Edmund Morris, the author of that most unconventional presidential biography Dutch, takes on some of the more popular misperceptions of our 40th president in the Washington Post's "5 Myths About" series.
Was Reagan really a bad actor? "Well, yes and no," says Morris, who had unprecedented access to the president for more than four years. "Most of the movies he made as a Warner Bros. contract player are unwatchable by persons of sound mind. When he was president, it was easy to laugh at them.... Now that he is dead, however, one feels an odd tenderness for the effort he put into every role—particularly in early movies, when he struggled to control a tendency of his lips to writhe around his too-rapid speech." That said, "he was transformed into a superb actor when he took on the roles of governor of California, presidential candidate and president of the United States. Then, as never in his movies, he became authoritative, authentic, irresistible to eye and ear. His two greatest performances, in my opinion, were at the Republican National Convention in 1976, when he effortlessly stole Gerald Ford's thunder as nominee and made the delegates regret their choice, and at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1985, when he delivered the supreme speech of his presidency."
The other myths he addresses: "He was but a movie-set soldier in World War II," "He was warm hearted," "He was only a campaign Christian," and, of course, "He was an 'amiable dunce.'" Regarding the latter, Morris quips: "Yeah, right, Clark Clifford. Ronald Reagan only performed successfully in six different careers: radio sportscaster, movie actor, trade union president, corporate spokesman, two-term governor and two-term president of the United States. Lucky for him he wasn't hampered by Jimmy Carter's intelligence!"