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February 15, 2017
Ronald Reagan is one of the most important―and arguably most successful―presidents in modern American history. Author Iwan Morgan combed through new sources – including Warner Bros.’ movie archives, the papers of Jimmy Carter and Margaret Thatcher, and more – to create this incredible new biography on the life and career of Ronald Wilson Reagan. New stories, never-before-known documents, and the author’s award-winning prose combine to show Reagan’s beliefs and gifts as core to his legacy as President. Plus, the book is gorgeous, with a stunning matte jacket over cloth, a gallery with more than 30 photographs, and a beautiful type and design.
We’re excited to share this extensive interview with award-winning author Iwan Morgan:
Q: Professor Morgan, thanks for joining us and congratulations on your new book. One thing that struck us right away was the image on the cover, and how photogenic the man really was. His experience in Hollywood really helped his political life, didn’t it? Tell us about the Warner Bros. archives that was part of your research.
Morgan: Thank you. Reagan always took himself seriously as a movie actor and had a real sense of regret at not becoming a really big star—something that had seemed possible before call-up in World War II interrupted the momentum of his cinematic rise from B to A movies. He always resented criticism of his movies by political opponents. One of my favorite stories in the book, which I’ve never seen previously referenced, is how delighted he was when Mikhail Gorbachev said during their private walk together in their first summit at Geneva that he had seen Reagan’s best movie (King’s Row, 1942).
I take a different line from other biographers in explaining the decline of Reagan’s film career. I do not consider him to have been a bad actor, but Reagan could never fulfill his promise of 1940-41 to become a big star because of the wartime interruption of his career just when it was developing a strong momentum. Warner Bros. failure to find the right star vehicle for him on his return from war and the unwise casting of him over his own objections in some films—notably the one intended to usher Shirley Temple into adult stardom, That Hagen Girl (1947)—also hurt his career.
The structural changes that overtook postwar Hollywood when the studio system’s vertically-integrated monopoly was invalidated by the Supreme Court in US v. Paramount (1948), which compelled separation of ownership of production and exhibition, also proved harmful to Reagan’s movie career. Reagan consequently found himself unable to get decent parts because Warner Bros., basing their judgment on the inadequate returns on his early post-war movies, would no longer risk him in a picture of heavy cost because star power was now the essential selling point of films in the new competitive environment for exhibition. All of the detail from the archives helped me tell this story and how much it influenced his life.
Q: There was another unknown story that fascinated us—the “78th rescue” of the girl in California. Tell us about that.
Morgan: As a lifeguard at Lowell Park, in Dixon, IL—during the summers of 1926-32—Reagan rescued a total of 77 swimmers from drowning. In my research, I found evidence of a 78th rescue, from when he was governor of California in June 1969. Reagan dived fully clothed into the swimming pool at his home to rescue a 7 year-old African American girl who had started struggling in the water. She was there at a party for gubernatorial staffers and their families. He won praise in the African-American press for this effort—though he had not wanted his aides to leak the story.
Q: The most recent election included major news about courting the women’s vote, respect for women, and more. What would Reagan have thought of those voting trends for Trump and Clinton?
Morgan: There are some known things about Reagan I tried to re-emphasize in the book and give new context for today. For example, in contrast to every Republican presidential candidate since 1992, Reagan won the largest share of the women’s vote in both his elections. In 1984, he won 58% of the women’s vote against a Democratic ticket that included the first female Vice Presidential candidate (Geraldine Ferraro). This majority reflected his success in taming inflation, restoring prosperity and increasing jobs. The 80s was a decade when large numbers of women entered the job market. I believe he also enjoyed women’s support because of a symbolic first—his appointing the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.
Q: The Reagan era’s spending and economic policies are still being debated. What were some of your findings on Reagan’s economic legacy?
Morgan: Where I believe I can claim greatest originality and expertise compared to any other biographer is on Reagan’s economic policy, on which I have written extensively in research publications. My bio goes further than anyone else’s in using primary sources in the Reagan archives and other repositories to consider the broad assumptions of Reagan’s economic policy, why the mammoth deficits emerged, and how the Reagan White House interacted with the Federal Reserve. In essence I argue that the need to fund the giant deficits with capital from abroad laid the foundations of the imbalanced international economy of the early twenty-first century and facilitated the growing ascendancy of finance over manufacturing in the U.S. economy.
