Voice: First Person. Mood: Conditional.

Voice: First Person. Mood: Conditional.

Voice: First Person. Mood: Conditional.

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June 17 1998 6:14 PM

Voice: First Person. Mood: Conditional.

Can a memoir have the authority of history? That's a question Culturebox ponders ... uh, every now and again. She didn't expect to ask it about the work of Edmund Morris, though. It was his pleasing intellectual conservatism--his defense of Theodore Roosevelt's manly colonialist aspirations, for instance--that made the Pulitzer Prize-winning Roosevelt biographer seem such a suitable choice for Reagan. When a friend of Reagan's invited Morris to dinner to be interviewed for the position of official biographer, the friend surely wasn't thinking: Ah yes! Let's bring this fashionable memoir writer face to face with the Gipper!

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What a surprise, then, to come across the following title in the Random House fall catalogue: Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, by Edmund Morris. This is the most eagerly awaited political biography of the decade? In 1985, Morris received what was at the time the biggest advance ever paid for a work of serious nonfiction: $3 million. He was granted unfettered access to the former president while he was still in office. For the next 13 years, whenever slighter Reagan biographies appeared, obligatory deference was paid to Morris's forthcoming magnum opus.

But a rumor floated: Morris had lost presidential favor. The book was late (it was due in 1992). Morris told a group of historians that Reagan was "impossible to understand," a dilemma that had caused Morris to experience a year's depression. (He later clarified: "What made Reagan uniquely difficult was that he was incurious about himself.") Morris would reveal that Reagan's faculties had been on the decline since 1981, when he was shot. Reagan's Alzheimer's was now so advanced that he no longer knew who Morris was.

Could Reagan have turned out to be rebarbative to the biographer's art--so emotionally hollow as to be uncharacterizable, perhaps? Is unlimited entree less a biographer's blessing than his curse? In an interview with the Boston Globe earlier this year, Morris downplayed expectations: "If you want to know what happened at a specific meeting, read Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon's book. I'm investigating Ronald Reagan's character; my book is a study of his life and imagination, and his gift for stirring the imagination."

But Morris dismisses Culturebox's doubts, saying his book will retain the breadth and depth of a biography: "It's just simply the fact that I spent a lot of time with him in the White House and had the chance to talk with him a lot. It's a privilege most biographers don't have, at least not biographers of presidents. We schmoozed a lot and had long dialogues."

Culturebox says: Hmm.

--Judith Shulevitz