Saturday, September 17, 2005


It is more than a year now, since Ronald “Dutch” Reagan passed over to the Other Side. Who of us, glued to our TV sets, will ever forget the images of Dutch’s casket being lowered into the ground, against a backdrop of the California sun setting behind the darkening mountains, while a lone Marine Corps bugler played the Last Post. It was pristine theatre, befitting perfectly the consummate actor that Dutch was throughout his long life.

It was the finale to a week of an extraordinary display of America-wide national grief. One thinks of the deaths of previous presidents of living memory, like those of Nixon, Johnson, Eisenhower, Truman, and Hoover. The public wailing on their passing was as nothing compared with that for Dutch. I’ve not included Roosevelt or Kennedy in this pantheon of deceased presidents because their deaths, which unleashed public mourning on a scale at least equal to that for Dutch, were under nonpareil circumstances – Roosevelt’s during a world war, and Kennedy’s through assassination.

What, then, was so unique about Dutch Reagan? Was it that, by remembering him, Americans could once again feel good about being Americans? What does this say, then, about George W Bush, who supposedly is again making Americans feel good about being Americans, or at least was doing so until quite recently?

Perhaps you will find the answer if you read the eponymous “Dutch”, Edmund Morris’s idiosyncratic biography of Ronald “Dutch” Reagan, which I’ve recently re-read.

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On its initial publication in 1995, “Dutch” was much argued about by the political cognoscenti because, in order to figure out the enigma that was Ronald “Dutch” Reagan, Morris told Dutch’s story through the eyes of a fictional character who followed Dutch around throughout his life, occasionally crossing his path. I’m informed by certain literati that Morris’s technique, blending reality with the fictional, is post-modernist. Not being one of the literati, being merely a knock-about beer-swilling two-fisted regular guy who wasn’t privileged to attend the University, I will take the literati at their word.

Edmund Morris tells Dutch Reagan’s story from many oblique and subjective angles. He uses, among other things, newspaper articles, verbatim conversations, streams-of-consciousness, fictional scenes, juxtapositions of different times, as well as straight narrative. If we think about it, this would be the logical way to approach Dutch Reagan who, himself, was notorious for confusing the imaginary with the real.

The story of Ronald “Dutch” Reagan, born a handful of years after the turn of the twentieth century was, in many respects, the story of America in the twentieth century. The son of an alcoholic father who stumbled from job to job, Dutch spent a peripatetic childhood in various small towns in Illinois. Psychologists have said his lifelong habit of blocking out unpleasant realities by going into an imaginary world was a legacy of his being the child of an alcoholic.

Otherwise, Dutch’s early years were much the same as for most other boys growing up in the small towns of the American mid-west of eighty and ninety years ago. He was quite a good student who supported himself through college by working as a lifeguard during his summers. In his first few years after college, which coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression, Dutch became a radio announcer and put to good use his ability to enter imaginary worlds by conjuring up in his mind, out of telegraphed wire service reports received of ongoing baseball games taking place in far-away areas of the country, descriptions of the games and imparting them to his listeners who were oblivious he was making it all up from inside a studio.

After a few years of this, Dutch loaded up his chattels and drove across country to California where he metamorphosed into one of the Leading Men of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, and won the hand of the up-and-coming actress, Jane Wyman. The book includes a black-and-white photograph, taken around 1937, of Dutch Reagan and Jane Wyman picnicking atop a cliff. They sit on a rug spread on the grass. Two bicycles lean against a tree just to the side. The Pacific Ocean far below stretches endlessly into the background. Dutch Reagan and Jane Wyman, so youthful, healthy, and vital, smile confidently into the camera. As they look out at us from all those many years ago, they evoke the promise, hope, and innocence of the America of that time.

During the war (the 1941-45 war, that is) Dutch served heroically, while decked out in a military uniform, in Hollywood as a commissioned officer, acting in patriotic movies to buttress the nation’s morale. All the while his political consciousness was growing (he was already a Roosevelt Democrat, the result of he and his father and mother being beneficiaries of the New Deal’s public largesse) as he participated in the activities of the unions and guilds to which the actors, writers, and the technical people in Hollywood belonged. Dutch later became for several years president of the Screen Actors Guild. It was during this time that Jane Wyman, bored to tears by Dutch’s unending political monologues, left him. Then along came Nancy.

