Theodore Rex By Edmund Morris. Random House, 864 pages,
Theodore Roosevelt By Louis Auchincloss. Henry Holt and Company, 155
Of all the presidential monuments in Washington,
perhaps the most fitting is
also one of the least known: the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, which hides amid
the woods of an 88-acre island in the Potomac. Most people get to Roosevelt
Island by driving to a parking lot on the Virginia shore and then walking across
a bridge. Roosevelt himself, I'm sure, would have preferred to paddle a rowboat
from Georgetown across the river and hike through the pines and poplars to the
shady clearing where a 17-foot-tall statue of the 26th president stands like a
lost ruin (although it was actually dedicated in 1967). The monument itself is a
low-key affair that celebrates Roosevelt as one of the guiding lights of the
environmental movement in the United States.
"Every man who appreciates the majesty and beauty of the wilderness and of
wild life," Roosevelt wrote,
should strike hands with the far-sighted men who wish to
preserve our material resources, in the effort to keep our forests and our
game-beasts, game-birds, and game-fish--indeed, all the living creatures of
prairie and woodland and seashore--from wanton destruction. Above all, we should
recognize that the effort toward this end is essentially a democratic movement.
It is entirely within our power as a nation to preserve large tracts of
wilderness, which are valueless for agricultural purposes and unfit for
settlement, as playgrounds for rich and poor alike... . But this end can only be
achieved by wise laws and by a resolute enforcement of the laws.
And Roosevelt was nothing if not resolute. There were, Edmund Morris tells us
in his new, marvelously enjoyable biography of TR, 42 million acres of national
forests when Roosevelt took office in 1901. There were 130 million acres more
when he left office seven years later. Roosevelt created five national parks and
scores of national monuments and bird refuges.
But Roosevelt's conservationism contained a paradox that tells much about the
man: To be conservative (that is, to preserve the country's natural patrimony),
Roosevelt had to be almost radical: aggressively expansionist in the use of
federal power--and this in an era when the free use of property was regarded by
the courts and many legislators as sort of a supraright, an inalienable freedom
that undergirded all the other liberties of a free people. Responsible
businessmen and intellectuals thought him crazy or power mad; ordinary people
"He left behind," notes Morris, "a folk consensus that he had been the most
powerfully positive American leader since Abraham Lincoln. He had spent much of
his two terms crossing and recrossing the country, east and west, south and
north, reminding anyone who would listen to him that he embodied all America's
variety and the whole of its unity; that what he had made of his own life was
possible to all."
Paradox, of course, was encoded in Roosevelt's DNA. A sickly child, he willed
himself to vigor and often reckless physical activity. Born to affluence (and
accompanied to Harvard by a manservant and bootblack), he used the White House to
decry the moneyed classes as parasites, "the malefactors of wealth," whose trusts
he proceeded to bust. An accomplished historian and ravenous scholarly reader, he
preferred the company of cowhands to academic blowhards. A famous militant ("a
dangerous and ominous jingo," as Henry James put it), TR won the Nobel Peace
Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War. And after doing more than any other
president to protect wilderness in America, the first thing Roosevelt did in
retirement was to embark on a safari on which he proceeded to denude the African
landscape of some 300 animals.
Roosevelt's political leanings were no easier to disentangle. Was he a
conservative liberal or a liberal conservative? A "conservative progressive" is
the label historian Richard Hofstadter settled on; but this seems insufficient,
since it implies certain bedrock values to be conserved while striving for social
progress. To be sure, Roosevelt possessed fixity of purpose, but the polestar of
his moral universe was his own sense of righteousness.
Louis Auchincloss, in his insightful and slender book Theodore Roosevelt
(which is part of "The American Presidents" series, edited by Arthur M.
Schlesinger, Jr.), calls him a policeman at heart. "A deeply moral man,"
Auchincloss writes, "he was first and foremost taken up in a lifelong and
enthusiastic fight against lawbreakers."
This seems pretty close, but if Roosevelt was a cop, he was the kind whose
disciplinary record would have been questioned. That's not to say that Roosevelt
was a thug; but self-restraint was not his strong point. "Theodore the Sudden,"
John Hay called him.
Like a certain more recent Republican occupant of the White
House, Roosevelt was an accidental president who bulldozed his way through
Washington as if he had been elected by a landslide. But unlike George W. Bush,
Roosevelt had already accomplished enough for several busy lifetimes when William
McKinley's assassination made him president at the age of 42: Three terms in the
New York State assembly, a stint as a cattle rancher after the death of his
beloved first wife, president of the New York City Police Commission, assistant
secretary of the Navy, leader of the Rough Riders in Cuba, governor of New York,
vice president--not to mention a historian and naturalist whose collected works
(upon entering the White House) stretched to 14 volumes.
Roosevelt's idea of unwinding after a long day in the White House was to
dictate a review of a five-volume history he had happened to read. After TR's
first two years in office, the president of Columbia University asked him what he
had read lately. Roosevelt jotted down 114 authors, ranging from Herodotus to
Churchill, before giving up. "Of course," he noted, "I have forgotten a great
Roosevelt set the tone for his presidency in the first month by having Booker
T. Washington to dinner at the White House--the first time a black person had
been so invited and a gesture that predictably led to a firestorm of controversy.
Roosevelt followed by unleashing antitrust prosecutions against some of the
titans of American industry; connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the
Panama Canal (and not incidentally helping to give birth to the country of Panama
along the way); averting a threatened general strike by mediating between capital
and labor (something previous presidents didn't consider part of the job
description); more than quadrupling the acreage of national parks; and turning
the U.S. Navy from the fifth largest in the world to the third.
"I congratulate you on attaining the respectable age of 46," Elihu Root wrote
to Roosevelt on his birthday. "You have made a very good start in life and your
friends have great hopes for you when you grow up."
