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A Gentleman Full Of Dignity

Ronald Regan made a career out of being underestimated, says the author of the biography, "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan."

As the late president's biographer, Edmund Morris spent 14 years delving into the intimate life of Ronald Reagan. The president shared his letters, his diaries with Morris, and approved interviews with his personal friends, all which helped Morris write his controversial portrait of a president.

Morris spent 14 years researching his biography. But despite unlimited access to documents and to Reagan's closest friends and family, Morris remained stumped about the inner workings of his subject.

The author told The Early Show co-anchor Hannah Storm, "It was a paradox between his enchanting public persona and his aloof, quiet, private personality."

Recalling the times Morris spent with Mr. Reagan at his ranch, he said, "That was the real Ronald Reagan: The monosyllabic, deeply thoughtful person, unlike the charismatic public person."

And yet people constantly underestimated him. "He made a career out of being underestimated," Morris said. "He was a bright man with an infallible instinct. It suited him if East Coast intellectuals thought he was uncultured and slow. He was actually a very fast man, particularly in his youth. Nobody had more infallible instincts than he did."

In his book, Morris painted the picture of a man who was a great leader but in many ways an ordinary thinker in private, summing up his findings in an interview as "the utter banality of his private conversation, in contrast to the magic of his public performance."

And it was his personality that encouraged Gorbachev to meet him half way, Morris said. "It was his self certainty that was so obvious when they first met at Geneva. We were all in the U.S. delegation either afraid that Gorby was famously aggressive. The new, younger Soviet leader would make mince meat of the president, but Reagan dominated him from the start."

Mr. Reagan fostered a sense of communication and cooperation, rather than distrust as they worked together to end the cold war.

Mr. Reagan was also dubbed the Teflon president. His credibility was in question during the Iran-Contra scandal. But the issue didn't stick against him.

"His inclinations were basically decent," Morris said. "Even when he was marred in political difficulties, one somehow knew that he was positive and benevolent and wanted the best for America."

He was known as the great communicator for good reason. In his opinion, Morris said, the president's greatest speech was the one he offered at Bergen-Belsen in May of 1985. "The only time I have seen Reagan in public being truly moved by articulating the Holocaust and it's unforgettably an eloquent speech," he said.

Asked how the 1981 assassination attempt affected Mr. Reagan, Morris said. "It slowed down that fastness I was talking about. If you see clips of Reagan in his early '60s, as governor of California, had 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 quite convinced that God had speared him to lead the United States back to self-respect. He became more thoughtful and contemplative."

In two adjectives, Morris described the late president as a man of "dignity and gentlemanliness. All the years I spent in Washington, he's the only gentleman I met," he said.

Morris won a Pulitzer Prize for a biography of Theodore Roosevelt. It was that book that captured the eye of Mr. Reagan and his associates and led to Morris' selection as the writer of an authorized biography.

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