New York Times
Theodore Rexby Edmund Morris
Theodore Rex is the story—never fully told before—of Theodore Roosevelt’s two world-changing terms as President of the United States. A hundred years before the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, “TR” succeeded to power in the aftermath of an act of terrorism. Youngest of all our chief executives, he rallied a stricken/b>/i>… See more details below
Theodore Rex is the story—never fully told before—of Theodore Roosevelt’s two world-changing terms as President of the United States. A hundred years before the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, “TR” succeeded to power in the aftermath of an act of terrorism. Youngest of all our chief executives, he rallied a stricken nation with his superhuman energy, charm, and political skills. He proceeded to combat the problems of race and labor relations and trust control while making the Panama Canal possible and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. But his most historic achievement remains his creation of a national conservation policy, and his monument millions of acres of protected parks and forest. Theodore Rex ends with TR leaving office, still only fifty years old, his future reputation secure as one of our greatest presidents.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
New York Times
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He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Russo-Japanese War; he appointed Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to the Supreme Court; he was the first president to invite a black man to dinner at the White House. Without him, the Panama Canal might not have been dug or the Grand Canyon turned into a national park. If you knew any of these things, you are way ahead of the game. Yet "TR" (as he was known in his day) has somehow remained an American icon, one sufficiently evocative that political commentator David Brooks, seeking to put into historical context the speech given by George W. Bush to Congress after the World Trade Center disaster, chose to quote from Roosevelt's 1899 speech "The Strenuous Life": "We of this generation do not have to face a task such as that our fathers faced, but we have our tasks, and woe to us if we fail to perform them!"
Edmund Morris won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, but a funny thing happened on the way to that fine book's long-awaited sequel. He was chosen as Ronald Reagan's authorized biographer and granted fly-on-the-wall access to the White House, out of which he spun a partly fictionalized account of Reagan's life and times that threw readers and reviewers for a loop. For all its peculiarities, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan was a much better book than is generally realized, but those unable to accept its novelistic license will be comforted to learn that Theodore Rex isnothing moreor lessthan a solid, straightforward biography, exhaustively researched and excitingly written.
To be sure, it is hard to write boringly about Roosevelt, one of the few American presidents who could fairly be described as eccentric to the point of strangeness. His pince-nez glasses, ginger-colored mustache and muzzlelike face were a cartoonist's wildest dream, and he acted as oddly as he looked, tearing around Washington with an enthusiasm neatly summed up by Cecil Spring Rice, one of his oldest friends: "You must always remember that the President is about six." To H.G. Wells, Roosevelt seemed "to be echoing with all the thought of his time, he has receptivity to the point of genius." Mark Twain, on the other hand, was struck by his mercurial energy: "He flies from one thing to another with incredible dispatch.... Each act of his, and each opinion expressed, is likely to abolish or controvert some previous act or expressed opinion." For those who continued to cling to the sedate manners of an earlier day, that energy seemed almost diabolical. "The devil is whirling me round," complained the aristocratic Henry Adams, "in the shape of a grinning fiend with tusks and eye-glasses."
Yet Roosevelt's temperamental extremism, as Morris rightly observes, was placed in the service of the political instincts of a natural compromiser: "As always in situations involving extremes, Roosevelt's instinct was to seek out the center." Born into upper-middle-class comfort, he entered politics out of a sense of noblesse oblige, then discovered that he had a knack for its cut and thrust. Unpersuaded by the sink-or-swim gospel of laissez-faire economics, he concluded that big government (big, at least, by the modest standards of 1901) could make America a better place in which to live, and he set out to drag the wealth-worshipping old guard of the Republican Party into the twentieth century. Though he loved to talk tough, politics taught him to take what he could get and brag about it, and he happily settled for such incremental measures as the Pure Food Act of 1906 instead of insisting on radical reforms that could never have gotten through Congress.
Was Theodore Roosevelt the inventor of moderate Republicanism? That is the clear implication of Theodore Rex, but Morris never makes the point explicitly, and this is one of the book's few weaknesses (along with a too-fancy prologue in which we see America in 1901 through the eyes of the newly inaugurated Roosevelt). Morris is so interested in showing us Roosevelt as he looked to his contemporaries that he fails to supply enough of the clarifying perspective of hindsight. Presumably his just-the-facts-ma'am approach is to some extent a response to the furious criticisms of Dutch, but some will doubtless feel that Theodore Rex errs in the opposite direction.
Even so, this is a marvelously rich and readable book, a bit too long but not grossly so, and you will put it down knowing why Roosevelt has held on to his secure place in America's fast-shrinking historical imagination. For Morris, Roosevelt's singular achievementno less enduring than the five national parks for whose creation he was chiefly responsiblewas to have "left behind a folk consensus that he had been the most powerfully positive American leader since Abraham Lincoln." As legacies go, that beats Camelot, Vietnam, Watergate and Monica Lewinsky.
