Washington Post book critic defends Reagan biographer

After an attack by the New York Times' Maureen Dowd, Jonathan Yardley comes to the rescue.

By Craig Offman
September 29, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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On Sept. 22, New York Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd mercilessly mocked Edmund Morris' new "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan." Dowd took the author to task for fictionalizing himself as a character with privileged access to, basically, every important event in Reagan's life. As far as she was concerned, Morris had become "Edmund Gump, historian," a biographer who "has himself become a creature of Reaganesque unreality. He has become an 'authentic phony.'"

In the Sept. 27 Washington Post, Book World critic Jonathan Yardley ardently defended Morris, with whom, he said, he is friendly. Dowd "apparently has not read" the book, Yardley wrote, "but that did not deter her from casting vitriolic judgment on it." (Officially, no one is supposed to have seen the biography, beyond the excerpt in the current Newsweek, until Random House ends its embargo on Thursday.)


Was Yardley right to assume that Dowd hadn't read the book? Dowd's office says that Yardley never called to check his facts, but the office would not confirm that she had actually read "Dutch." Yardley, however, may not have felt a need to call. "I did not say that [she had not read it] for certain," he explained in an interview this week. "I said 'apparently did not.'" What made Yardley think Dowd leaped before she looked? "It's pretty obvious from the content of her column," he said.

In the column, however, Dowd does exhibit some intimacy with "Dutch." She discusses specific events in the book -- but those, of course, she could have gotten from other biographies. She also mentions the book flap -- but that doesn't mean she's read the book. She also spills a few details about the fictionalized Morris family tree and knows exactly when Morris the character touches base with Reagan -- but these are things she could have learned from Times reporters who had read the book.

In any case, as far as Yardley is concerned, Dowd went too far in attacking the real (rather than the fictional) Morris. "It was an ad hominem attack on Edmund Morris. It was a dismissal of the book in toto, without any direct exposure to it. It was a mean piece of work."

Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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