The Barnes & Noble Review
Theodore Roosevelt and his two-term presidency (1901-9) deserve a king-size, seize-the-man biography -- and Edmund Morris has provided one. "TR" typifies the "can do" American; his famous maxim, of course, was "Speak softly but carry a big stick." Morris presents eyewitness history through the voices of the makers and shakers. His exhilarating narrative will captivate readers, providing welcome confirmation that this nation can produce presidents who bring leadership to great issues, hold to their purpose, and shape the destinies of nations.
President McKinley's assassination brought the 43-year-old TR a challenging presidency, one to which Morris is a clearsighted guide. At home, TR had to persuade Congress to curb competition-stifling corporate trusts, monopolistic transcontinental railroads, and unhygienic food industries that saw consumers as sheep. He also faced labor and racial strife. Abroad, the American presence in Cuba and the Philippines brought criticism, the Russo-Japanese conflict threatened major power shifts in the Far East and Europe, and a politically and financially fraught decision on the Central American canal route -- Panama or Nicaragua? -- had to be made. TR rose to every challenge. Despite the demands of family and social life, he read, wrote, and traveled extensively. Not least, TR put national parks and conservation of natural resources on the legislative agenda.
All TR's notable contemporaries -- including historian Henry Adams, naturalists John Burroughs and John Muir, robber barons E. H. Harriman and James J. Hill, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, financier J. P. Morgan, fellow politician William Howard Taft, civil rights leader Booker T. Washington, and novelist Owen Wister -- appear onstage, their clear voices projecting the excitement of the day.
Morris is blessed with the imagination and skills to write gripping popular history. He doesn't dilute but illuminates events in presenting an account that immediately sparks interest and captures the mind. Readers will note that American interventionism abroad (today's major issue) was much debated during TR's presidency, when major interventional imperatives challenged the new superpower's tradition of relative restraint in foreign affairs.
Theodore Rex is the long-awaited second volume of the TR saga. Morris delivered the first volume, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, in 1979. It won a Pulitzer Prize; Theodore Rex is a solid bet for another. (Peter Skinner)
Peter Skinner lives in Manhattan.
Theodore Roosevelt is one of America's best-remembered presidentsbut why? Though his seven-and-a-half-year term of office was far from uneventful, most of his specific achievements have faded from our collective memory.
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.
From the Publisher
“In Edmund Morris, a great president has found a great biographer. . . . Every bit as much a masterpiece of biographical writing as The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which won the Pulitzer Prize.” —The Washington Post
“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