BOSTON — With House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. getting an advance of $1 million for his memoirs, and former Budget Director David A. Stockman getting $2.4 million for his, the $3 million going to historian Edmund Morris for an inside biography of President Reagan may seem only the latest hop in an arithmetical progression.
For some time now, literary jackpots have been attached not to writer but to subject. This is no reflection on Morris, a prize-winning historian, but he never got that kind of advance when writing about Teddy Roosevelt. Nothing a public figure does, in fact, may earn as much money as writing about it once it's done.
Stockman has ascended to investment banking and $2.4 million may not overwhelm him. But he never earned anywhere near that in the years that put the price tag on his book. Actually, he most likely owes part of the sum to Reagan--not for making him budget director but for taking him to the woodshed when he talked out of school. Nothing increases the literary value of a public career like a glitch.
Few people are troubled by the notion of having public figures earn hefty sums by writing their memoirs or, more usually, having them ghosted. If ghosting seems a pity--we remember Churchill's and De Gaulle's own words--it's at least fitting that those whose official words were spoken by spokesmen should have post-official words handled similarly. As for the money, we take it as one more form of the golden parachute that has become a key to compensating big shots.
In view of the deficit, in fact, we might consider factoring it all into our public payroll. Why not a memoir schedule for reducing salaries and pensions? Reagan would clearly be in a class by himself, but an ordinary President could have his compensation dropped, say, by $1.5 million, any President surnamed Kennedy by $2.5 million, a Cabinet member by $100,000, a Cabinet member who dated movie stars by $1.2 million.
To systematize things, book contracts might be assigned in advance, at the time of confirmation. That way, the payroll people would know how much to deduct.
The contract for the President's biography does, in fact, work forward. Not only in advance of writing but, to some extent, in advance of the subject. A major feature of the book is to be Morris' access to whatever the President chooses to let himself be seen or heard doing over the remaining three years of his term. And this raises questions.
Among these is not the matter of Reagan's profiting from his position. All the money, we are told, will go to Morris, his agent and Random House. Nobody will be able to argue that the President will be tempted to lead a secret mission to Nicaragua, throw pillows at Nancy or open his appointment calendar to the unduly glamorous simply to make his biography sell better.
Still, the arrangement seems to offer some odd possibilities. Presidents have allowed writers to follow them around for limited periods, but never for three years. We are told that high-level classified meetings and material will be excluded, and that everything else will be open to Morris at Reagan's discretion.
Now this may mean one of several things. It could mean exposure to a mass of routine meetings and whatever whiffs of atmosphere these may provide. But if that is all, along with access to those presidential papers and journals that Reagan sees fit to produce, it seems rather little for $3 million. Presumably Morris and Random House have been promised substantial exposure; but it is hard to see how they could have any guarantee of it.
With the best of good faith, Reagan's "discretion" is bound to fluctuate according to the unpredictable complexities of events and pressures that do not yet exist. If some major internal scandal were to take shape, is it reasonable to think that Morris' day-to-day access would hold up? And what if the President decides to withhold some most readable matters for his own memoirs, to be published later?
But assume that Morris' witness is meaningful and sustained, and that, as he has told publishers, he will be allowed to write as he pleases. And put aside any niggling thoughts about a naval analyst named Samuel Loring Morison, convicted of having information published about Soviet weapons that has already been published. If what Reagan makes available is no hotter than that, Random House has a bad deal. If it is hotter, then it's one law for what Morris may publish and another for Morison--$3 million versus the federal pen.
Apart from this is another question. Think of it this way: Would you want a medical writer present when your surgeon performed a delicate eye operation on you? Maybe you wouldn't object; but you would want to be asked.
The country has the right to the full and best use of its President's ability to do his job. Is the job made easier or harder by the presence of a public witness at those difficult negotiating or decision-making moments which--on the assumption of meaningful access--Morris is supposed to observe? President Reagan may want his story told but it's our story too, and it doesn't exist yet. Should we wonder whether arranging to tell the story gets in the way of there being a story to tell?