[BOOK REVIEW]Getting at the truth of a man's life by inventing it

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[BOOK REVIEW]Getting at the truth of a man's life by inventing it

This book created quite a stir when it was published in 1999; the author reinvented himself as a contemporary of young Ronald "Dutch" Reagan. The controversy was unknown to me when I bought the book on a brief break from my job at the time in North Korea; partway into the hardcover edition, I was puzzled when I flipped to the dust jacket to read Mr. Morris's biographical sketch, which certainly did not match the information in the text. It took some time before I was able to dispel the confusion, and in the meantime I was suspicious of a lot more of the content of what was represented as a biography, not a work of fiction. It is still not clear to me just where the inventions end, and their use just gives ammunition to critics who question some of Mr. Morris's other interpretations of the Reagan era.

That's a pity, because this is an engaging account of Mr. Reagan's life and times, his rise from lifeguard to movie actor to union activist to politician who switched not only his party but his political philosophy along the way. Is a lengthy passage describing a conversation with Mr. Reagan real or invented? An account of the reaction to the 1986 Reykjavik summit, where Messrs. Reagan and Gorbachev came close to agreeing on the "zero option" for nuclear weapons, is a dialogue featuring Mr. Reagan, many of his senior advisers, the author, Margaret Thatcher and an anonymous "French voice." Well, that is clearly a literary device, but I can recall no other book intended as a benchmark of an important historical personage that has been tainted by such underlying questions of what is real and what is not. Mr. Morris contends that he invented nothing that impinges on historical fact, but what does that mean in detail, and can we take him at his word?

Mr. Reagan's presidency was an epochal time and his life a fascinating one. We need no hype to dress it up and make it palatable.

by John Hoog

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