After the service, we adjourned to the Birthplace, which was cordoned off for privacy. A voluble and energetic little lady led the returning pilgrim upstairs. I crowded close behind, not wanting to miss a moment of this récherche du temps perdu.
Only when it happened--a door thrown open, a threshold crossed, two windows full of sun, and then another, darker threshold--did I realize that none of us had anticipated its impact. "This, Mr. President," the little lady said, pointing matter-of-factly at a bed, "is where you were born."
Sixty years of public life had taught Ronald Reagan how to react. But these words were so sudden, the room so small, and the bed in its cramped corner so lumpishly there, that if a reproduction of Courbet's Origin of the World had hung over the headboard, he could not have been more shocked. I heard him suck in his breath. He swiveled on his heel, almost treading me down, and began to tell jokes.
Later, over lunch at the "Dutch Diner" down the street (named, oddly enough, not after Ronald Reagan, but after the Mennonite women who run it), a delayed reaction set in. He showed no interest in what I tried to tell him about the events of eighty years ago in Tampico. Instead, he took refuge in his own stories about Hollywood, stories we had all heard a hundred times, except now he left out whole sections without noticing, while Nancy picked at her salad, her face a mask.
Listening to him, I asked myself who of us, forced so brutally to confront the nothingness from which we have sprung, would not have turned away as he did, knowing it to be indistinguishable from--indeed, identical with--the nothingness that looms ahead?
"Don't blame me, this was Mike Deaver's idea," said Robert Tuttle, White House director of personnel, when I assumed the dread title of Authorized Biographer. "We were playing tennis one day, and I told Mike, 'What the President needs is an in-house historian.' He said, 'Don't worry, it's already done.' "
"Except it wasn't, Bob. I said no after the Hatfield dinner . I'm not a historian."
"Well, we thought you were. Couldn't understand why you hesitated so long."
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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