begs to differ with Edmund the Writer. Where Edmund the Writer can be cleareyed about his subject, calling Reagan "banal" and an "airhead," Edmund the Promoter fawns like a Reaganaut, constantly trumpeting a "great president." Whereas Edmund I claims he only made up Edmund II, Edmund III weaves tales that are flatly contradicted in Edmund I's book.

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A striking instance of inter-Edmund strife comes from last Friday's Larry King Live. There, Edmund the Promoter told how Ronald Reagan almost joined the Communist Party. And why didn't he? "The party elders heard about his desire to join, realized at once that Reagan was not doctrinary material. He was too open and too honest, and he couldn't be trusted to keep party secrets. So they asked him politely to stay the hell away."

But Edmund the Writer tells a very different version of the same story in Dutch. He quotes writer Howard Fast, a party stalwart. According to Fast, when Reagan tried to join, "the local Party leader asked around, and word came back Reagan was a flake ... [who] couldn't be trusted with any political opinion for more than 20 minutes."

So Edmund I writes that Ronald Reagan was too stupid for the Communists, and then Edmund III improves the story for television by making him too virtuous. (Defending the contradiction, Morris says, "flaky means he couldn't be trusted with secrets.") Once you start making stuff up, apparently, it's harder to stop than you think. But which Edmund is correct? Maybe neither. It turns out that even Edmund the Writer may have been embroidering more than his own role.

Dutch devotes three pages to the CP episode. Nearly half of this three-page stretch consists of Morris' conversation with Fast, presented as screenplay dialogue. It is a dramatic scene with Fast dishing a shocking piece of information that the obsessed biographer has never heard before. Morris pours on the color--they are in a reception at the New York Public Library's Astor Hall, they shake hands, they are wearing tuxedos, the buzz of billionaires is in the background, and so on.

But these are all Red herrings, distracting from the fact that the scene is a silly vehicle for exploring Reagan's flirtation with communism. Fast never claims to have met Reagan or to have had firsthand knowledge of Reagan's application to join the party. The Astor Hall reception was the only time he and Morris spoke, Fast says. Fast now admits to recycling gossip, "This was a story told to me at a dinner party. I can't remember who told it." Historian Ronald Radosh notes that Fast has a reputation for "inconsistently remembering his time in the party," including contradictory recitations in his two memoirs. But Morris, having stumbled upon a juicy story, never seriously questions Fast's reliability or pokes logical holes in his account.

Morris does recount his attempts to nail down Fast's story. He describes conversations with three Reagan acquaintances, including the actor Eddie Albert. Morris does not say that Albert was a party member, but he strongly hints that Albert and his wife operated on "behalf of the CPUSA." Albert confirmed for Morris that Reagan did indeed discuss joining the party and was ultimately dissuaded. But Morris writes that when he tried to question the aged actor further, "Albert caged up as expected."

Oddly, when I called Albert, he was anything but cagey. In fact he couldn't stop screaming into the phone: "Reagan was a nice guy, but he was stupid. He didn't have a clue about any Russia business. He talked about being a Communist. We all did. But he never did anything about it. One night my wife sat down and told him the party was a load of crap." But was this just a ploy? Were Albert and his wife secretly Communists, conspiring to keep Reagan out of the party? "No." Did Morris ask Albert this question? "[Morris] is an asshole," says Albert. And even Fast can't confirm what Morris implies, "I have no idea whether Eddie was in the party or not."

Eddie Albert may be lying, of course, and corroborating the Fast version of events may not be possible. But there are gaping holes in Morris' reporting that can easily be filled with a few phone calls. For instance, Fast told Morris that Reagan dealt with a local party leader, "a well-known screenwriter, a playwright, a historian." Fast wouldn't identify this person to Morris and Morris doesn't mention any attempt to track him down. But only one Hollywood character fits this bill: John Howard Lawson, the dean of Hollywood Reds who reemerged to become Reagan's political foe in the late '40s. And Fast confirmed to me that he was talking about Lawson.

Or Morris could have contacted Dorothy Healey, who was the chair of the Southern California Communist Party during the '40s. Healey told me: "This has to be apocrypha. It's nonsense. Of course, we never rejected people for being too flaky. And if Reagan had been rejected, I would have definitely heard about it." And in an interview, the authorized biographer concedes that he didn't investigate thoroughly: "Arthur Schlesinger once told me that he had dirt on Reagan buried in his filing system. But I never went after him."