"For heaven's sakes!"
He holds the speckled leaf in his hand, caressing its green patches with his sharp, scarred thumb. The Oval Office is so silent I hope that the dry whisper of that caress will register on my tape recorder. "Direct from Lowell Park," I say. "Remember that big oak tree you used to sit under, when you were a lifeguard?"
He tilts his head at me, mildly amused but wary. Most public yet most private of men, he does not welcome undue familiarity with his past. I have never forgotten the blue anger that came into his eyes (no aquamarine flash like Jimmy Carter's, but a sort of dark flicker, like the inner flame of a candle) when I boasted that I had tracked down his first fiancée. "Oh, you found out about her, huh." It was a statement rather than a question--Ronald Reagan hardly ever used the interrogative form--signaling, for all its tone of polite interest, his resentment at being surprised, and his disinclination to hear another word about the preacher's daughter he once wanted to marry.
I should have kept my research to myself. Yet for sheer pleasure at having tracked down former intimates, I could never resist beginning an interview with, "Guess what--Glen Claussen's still alive. He gave me this photograph of you singing barbershop quartet!" or, "Joy Hodges says, 'Love to Dutch.' " I would pause for a reaction, but--unless you call a practiced chuckle reactive--always in vain. Perhaps his youthful readings in Calvin Coolidge taught him not to encourage interlocutors. It only winds them up for twenty minutes more. Even as a teenager, he had taken no personal interest in people. They were, and remained, a faceless audience to his perpetual performance.
Of course, if I said something like, "Mr. President, your old friend Pee Wee seems to be dying," he would bow his head in appropriate sorrow--checking, meanwhile, the schedule lying crisp before him:
1:30 pm Personal Staff Time
2:00 pm Pre-News Conference Briefing
3:30 pm Taping Session
Perhaps because today's show-and-tell has vegetal rather than human associations, his moment of wariness passes. "That was in front of the little bath house," he says, speaking more to the leaf than to me. He is back under his favorite oak, sixty summers ago, his hot damp swimsuit unlooped from his shoulders and dropped to his taut stomach, leaving behind a pale ghost of itself. The river has "closed" for lunch, and he is eating a hamburger and reading Edgar Rice Burroughs. At about the age of one thousand years, they go voluntarily upon their last strange pilgrimage down the river Iss, which leads no living Martian knows whither and from whose bosom no Martian has ever returned.
That hard, splendid body, those bruising arms and knees, the prickle of wet wool are so manifest that I can feel them--as one skinny-dipper did on August 2, 1928, in the nocturnal rescue that gave "Dutch" Reagan his first newspaper headline. pulled from the jaws of death. A sudden empathy with the drowning boy (who gave his name as James Raider) makes me want to retch, as if the Rock River's brackish waters are in my nose and throat, and my consciousness, too, swirling.
"Mr. President, when you--"I am in such a frenzy that I have forgotten he is still addressing himself to the leaf. Our voices collide; his soft husk arrests my stammer. "There was a walkway," Reagan says. "And then a square on the end with a slide on it, and a diving board, and uh, a low-level thing along one side. . . ." He glances at me smiling, head cocked. The gray-blue eyes go from gloss to semigloss, and he returns the leaf. "Well, I'll be darned." We are back in the present.
I know now I'll never tell him. No wonder Ronald Reagan embraced the Strategic Defense Initiative--cosmic deflection is his game! Research memo: look for the notion of a space-shield in Burroughs science fiction. Doesn't Princess of Mars have a dome of bombproof glass, five feet thick?
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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