By Edmund Morris
In the first part of a projected biographical trilogy, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris provided a lively, dramatic account of the self-fashioning of the youngest President of the United States. Self-fashioning because, unlike some American Presidents, most notably Lincoln, Roosevelt didn’t place much stock in the workings of fate. The fate of individuals, like the destiny of nations and civilizations (a favourite theme) was what they made. A sickly child of the New York aristocracy, he built himself into a public figure America couldn’t get enough of: combative politician, amateur naturalist, best-selling author, cowboy, and war hero. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he knew how to handle the press.
Theodore Rex is a detailed account of Roosevelt’s nearly two terms as President, beginning with his train journey to Washington to be sworn in after the assassination of McKinley and ending with the installation of his handpicked successor Taft.
In his last book, Dutch, Morris got into trouble for mixing a fictional sub-plot into an authorized biography of Ronald Reagan. He did this because he wanted to present a more personal portrait. In his Roosevelt biographies he has avoided this controversial technique and placed the emphasis on his subject’s public life.
It is just as well Roosevelt’s character doesn’t come in for any heavy analysis. Essentially he was a nineteenth-century man with a nineteenth-century mind. No scandals marred his thoroughly conventional second marriage to a vapid snob. His intense morality was mostly that of a prude, his proto-progressivism only noblesse oblige, and his foreign policy New World Imperialism. Paradoxically, it was as a conservationist that he was most ahead of his time.
But he was also a natural force, perhaps the most energetic occupant the White House has ever had. All of his life he wanted to be the Man, and being the President was a job he enjoyed very much. A natural politician, he claimed to represent not public opinion, but the public, making a distinction between “the real interests of the public, and the public’s opinion of these interests.” Such a patronizing attitude resulted in a lot of anti-establishment rhetoric being used to conceal what was basically a nationalist, conservative course.
Morris is a wonderful stylist, especially good at describing setting and dramatizing personal encounters. But while Theodore Rex is an excellent book, it is a less enjoyable read than the first part of the trilogy. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt had the benefit of a more obvious structure and a sharper focus on its subject. This time around the events are too busy and the hero seems to be running in place. Morris’s considerable skills as a storyteller are put to the test trying to arrange the prominent events of TR’s presidency into a chronological narrative. Outbreaks of racial violence are juggled alongside the planning of the Panama Canal (not to mention the planning of Panama), the Venezuela crisis, anti-trust prosecutions, the settling of labour disputes, negotiating a peace between Russia and Japan, and the constant behind-the-scenes machinations of the Republican National Committee.
Despite all of this activity, Roosevelt still considered it his misfortune to have been President at a time when there were no great national crises for him to manage. His personality, Morris observes in one of his rare but astute asides, was cyclonic. In turbulent times he operated in a smooth and coordinated manner, while in low pressure he became unbalanced.
Which means watch out for the final part of this remarkable life.
Review first published February 9, 2002.