Edmund Morris: Final Take on Ronald Reagan





Edmund Morris, in the New Yorker (June 28, 2004):

There they lie in their guttered drawers, projecting from the rosewood desk I had specially made for them: four yards of cards, each eight inches wide, five inches tall, most of them with his initials handwritten, headline style, in the top left-hand corner, from “rr’s birth zodiac—feb. 6, 1911” to “rr dies of pneumonia—june 5, 2004.” In between these two extremes, some eighteen thousand cards document whatever I was able to find out about thirty-four thousand of Ronald Reagan’s days. Which leaves sixteen thousand days unaccounted for. Lost leaves. “The leavings of a life,” as D. H. Lawrence might say.

I once planned to show Reagan this card file, just to see him react as drawer after drawer rolled out yard by yard, green tabs demarcating his years, yellow tabs his careers, blue tabs his triumphs and disappointments. He could have looked down, as it were, on the topography of his biography, and seen the shoe salesman’s son moving from town to town across northern Illinois, in the teens of the last century; the adolescent achieving some sort of stability at Dixon High School in 1924; the Eureka College student and summer lifeguard through 1933; then, successively—each divider spaced farther from the next, as he grew in worldly importance—the Des Moines sportscaster and ardent New Dealer; the Hollywood film star; the cavalry officer and Air Corps adjutant; the postwar union leader and anti-Communist; the television host and corporate spokesman for General Electric; the governor of California, 1967-75; the twice-defeated, ultimately successful candidate for his party’s Presidential nomination; and, last, the septuagenarian statesman, so prodigiously carded that the nine tabs “1981” through “1989” stand isolated like stumps in snow.

He never visited my study, however, and on reflection I am glad he did not, because he might have been disturbed to see how far he had come in nearly eighty years, and how few more cards he was likely to generate after leaving the White House. Besides, I would have had to keep my forearm over a file more than a foot long, practically bristling with tabs descriptive of “rr the man.” Now that the man is no more, and subject to the soft focus of sentimental recall, a riffle through some of these tabs might help restore his image in all its color and complexity.


The first subsection deals with Ronald Reagan’s body. In 1988, at seventy-seven years of age, the President stood six feet one and weighed a hundred and ninety pounds, none of it flab. He boasted that any punch aimed at his abdomen would be jarringly repulsed. After a lifetime of working out with wheels and bars, he had broadened his chest to a formidably walled cavern forty-four inches in circumference. He was a natural athlete, with a peculiarly graceful Algonquin gait that brought him into rooms almost soundlessly. No matter how fast he moved (that big body could turn on a dime), he was always balanced.

One recalls how elegantly he choreographed Mikhail Gorbachev up the steps at the 1985 Geneva summit: an arabesque of dark blue flowing around awkward gray. Reagan loved to swim, ride, and foxtrot. (Doris Day remembers him as “the only man I ever knew who really liked to dance.”) Eleven weeks after nearly dying in the assassination attempt of 1981, he climbed onto the springboard at the Camp David swimming pool and threw a perfect half pike before anybody could protest.

Gorbachev once remarked on Reagan’s “balance” to me in an interview. But he used the Russian word ravnovesie in its wider sense, of psychological equilibrium. The President’s poised body and smooth yet inexorable motion telegraphed a larger force that came of a lifetime of no self-doubt (except for two years of despair in 1948-49, after Jane Wyman, his first wife, left him for boring her). Reagan redux did not care whom he bored, as long as nobody tried to stop him. His famous anecdotes, recounted with a speed and economy that were the verbal equivalent of balance, were persuasive on the first, and even the fourth, telling. But when you heard them for the fourteenth, or the fortieth, time, always with exactly the same inflections and chuckles and glances, you realized that he was a bore in the sense that a combine harvester is boring: its only purpose is to bear down upon and thresh whatever grain lies in its path. Reagan used homilies to harvest people....


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