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.'

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

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.

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."

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.

"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."

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."

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.

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