It was also the time of the Hollywood witch-hunts to root out those who were Red sympathizers and Fellow-Travellers. Dutch, growing dismal at the extent Fellow Travellers were infiltrating the Hollywood unions, turned politically rightward and co-operated with Tail-Gunner Joe McCarthy, naming names.

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In the nineteen fifties, and in fitting with his new conservative persona, Dutch became the public spokesman for General Electric. He introduced the weekly General Electric Theatre on television, and travelled all over America on behalf of GE, visiting its factories and offices, shaking hands with its workers, and making speeches on any topic he chose. In return GE provided him a house, equipped with all the latest GE gadgetry.

There is a photograph taken during this time, of Dutch and Nancy and their two small children in the sitting-room of their model GE home. They look front-sideways into the camera, the better to accentuate their finely etched and chiselled features. Nancy looks serene, and Dutch wears a rugged film-star grin. He sports a cravat, white jacket, white socks, and a pair of two-toned black-and-white shoes. It is a picture of the quintessential American family of the Eisenhower ‘fifties.

Dutch’s walk with twentieth-century America continued in the nineteen-sixties when he was elected governor of California. But his walk had turned adversarial, since he was a conservative in a state that spawned and nurtured the protest movements of that time. However, Dutch faced down his foes, cutting social programs, balancing the state’s budget, and sending in the National Guard to quell student disturbances at various university campuses.

After eight years as governor, Dutch spent the nineteen seventies preparing the ground for his ascent in 1980 to the highest office in the land, his walk with American history now becoming, as well, a walk upon the world’s stage. Eight years later he finally stepped off the stage, his rendezvous with history now ended.

* * *

Dutch is today regarded as one of the most successful presidents of these United States, despite presiding over a double-digit unemployment rate, at least for a time, and over fiscal policies that created the largest budget deficits in US history. And so many looked down their noses at Dutch, saying disdainfully to each other at cocktail parties that he wasn’t too bright, was intellectually incurious, and lazy (it was said that the Iran-Contra Arms for Hostages crisis caused him sleepless afternoons). Perhaps Dutch’s detractors, doubtless liberal intellectuals, were jealous that someone not as bright as they were had out-achieved them.

So how did Dutch do it? Well, he had, over the years, beginning in his GE days, developed a handful of simple ideas about America and the world, articulated them eloquently and persuasively, actually believed what he said – most unusual in a politician – and kept repeating the same things over and over: that America was a shining City on a Hill; that Big Government stifled the creativity of the American people; that the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire; that America’s best days were yet to come; that it would be Morning Again in America. After the malaise of the Carter years, Dutch radiated optimism and hope, which sprang out of his artistic feel for what ordinary people respond to. As president he concentrated only on the Big Picture, leaving others to look after tiresome details, which interested him not a whit.

Dutch’s simplicity was an asset. He wasn’t intelligent enough to see the obstacles which could derail his dreams, and so wasn’t paralyzed by them. His world-view was quite childlike, an imaginary world without the harsh realities, a world befitting a child of an alcoholic, which Dutch had been.

Dutch was, on the surface, gregarious. He appeared to like everyone, and everyone liked him. So he was forgiven his inattention and serious errors of judgement during his second term as president. He was known as the Teflon president, since political unpleasantnesses didn’t stick to him personally. But Dutch was a paradox since, while everyone’s buddy, he had no close friends other than Nancy to whom he was devoted, and she to him. All Dutch’s children remarked that he was a distant father, that they didn’t know who he really was – a characteristic also remarked upon by all his friends and, not least, by Edmund Morris, who, as Dutch's official biographer, was so frustrated by his subject's inscrutability that he felt forced to invent characters in the biography, and mix in some fiction, as the best way to approach the mystery that was Dutch.

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The middle of September is here, the leaves are starting to turn, and the winds to blow chill. It is time to think of cosy evenings in front of a fire, with hot cocoa and a good book. And for a good book, what better than “Dutch”, for it is a thumping good read.