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.'
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On the importance of TR befriending Booker T. Washington: "They show his courage, which I think is an essential quality of great presidents. It was just about his very first political act of any consequence. Within weeks of becoming president, in the fall of 1901, he invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House.Skip to next paragraph
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"And even before that he was consulting with him on Southern patronage. By inviting Washington to dinner, he ignited an explosion of racial paranoia in the white, Democratic South. So for a vice president to become president and immediately execute an act of such moral courage, I think, is a testimony to his essential greatness as a president."
On what lesson modern-day Republicans can draw from TR: "I don’t think I can answer that. I’m more interested in individual presidents and their behavior as men. Questions of party politics and party policy don’t interest me very much."
On whether he grew weary of TR during decades of research and writing: "Not while I was writing about him. Of course, during those 30 years, I spent 14 years writing about Reagan and almost two years writing about Beethoven. So I had plenty of time off.
"But I never got tired of him simply because he was such a polychromatic character. He was not just a politician. He was a man of letters, he was a soldier, he was a scientist, he was all those other things. And he had the essential quality of charm, which was related to his humor. It was one of the reasons I never got tired of him. One could very quickly get tired of a substantial president who had no humor."
On the contrast between TR and Reagan as subject: "Although they were extremely different people, they did have several qualities in common. One is the humor. Reagan was also a very funny man. And, secondly, they both had drama. Reagan was an actor and TR, too, was a master of presidential drama.
"If a president does not have the gift of theater, which both of these men had, they almost invariably don’t succeed.
"I was not drawn to either man because he was president. I was, in each case, drawn to these guys because of the enduring fascination of their character. And their life stories."
On whether access to Reagan in the White House informed later works on TR: "It helped and hindered me. At first, it hindered me because I had my head full of TR when I started hanging around the White House [in 1985]. I was in the middle of 'Theodore Rex' [the second biography, which was published in 2001] and having a hard time with it because I found it difficult to understand how the White House worked.
"So I began to do the Reagan book and follow Reagan around in the White House and, at first, it was difficult to get Theodore Roosevelt out of my head. But I’m glad that I did take that opportunity because, having gotten into the White House and gotten to understand the way it worked, observing a president in action, when I went back to "Theodore Rex," it was with all that understanding I’d gathered in the physical White House. I practically re-wrote the book when I took it up again.
"One thing it taught me was that the basic elements of the presidency are the same whatever the period in history. There are different issues and different times, but the basic elements, such as the importance of a president personifying the United States in his body, in his behavior, in his words, that’s true of any point in history."
On his Reagan biography and its controversial techniques: "I’m very happy with it. I wouldn’t change a word."
On similarities of presidential challenges: "In a strange way, the issues tend to come back cyclically. For example, one of the great issues in Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency was the relationship between a too-powerful Wall Street and Congress, integration of banking and politics, which was just as disturbing to the American people 100 years ago as it was in 2012. TR was campaigning in 1912 against this very combination that so distresses today. Issues come back."