This was too much for Arthur, who by now was gazing at Reagan misty-eyed. "Mr. President!" he roared, almost sobbing with adoration. "Six hundred years from now, historians will still be fascinated by your manuscripts!" (I had a vision of scholarly lasers, programmed for Freudian clues, scanning Dutch's diaries without so much as a beep.) Arthur, rambling on, would not be stopped until he had begged the President and Mrs. Reagan to preserve their billets-doux. "Imagine what would have happened if Mrs. Wilson had burned those wonderful love letters Woodrow wrote her. How little we would know of his passionate humanity!"
There was nothing to do but let rapture run its course. Reagan sat listening, content at having prevailed once again over a potential enemy. The rest of us twirled our wineglasses and wondered what kind of ideological hangover Arthur was going to have in the morning.
Throughout the seventy minutes we stayed at the table, I was aware of Mrs. Reagan's stare, as a scuba diver in dark water senses two large, pale, accompanying jellyfish. I braced myself to glance at her: she gave a thin return of smile before looking away.
"And then along came Nancy Davis," said Reagan, "and saved my soul."
He was talking about 1949, his annus horribilis, when in the space of a few months he had found himself alone, aging, divorced, unemployed, upstaged in his last picture, and on crutches, nursing a shattered leg. There was a respectful silence while he gazed at his savior. Her eyes glittered with tears, perfectly on cue.
Hokey, yes, but I could not help being moved. The President's adoration of this brittle little woman warmed the room to such an extent that Mrs. Hatfield, draining her champagne, launched into a monologue on the subject of Love that had us all checking our watches. Only Reagan, with his bear's appetite for honeyed sentiment, seemed sorry when her speech, and with it the evening, came to an end.
"I'm going to ask only one favor from you scholars in exchange for this dinner," Senator Hatfield said after the Reagans had left. "Each of you must send me an account of what you've heard and seen tonight."
I wrote some pages from an imaginary History of the United States in the Late Twentieth Century. Its general tone was whimsical, aside from this mention of a proposal by the Librarian of Congress:
. . . that Reagan appoint to his staff a historian trained to sense the long-term significance of events. Presidents, Dr. Boorstin remarked, are often unaware that their most cherished "achievements" might be judged insignificant by posterity, while others, hardly noticed at the time, blossom later to major importance. If the drama of the moment--a gala for the doomed Sadat, a visit to the Berlin Wall--can be captured by an official photographer, then why not also by an official chronicler? "As Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee," Hatfield interrupted with a grin, "I'll see you get the necessary funds."
After quoting Arthur Link's outburst about the "passionate humanity" of Woodrow Wilson, I concluded:
Implicit in that remark was the suggestion that Reagan's own humanity, unchronicled, might fade faster than any other feature of his Presidency; that in the end what chiefly survives, or should survive, of any Chief Executive is the quality of his personality. Presidents, whatever their political symbolism, represent the national character of their era, and if we do not understand our leaders as people, we can never understand ourselves as Americans.
It was not until some time afterward that I learned that the real purpose of the Hatfield dinner had been to set me up as Reagan's "chronicler." So that was why Mrs. Reagan had stared so hard over her volaille de poulet aux champignons. That was why Richard Darman, the Administration's resident intellectual, had invited me to the White House for a follow-up discussion. Presumably, I was expected to offer my pen to the Reagan Revolution.
Excerpted from Dutch by Edmund Morris. Copyright© 1999 by Edmund Morris. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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