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Presidential biographer Edmund Morris discusses Teddy Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and more

'I was not drawn to either man because he was president,' says Morris of Roosevelt and Reagan, but instead by 'the enduring fascination of their character.'

By Erik Spanberg / January 3, 2013

Edmund Morris is the author of 'Dutch,' a biography of and authorized by former president Ronald Reagan, among other works.

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The Badlands in the deepest winter can do strange things to a man. Just listen to Edmund Morris, the bestselling biographer of one of the region’s most famous guests: Theodore Roosevelt.

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In 1975, four years before Morris published his first biography of the 26th president (the third and final volume arrived in 2010), he traveled to North Dakota to get a better sense of Roosevelt. In a subsequent essay written for The New York Times, the ghost of TR chats with his future biographer in a couple of intermittent historical fiction sequences that foreshadow creative liberties that later troubled critics when Morris chronicled the life of another Republican president, Ronald Reagan.

When the ethereal president vanishes, Morris describes the endless silence of the Badlands. “It was such,” he writes, “that I could hear the dull jostle of ice floes in the nearby river.”

TR, along with Reagan, Thomas Edison and Beethoven, comes up for examination in “This Living Hand," a collection of Morris’ essays spanning his writing career.

Unlike most presidential biographers, Morris isn’t especially enamored of commanders-in-chief living or dead. Instead, he found the personalities of TR and Reagan to be sui generis. As for Beethoven, Morris retains a long-running passion for classical music and aspired to become a pianist as a young man. 

But, of course, it wasn’t to be. In the mid-1970s, Morris began dabbling with a screenplay about Roosevelt’s life. The exercise led to his first book, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." It garnered rave reviews, thrilled a vast audience and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award

Several years later, Reagan made Morris his designated biographer, providing extensive White House access. After 14 years of work, the resulting biography, "Dutch," elicited harsh reviews and waves of media critiques. The chief complaint: Morris created a fictional version of himself as a major part of the narrative, an older Edmund Morris who witnesses key moments in the future president's life and interacts with Reagan throughout.

But Morris remains unrepentant and calls the book his best work. In conversation and on the page, Morris is opinionated, blunt and curious. And, at 72, he shows no signs of slowing down. He has already begun work on his next biography, an examination of Edison. 

During a recent interview from his Connecticut home, Morris discussed "This Living Hand," life with his favorite presidents and other topics. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

On what Barack Obama must do to cement his presidential legacy: "The challenges facing him are those of any second-term president. He has to make good on election promises and, if he does, he will retain the respect and support of the American people. If he doesn’t, he’ll be forgotten."

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