“As a literary work on Theodore Roosevelt, it is unlikely ever to be surpassed. It is one of the great histories of the American presidency, worthy of being on a shelf alongside Henry Adams’s volumes on Jefferson and Madison.” —Times Literary Supplement
“Take a deep breath and dive into Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris’s sequel to his 1979 masterpiece, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. . . . He writes with a breezy verve that makes the pages fly.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A shining portrait of a presciently modern political genius maneuvering in a gilded age of wealth, optimism, excess and American global ascension.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Roosevelt is a biographer’s dream, an epic character not out of place in an adventure novel." —The Christian Science Monitor
Read an Excerpt
The First Administration: 1901-1904
The epigraphs at the head of every chapter are by "Mr. Dooley," Theodore Roosevelt's favorite social commentator.
The Shadow of the Crown
I see that Tiddy, Prisidint Tiddy-here's his health-is th' youngest prisidint we've iver had, an' some iv th' pa-apers ar-re wondherin' whether he's old enough f'r th' raysponsibilities iv' th' office.
On the morning after McKinley's interment, Friday, 20 September 1901, a stocky figure in a frock coat sprang up the front steps of the White House. A policeman, recognizing the new President of the United States, jerked to attention, but Roosevelt, trailed by Commander Cowles, was already on his way into the vestibule. Nodding at a pair of attaches, he hurried into the elevator and rose to the second floor. His rapid footsteps sought out the executive office over the East Room. Within seconds of arrival he was leaning back in McKinley's chair, dictating letters to William Loeb. He looked as if he had sat there for years. It was, a veteran observer marveled, "quite the strangest introduction of a Chief Magistrate . . . in our national history."
As the President worked, squads of cleaners, painters, and varnishers hastened to refurbish the private apartments down the hall. He sent word that he and Mrs. Roosevelt would occupy the sunny riverview suite on the south corner. Not for them the northern exposure favored by their predecessors, with its cold white light and panorama of countless chimney pots.
A pall of death and invalidism hung over the fusty building. Roosevelt decided to remain at his brother-in-law's house until after the weekend. It was as if he wanted the White House to ventilate itself of the sad fragrance of the nineteenth century. Edith and the children would breeze in soon enough, bringing what he called "the Oyster Bay atmosphere."
At eleven o'clock he held his first Cabinet meeting. There was a moment of strangeness when he took his place at the head of McKinley's table. Ghostly responsibility sat on his shoulders. "A very heavy weight," James Wilson mused, "for anyone so young as he is."
But the President was not looking for sympathy. "I need your advice and counsel," he said. He also needed their resignations, but for legal reasons only. Every man must accept reappointment. "I cannot accept a declination."
This assertion of authority went unchallenged. Relaxing, Roosevelt asked for briefings on every department of the Administration. His officers complied in order of seniority. He interrupted them often with questions, and they were astonished by the rapidity with which he embraced and sorted information. His curiosity and apparent lack of guile charmed them.
The President's hunger for intelligence did not diminish as the day wore on. He demanded naval-construction statistics and tariff-reciprocity guidelines and a timetable for the independence of Cuba, and got two visiting Senators to tell him more than they wanted to about the inner workings of Congress. In the late afternoon, he summoned the heads of Washington's three press agencies.
"This being my first day in the White House as President of the United States," Roosevelt said ingratiatingly, "I desired to have a little talk with you gentlemen who are responsible for the collection and dissemination of the news."
A certain code of "relations," he went on, should be established immediately. He glanced at the Associated Press and Sun service representatives. "Mr. Boynton and Mr. Barry, whom I have known for many years and who have always possessed my confidence, shall continue to have it." They must understand that this privilege depended on their "discretion as to publication." Unfortunately, he could not promise equal access to Mr. Keen of the United Press, "whom I have just met for the first time."
Boynton and Barry jumped to their colleague's defense. Roosevelt was persuaded to trust him, but warned again that he would bar any White House correspondent who betrayed him or misquoted him. In serious cases, he might even bar an entire newspaper. Barry said that was surely going too far. Roosevelt's only reply was a mysterious smile. "All right, gentlemen, now we understand each other."
Much later that evening, after a small dinner with friends in the Cowles house on N Street, the President allowed himself a moment or two of querulousness. "My great difficulty, my serious problem, will meet me when I leave the White House. Supposing I have a second term . . ."
Commander Cowles, replete with roast beef, sank deep into leather cushions and folded his hands over his paunch. He paid no attention to the cataract of talk pouring from the walnut chair opposite. For years he had benignly suffered his brother-in-law's fireside oratory; he was as deaf to Rooseveltian self-praise as he was to these occasional moments of self-doubt. How like Theodore to worry about moving out of the White House before moving in! The Commander's eyes drooped. His breathing grew rhythmic; he began to snore.
"I shall be young, in my early fifties," Roosevelt was saying. "On the shelf! Retired! Out of it!"
Two other guests, William Allen White and Nicholas Murray Butler, listened sympathetically. Prodigies themselves-White, at thirty-three, had a national reputation for political journalism, and Butler, at thirty-nine, was about to become president of Columbia University-they were both aware that they had reached the top of their fields, and could stay there for another forty years. Roosevelt was sure of only three and a half. Of course, the power given him dwarfed theirs, and he might win an extension of it in 1904. But that would make its final loss only harder to bear.
So Butler and White allowed the President to continue lamenting his imminent retirement. They interrupted only when he grew maudlin-"I don't want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm!"
Undisturbed by the clamor of younger voices, Commander Cowles slept on.
From the Hardcover edition.
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