Edmund Morris on Reagan's Passing

Roundup: Talking About History

From the CBS Morning News (June 7, 2004):

HANNAH STORM: As Ronald Reagan's biographer, Edmund Morris spent more than 14 years researching and writing about the president's life. Morris had access to personal letters and diaries and conducted multiple interviews with family and friends, as well as the president himself as he wrote the book,"Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan."

Edmund Morris, good morning.

Mr. EDMUND MORRIS (Author,"Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan"): Good morning.

STORM: You said so many other people that you talked to eventually admitted to you, 'I could never figure him out.' Why was President Reagan in many respects an enigma?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, it's a paradox between his enchanting public persona, that loveable quality which you can feel just looking at photographs, and his aloof, quiet, private personality. Behind you, this picture of him at his ranch, where I spent time with him, and that was the real Ronald Reagan: the monosyllabic, deeply thoughtful person; quite unlike the--the charismatic public personality we associate with.

STORM: Why did people constantly underestimate him?

Mr. MORRIS: He made something of a career out of being underestimated. He was a very bright man with infallible instincts and it suited him if East Coast intellectuals thought that he was uncultured and slow. He was actually a very fast man, particularly in his youth, and nobody had more infallible instincts than he did.

STORM: How did the assassination attempt in 1981--did that affect him? Certainly, physically, but--but what about otherwise?

Mr. MORRIS: Yes. It slowed down that fastness I was talking about. If you see clips of Reagan when he was in his early 60s, as governor of California, he was a rapid person, fast talking, fast thinking, fast acting. The assassination attempt slowed him down quite a lot. He became fatalistic, much more devout. He was con--he was quite convinced that God had spared him to lead the United States back to self-respect. He became more thoughtful and more contemplative.

STORM: What was it about his personalty that allowed Gorbachev to meet halfway, that fostered a sense of communication and cooperation, rather than distrust as they worked together to end the Cold War?

Mr. MORRIS: It was his self certainty that was so obvious when they first met at Geneva. We were all in the US delegation rather afraid that Gorby was famously aggressive, the new, younger Soviet leader was gonna make mincemeat of the president. But Reagan actually dominated him from the start.

STORM: He was also dubbed the 'Teflon president,' and something as serious that impinged on his credibility and his popularity like the Iran-Contra scandal, was something that in the end didn't stick. Why not?

Mr. MORRIS: Well, his--its--his inclinations were basically decent and I think this was the ingredient of his charm. Even when he was mired in political difficulties, one somehow knew that he was positive and benevolent and wanted the best for America.

STORM: He was also dubbed the 'great communicator,' for good reason. What was the high point, maybe the seminal moment in his leadership?

Mr. MORRIS: In my opinion, his greatest speech, which is rather forgotten these days, was at Bergen-Belsen in May of 1985. It's the only time I've seen Reagan in public being truly moved by articulating the Holocaust, and it's an unforgettably eloquent speech.

STORM: Could you describe him in two adjectives?

Mr. MORRIS: Dignity and gentlemanliness. All the years I spent in Washington, he's the only gentleman I met.

STORM: Edmund Morris, thank you so much for your insights this morning.

Mr. MORRIS: Thank you.

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