Half an hour later, I emerge from the Oval Office, asking myself for the hundredth time, "How much does Dutch really know?"
There was no sign of recognition when I first saw him in the White House, at a state dinner in August 1981. Nor did he know me (although he pretended to) when I sat next to him fourteen months later, at a lunch with members of the Theodore Roosevelt Association. He again showed no sign of familiarity on Saint Valentine's Day 1983, when Senator Mark Hatfield invited a group of biographers to dine with the Reagans in Georgetown. I was not surprised. The President met an average of eighty people a day; he must long since have stopped relating handshakes to faces.
He certainly lit up, though, when Hatfield introduced me as the author of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. "Oh!" he breathed, warmly resting his left hand on my right hand engulfed in his other hand, "I read that. And Nancy was reading your wife's book about, uh--""Edith Kermit Roosevelt, sir."
"Yes. Those first few months in the White House, we would lay in bed and read 'em side by side!" He waited for me to express appreciation, then winked and turned to Frank Freidel. Happiness suffused my heart.
I watched Frank melting under similar treatment, then Daniel J. Boorstin and George Nash and the rest of our company. The President had a perfectly prepared quip for each man, a beam of sexless affection for each woman. We were all seduced, with the exception of Arthur S. Link, Ph.D., George Harding Davis '86 Professor of American History at Princeton University. Reagan grasped his disapproving Democratic hand. "Well, hello--" Link bent stiffly forward, craggy and crabbed, bowed by the erudition of forty-two consecutive volumes of The Papers of Woodrow Wilson. His detestation of the Gipper was legendary in academe. Some of us had taken bets that Arthur would not show up. But show he had, in the teeth of a snowstorm, out of courtesy to Senator Hatfield.
For a moment, his silver crew cut bristled inches from Reagan's chin. I braced for an upward jerk and thud. But then he straightened and tried to smile--a mirthless iguana gape. Reagan, nodding kindly, moved on to the butler.
Something about the back of the President's neck, as he ordered a vodka and orange, told me he sensed Link's stiffness, and was figuring how to deal with it. He had been the same at college, at Warner Bros., in the Army, on the road for GE in the Fifties: always the Actor, determined at all costs to captivate every person in the room. Compared with some of the more formidable dyspeptics he had beguiled--Eamon De Valera, Charles de Gaulle, and Chiang Kai-shek, to name but three--Link was easy meat.
It took him no more than twenty minutes, once we had sat down at Mrs. Hatfield's round table, ornamented with bulbous red plastic hearts. I noticed he kept beaming at Arthur. Rubicund from his cocktail, big, broad, lustrous with power, he exuded what Walter Pater called the "charm of an exquisite character, felt in some way to be inseparable from his person." The iguana began to cackle in spite of itself at the flow of his jokes. Who could help but laugh, when Reagan himself laughed so irresistibly?
Arthur, being something of an expert on sequitur, must have noticed how each joke adapted to the conversation, how quickly and lightly the words spooled out, every punch line dropping like a fly on the stream. Joke-telling requires a special kind of intelligence, as anyone knows who has tried to write one out: a few syllables too many, a vital phrase misstated, and the humor dies. Reagan lacked wit--he was too cautious to risk repartee--and many of his jokes were hoary, but one could only marvel at their apparent spontaneity.
He grew serious when the conversation turned to a President's responsibility to endow posterity with personal documents. Whatever we recommended for the record, he said, he would do faithfully. But he doubted that details about himself as a man would interest anybody, now or in the future. "I still look over my shoulder when I'm, you know, walking out of the White House and the Marines are saluting and all, and I say, 'Who--me?' "
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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