Presidential biographer Edmund Morris delivered the Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture during Fall Convocation Oct. 6, noting the similarities between the two presidents he has written about, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Details...
Morris, who received the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1980 for “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” and published the bestseller “Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan,” said Roosevelt and Reagan were “proactive presidents rather than reactive presidents.” Although they were different in many ways, “they were theatrical to their fingertips,” Morris said, adding that both operated on the theory that “he who cannot dramatize cannot govern effectively.”
Morris told the audience in Koury Center that both men had enormous self-confidence and an ability to grab people’s attention, and in this sense, they operated as actors. “The first requirement of an actor is command—that ability to seize attention and hold it,” Morris said. “Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan gave off the impression that they had never encountered anyone stronger, or anyone more right.”
Reagan’s reliance on the actor within came to the forefront in the days following a 1981 assassination attempt. While Morris said he doesn’t believe Reagan intentionally used the shooting to portray himself as a hero, “the courage, grace and humor he displayed in the hours after that were theatrical to the extreme,” noting that Reagan demanded to walk into the hospital, even though he was hemorrhaging and collapsed the moment he got inside.
While Roosevelt “had a love for the first-person pronoun that bordered on the erotic” Morris said, Reagan “was remarkable in that he was more id than ego.” Morris said he “was stunned by the absolute lack of vanity” in Reagan’s diary. But there was also “a total absence of self-doubt, never a moment of bewilderment or regret.”
The force of Roosevelt’s personality and his knack for the right timing and issues helped him craft an image as a determined, forceful leader. By becoming the first president to take part in an industrial suit, which broke up railroad monopolies and earned him the nickname “The Trust Buster,” and being the first president to espouse the cause of the environment, Morris said Roosevelt “found the right moment, the right setting, the right cause to make political theater.”
Earlier in the day, Morris held a question-and-answer session with Elon students in Whitley Auditorium and met with members of the media. He said Reagan’s private persona was far different from the actor people saw in public. “Reagan was, by even normal standards, an aloof person. He wasn’t an introspective person, so he was hard to interview.” Reagan the actor came to life when there was an audience, however. “He was a thespian from the moment he was born,” Morris said. “He was an actor and a very successful one. His nature was theatrical; he needed an audience to function. If 2 or 3 other people came into the room, he was in his element, and he was magical.”
In response to a student’s question about Roosevelt’s reaction to modern drilling for oil in wildlife refuges, Morris said, “Roosevelt would revolve in his grave if he knew that a bird refuge was being used for drilling. He wouldn’t have liked it at all, and it wouldn’t have happened on his watch.”
Morris said the growing reluctance of modern politicians to open up to biographers, combined with the emergence of technology, threatens the future of biography as it is known today.
“I think computers and the Internet are pretty much going to destroy biography, and people don’t write notes anymore. If Roosevelt wanted to invite Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to lunch, he wrote him a note. People used to write notes and now they pick up the phone. So biographers of the future aren’t going to have a written record.”
The Baird Pulitzer Prize Lecture Series, endowed by James Baird and his wife, Jane, of Burlington, N.C., brings recipients of the Pulitzer Prize to the Elon campus. The Pulitzer is the nation’s most prestigious award in journalism and the liberal arts.