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 comments by Jeb Bush that Reagan couldn’t win in today’s GOP: "I don’t know what he meant. I think personalities like Reagan prevail whenever they come up. Same with TR. Although they were successful in their own times, the qualities they had are qualities that would make people vote for them whenever they emerged."Skip to next paragraph
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On contemporary Republicans invoking Reagan years later: "I think it’s deeply pathetic, clinging to a figure from the past who happened to be sensationally successful and widely admired and trying to apply that luster to a current crop who are as lackluster as one can possibly imagine."
On his interest in Edison: "I bumped into him. Physically. I was in Fort Myers, Fla., at the airport, about a year and a half ago, rushing to catch a plane. And I bumped into – which is to say, was confronted by – a photographic life-sized cutout of Edison.
"It was some local tourist display because Edison’s winter laboratory is in Fort Myers. I found myself staring at this guy – who was about 8 inches away from me – and suddenly becoming consumed with interest in him and wanting to write about him. After that initial impulse, it was the discovery that Edison was a profoundly imaginative person. The same way that Beethoven is imaginative. And also Reagan and Roosevelt.
"This imaginative quality, all these inventions, came out of creative imagination. That’s what got me and that’s why I want to write about him. I’m in the middle of a three-year contract, so I would expect it would take me another year and a half to finish. It’ll be substantial, but not gigantic."
On personal reading habits: "I like to read fiction and poetry, mostly. And, of course, I love reading about music. I will read heavy, abstract stuff about music with great pleasure. To write a major biography, you have to spend so much time reading pretty dry books, one does not want to continue to read books of that kind after finishing."
On his impressions from 40 years of essays: "Oddly enough, it was the quality of the living hand. It was not the title I thought of to begin with, but it occurred to me as I read all these essays, most of them are about what the hand does. The hand that writes, the hand that plays musical instruments. For that matter, the hand that sways power. The essays are largely about craftsmanship."
On how music influences his writing: "It’s certainly affected my prose style. I hear everything I write. Rhythm is very important to me.
"Orchestration, too. The juxtaposition of colors and textures. Also musical forms I’ve used. For example, 'The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt' followed Chopin [and] Bach: Goldberg Variations."
On his personal musical ambition: "My wife disabused me of that (laughs)."
On writing ad copy early in his career: "It taught me the necessity to be succinct and the importance of moving merchandise. Which is really all that writing is. Every writer, whether he’s writing fiction or nonfiction, has merchandise he wants the public to buy – his thoughts, his story, his ideas – and if his words will not sell that merchandise, then he’s failed in business. Writers not only have to eat, they long to be read."
On how long he plans to write: "I think I’ll probably stop the day before my funeral. I love it. "It’s what I was born to do, so I’ll keep going as long as I can hold a pen."
Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.