In many ways, however, Roosevelt's tenure in office was the least eventful
period of his life. His handpicked successor, William Taft, actually turned out
to be a better trustbuster, although Roosevelt was still gravely disappointed in
his performance, prompting him to bolt from the Republican Party in 1912 to run
as an independent and make possible the election of Woodrow Wilson--surely the
most momentous act of Roosevelt's career.
Still, Roosevelt being Roosevelt, it was as colorful a presidency as the
country has ever had. Likewise, this second installment of Edmund Morris's
three-volume biography is as colorful an account of Roosevelt as a reader could
hope for. Theodore Rex covers Roosevelt's two terms as president in kaleidoscopic
detail. Morris is a wonderful writer with a rare ability to breathe life into the
clay of history. His prose is as vivid and powerful and as charming as Roosevelt
himself. Here is Morris describing the Oval Office:
The room's main decoration was a huge globe. Spun and stopped
at a certain angle, this orb showed the Americas floating alone and green from
pole to pole, surrounded by nothing but blue. Tiny skeins of foam (visible only
to himself, as Commander-in-Chief of the United States Navy) wove protectively
across both oceans, as far south as the bulge of Venezuela and as far west as the
Philippines. Asia and Australia were pushed back by the curve of the Pacific.
Africa and Arabia drowned in the Indian Ocean. Europe's jagged edge clung to one
horizon, like the moraine of a retreating glacier. When Roosevelt spoke of the
Western Hemisphere, this was how he saw it--not the left half of a map
counterbalanced by kingdoms and empires, but one whole face of the earth,
centered on the United States. And here, microscopically small in the power
center of this center, was himself sitting down to work.
Roughly speaking, theodore Roosevelt lived in the space between
the start of the Civil War and the end of World War I, which is to say the period
when the United States became a world power and then turned its back on the
world. Roosevelt was the first president of what would later come to be known as
the American Century.
Was he a great president? In an interview with the Los Angeles Times,
Morris recently said that TR was one of the greatest presidents, behind only
Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington. This is nonsense and Morris makes no such
claim in this book. In fact, the one weakness of the book is that Morris provides
almost no framework for understanding how important Roosevelt was or what to
think of him. Morris is pitch perfect in presenting Roosevelt's personality but
is content to let the man speak for himself. "Historical hindsights," he writes
in as odd a disclaimer as you could expect to find in a presidential biography,
"are confined to the notes." It's telling, for example, that the book's index for
Roosevelt's domestic and foreign policy covers more than two pages but there
isn't a single entry for political philosophy. Morris tells you everything
Roosevelt did in the White House for seven years except why. Morris's own
paradox, then, is that by the time he finishes his TR trilogy he will likely have
completed an extraordinarily detailed, lovingly written, hugely entertaining opus
that will tell us less about why we should still care about Roosevelt than
Auchincloss does in his short book, which is really a long essay. Here,
forexample, is Morris assessing a year of political victories for TR:
Theodore Roosevelt was sanguine in every sense of the word,
physiological and psychological. He was ruddy and excitable, flush-faced,
susceptible to cuts and grazes. . . . The medieval humor sanguis expressed his
character exactly: courageous, optimistic, affectionate, ardent. His apparent
fatigue in the summer of 1906 was the result of overstimulation rather than
overwork. For more than a year now, he had prevailed too easily against too many
opponents, and found himself more than equal to the largest tasks. As a result,
he had begun to receive regular boosts of journalistic hyperbole, intoxicating
enough to contravene the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Of course, others have looked closely at the historical import of
Roosevelt's presidency. Half a century ago, Richard Hofstadter, in The American
Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, got to the heart of one of
Roosevelt's paradoxes that Morris doesn't examine. "It is hard to understand," he
concluded, "how Roosevelt managed to keep his reputation as a strenuous
The problem, to my mind, is that many people mistook Roosevelt's constant
motion for actual movement. "Get actions, do things; be sane," Roosevelt once
panted, "don't fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are
and be somebody: get action."
Action as an end in itself. As a leitmotiv for reform, this is usually a
recipe for chaos. Political philosophy to Roosevelt was something like a gun, an
instrument to be chosen according to the game he was hunting: A sharpshooter's
rifle for his restrained trust-busting as president; an elephant gun, so to
speak, against the ponderous right wing of his own party during his Bull Moose
revolt; a blunderbuss of opposition to anything Woodrow Wilson supported.
In certain times, action itself can be more important than ideological
coherence. This is why Franklin D. Roosevelt, frequently judged as a callow
imitator of his cousin before he followed TR into the White House during the
Great Depression, acquitted himself as one of the great leaders in American
history. And because of Theodore Roosevelt's disruptive striving for further
accomplishment--his failed Bull Moose bid--his presidency has become almost a
footnote to a fit of pique. "What he accomplished in the seven years of his two
terms seems small enough in contrast to the sweeping control exercised by
Washington ever since the advent of the New Deal in 1933," Auchincloss observes,
"but his importance is that of a pioneer."
So, where does Roosevelt stand in the pantheon of presidents?
In the twentieth century alone, Wilson, FDR, and Harry Truman all have
stronger claims on greatness than TR. What the three have in common is that each
had to confront a crisis of epic proportions: respectively, World War I, the
Great Depression and World War II, and the Cold War.
It's the tragedy of TR's life, if tragedy is what it can be called, that he
was always in search of a hill to ride up, a crisis to surmount, a terrible
moment to master. It seems almost Greek: The gods will condemn those who seek
greatness to live in a time of peace and plenty.
I imagine that Roosevelt would very much have wanted to be president in a
time when the nation's commander in chief is being tested in the way he is right