In "Dutch," realistic political analysis wages a losing battle with novelistic technique. Reagan is seen through the eyes of yet another fictional character, "Gavin Morris," the narrator's tormented son. As a teenager, Gavin was haunted by nuclear nightmares: "I saw God's face burning, filling the whole sky, and he looked just like a Chinaman." By the time Reagan runs for governor, Gavin is an alienated student at UC Berkeley who reads Herbert Marcuse and talks of revolution, sounding more like a European leftist than an American one. Because so much of the campaign is told through Gavin's letters, Berkeley overshadows everything else. In defeating two-term incumbent Gov. Edmund G. ("Pat") Brown, Reagan certainly exploited what he called "the mess at Berkeley." But he also took advantage of the Watts riot of 1965, which Morris mentions in passing, and a lesser but high-visibility riot in San Francisco six weeks before the election, which Morris does not mention at all. Morris might have benefited from the account in Bill Boyarsky's "The Rise of Ronald Reagan," a useful book not included in the bibliography. By 1966, racial conflict had frayed the Democratic coalition, casualties were mounting in Vietnam and the steam was gone from Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and from Brown's administration in Sacramento. An orthodox biography such as "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" would surely have explored this context. But "Dutch" focuses on the travails of Gavin Morris, who joins the Weathermen and goes underground and out of the book with a curious epitaph: "And it was you, Dutch, who sent him there."
Morris pays meticulous attention to invented characters but is careless about real-life details. He faults Ron Reagan, Nancy and Ronald Reagan's son, for disdaining the use of "junior." But since Ron's middle name is different than his father's, he is no junior. Assemblyman Bob Moretti, a Democratic leader in Sacramento during the Reagan years, was not known as "Macho Bob." Frank Fats, Sacramento's most famous political watering hole, is not "Wing Fats." William P. Clark, Reagan's chief of staff in Sacramento, left the administration not for "private life" but the judicial bench. Such small-bore errors are recurrent and bothersome, but Morris makes more serious mistakes. He asserts, for instance, that Spencer-Roberts, the political consulting firm that ran Reagan's campaign, worried that anti-communist passages in his autobiography were too "bellicose." But in many of his speeches at the time, Reagan was more anti-communist than he was in "Where's the Rest of Me?" What actually concerned Spencer-Roberts was that mention of Reagan's leftist fling after the war might alarm conservatives. Morris says that Spencer-Roberts distributed "thousands" of copies of the autobiography to reporters in a perverse tactic to persuade them not to write about it, a statement that is silly on its face. Stuart Spencer does not recall giving out any copies of "Where's the Rest of Me?" Mine came from a Democratic operative who also believed Reagan would be harmed by his brief flirtation with the left.
Morris' treatment of Reagan's two-term governorship is hasty and haphazard. One would not know from this book that Reagan eventually made his peace with the University of California and increased its funding by 100% during his eight years as governor. Nor would a reader learn that Reagan supported what was then the largest (and most progressive) tax increase in state history. The tax bill was crafted by Democratic Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, who believed it was sound policy but miscalculated that it would damage Reagan politically. Unruh, his party's nominee for governor in 1970, lost but ran more strongly against Reagan than any other Democrat ever did. He is unaccountably absent from "Dutch."
Also absent is the historical context of the permissive abortion rights measure that Reagan signed into law in 1967, prompting Morris to accuse him of having "blood on his hands." But this was before Roe v. Wade and the rigid drawing of abortion battle lines into "pro-life" and "pro-choice." Most Western conservatives in the 1960s believed, with Goldwater, in the nostrum that government should stay out of the boardroom and the bedroom. A solid majority of Republicans in the California Legislature adhered to this view. The abortion rights measure, introduced by a Democratic state senator, was sponsored in the Assembly by a Republican, who assured colleagues that Reagan would sign it. Morris says that Reagan felt "an undefinable sense of guilt" after doing so. My memory is that he also expressed relief, mistakenly believing that he had put to rest an issue that was just beginning to have a vital impact on American politics.