Ronald Reagan thought little of economists—he once rebutted Arthur Burns, Ambassador to West Germany and a Nobel laureate in Economics—for urging him to reduce his budget deficits because they caused high interest rates harmful to the global economy. In an “I-know-best” letter of response, Reagan blithely denied the link between deficits and interest rates. Top Harvard economist Martin Feldstein also encountered presidential wrath for urging the same, leading to removal from his post as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. Reagan’s dismissal of Arthur Burns’ argument and his fractious relationship with Feldstein are stories I’ve not seen covered elsewhere in other Reagan books. I hope the information informs today’s debate.
Q: Reagan had iconic relationships with that era’s world leaders, from allies to enemies. Did your research using the Thatcher papers help inform your findings?
Morgan: My book contains greater archival research than other bios on Reagan’s relations with foreign leaders—notably Gorbachev and Thatcher. It is known that Margaret Thatcher was disappointed Reagan did not immediately support the UK stand in the Falklands dispute with Argentina in 1982, and was furious when he sanctioned the invasion in 1983 of Grenada, a Commonwealth member, without informing her in advance. However, they had already had a major falling out over RR’s insistence on levying economic sanctions against the Soviet Union for instigating the military crackdown against the Solidarity movement in Poland and calling on allies to do the same —even though several of them had lucrative contracts to provide high-tech equipment to build the Siberian pipeline and were loathe to lose jobs at a time of recession in Western Europe. I even found a letter from Reagan to Thatcher (p 209) on the Soviet sanctions that has not been published elsewhere. In other words, the supposedly special relationship between Reagan and Thatcher was fractious at times.
My book shows more than other bios how Reagan was the principal architect of his administration’s foreign policy—not the malleable agent of his advisers. To this end, he was willing to press the case for arms reduction with the Soviets in the face of considerable opposition from a number of his top national security advisers, notably Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, CIA director William Casey, and the Pentagon top brass. Only Secretary of State George Shultz constantly supported the strategy of negotiation.
Q: Although he’s a Republican “Saint Ron” now, it was interesting to read of the conflict with his party back in the day.
Morgan: My book suggests, contrary to biographical convention, that Reagan’s relationship with the burgeoning conservative movement was more ambiguous than thought. While he is lauded by today’s conservatives, those of the late 1970s and 1980s were often frustrated by his pragmatism—e.g. détente with the Soviet Union and tax increases to control the deficit. A particular point of interest is how the Religious Right was initially very skeptical of him as a presidential candidate but came round to support him in 1980—only to be disappointed by how little he did for them in office. My bio also is particularly detailed as to how Reagan had to battle American conservatives inside and beyond the Republican party to secure Senate ratification of the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty that he had negotiated with Gorbachev.
The way my biography is organized for the presidency enables me to give a far clearer analysis of key issues, supported by archival and other evidence, than others I have read. This particularly benefits my treatment of Iran-Contra that shows how deeply Reagan was engaged in directing the illegal operations at the core of this scandal.
Q: Racial identity and racism have been front and center in this campaign and its aftermath. It was fascinating to read how Reagan was free of bigotry and prejudice, but also his involvement in the real debates about race in his time, too.
Morgan: More than any other bio, I explore Reagan’s views on race from his youth into old age and explain his failure to understand the depth of racism because of his own lack of bigotry. It explores his attempts to block legal efforts to strengthen anti-bias law in school pupil selection, which made him the first president since Andrew Johnson in 1866 to veto a civil rights bill, his reluctance to support the establishment of Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday, and his veto (eventually over-ridden) of the congressional-initiated legislation imposing economic sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime.
Q: Along with your great research on Reagan and the world at the time, some of the best parts of your book had stories of the personal touches Reagan brought to his leadership and days in office.
Morgan: I thought the letter writing to ordinary Americans, and the effort to reach out to youth has been overlooked by other biographers. Though Reagan was derided for being lazy, disengaged and spending too much time watching TV and old movies as president, in fact he was hard-working and prepared to put in long shifts in pursuit of his core agenda. He also spent a lot of time reading selections of letters sent him by ordinary Americans—and always replied to those he read, even the critical ones. Reagan was also keen to respond whenever possible to favors asked of him by or on behalf of young Americans.
In many ways, the chapter I am most personally proud of is the “Mr. President” one. That was tough to construct because it needed to pull together a lot of scattered material. There is definitely no biography that devotes a whole chapter to Reagan’s leadership style, interactions with his officials, foreign leaders, and his family, and what he did to get away from the cares of office for the entire course of his presidency.