Nicholas's Reviews > Theodore Rex

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
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Apr 14, 12

bookshelves: presidential-biography
Read from March 21 to April 13, 2012

This second volume of Edmund Morris's biography of Theodore Roosevelt covers his presidential years and is marked by the same level of dogged and rigorous research as the first. Morris, once again, blends the fastidiousness of serious academic research with a compelling journalistic narrative uncommon in professional historical works. I've found that a lot of the most readable histories out there have in fact been written by journalists, with most works by serious historians being rather dry by comparison. Not so, in Morris's case. Certainly he has the benefit of an extraordinarily fascinating individual whose every utterance seems larger than life and epic in the Homeric sense. Even the way Roosevelt ate breakfast seems legendary. Every undertaking of the man is done with enthusiasm, verve and a whole-hearted attention that makes it seem like his sole preoccupation - the goal to which his entire life has directed him. Henry Adams once said of Roosevelt that he was "pure act." I find no better way to describe him, and certainly Morris's narrative portrays him as such.

In the first volume, Morris's strength lay in his interpretation of Roosevelt's personal characteristics and how the course of his life seemed the inevitable consequence thereof. In this volume, that theme is continued, although Roosevelt's academic-side is stressed less and his political genius is made manifest through the complicated and overlapping nature of his policy initiatives, his international and domestic legislative wrangling and his management of his public image. I can see that this volume might be less interesting than the first for those without an interest in the workings of politics. There is a lot of legalism and arcane political workings covered in intricate detail in the text; the finer points of order in the Republican national convention's nominating process, committee mumbo jumbo and procedural dicta. Overriding a lot of this discussion however is a continuing discussion of Roosevelt's boldness. He literally smashes through red tape, makes unaffected and unselfconscious decisions and comments, gets his hands dirty and sticks by his principles in ways that would make most modern politicians scoff. I recall in an interview Morris once said that a man like Roosevelt wouldn't have a hope of winning the presidency. Indeed the modern presidency seems to go to the person with the least air of uniqueness, the most bland Americanism, and the least obtrusive personal and professional characteristics. Boldness of the type we see in Roosevelt the assemblyman, Roosevelt the governor, Roosevelt the scholar, Roosevelt the president is often looked at as a liability in the age of personal image consultants and media directors.

Anyhow, Morris paints a picture of Roosevelt undaunted, in fact thriving, by the great weight of responsibilities thrust upon him by the death of William McKinley. In fact, the narrative suggests that the more pressure he was under, the greater and loftier the accomplishments he managed to achieve. This Roosevelt is tempered. Haughty, moralistic, and disdainful of those with weaker constitution and principle, you can forgive him because of the fastidiousness with which he sticks to his own ethical code. In short, it is the image of a saint, irreproachable even in his more questionable decisions because of the fervor with which he made them. Rightly accused of having a lust for power by his critics, he nevertheless was an ardent believer in the majoritarian process. In correspondence dug up by Morris and in his annual addresses to Congress he professes that the concentration of power in the hands of the few is the best means to hold people accountable for their actions. An interesting philosophy, and one that seems pertinent in the current age of large government and sprawling bureaucracy where politicians find it all to easy to blame this or that committee or this or that agency for governmental failure or shortcomings. Rising above everything else is a sense of political mastery unheard of in his age, and probably unheard of since his age. I dare say after reading Morris's account that a more able politician, with a more developed sense of timing, prescience, crowd control, maneuvering, coalition building and frankly, at times, cold, calculating ruthlessness has not existed in American politics before or since. And he was adored during his time whilst being reviled by his enemies probably more so than any other president. He won his own election with the greatest majorities ever seen in American presidential politics to that time and there were unprecedented calls for a third Rooseveltian term. And in spite of that lust for power and the joy he had in the exercise of it, like Cincinnatus and Washington before him, he walked away from it.

Morris's complete life of Roosevelt is inspiring, engaging and thought-provoking. It has certainly done much to elevate TR from the vagaries of American mythology in my mind to the forefront of the most able-bodied, effective and interesting human beings in world history in my mind.
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Quotes Nicholas Liked

Edmund Morris
“Yet there was no doubt that Theodore Roosevelt was peculiarly qualified to be President of all the people. Few, if any Americans could match the breadth of his intellect and the strength of his character. A random survey of his achievements might show him mastering German, French, and the contrasted dialects of Harvard and Dakota Territory; assembling fossil skeletons with paleontological skill; fighting for an amateur boxing championship; transcribing birdsong into a private system of phonetics; chasing boat thieves with a star on his breast and Tolstoy in his pocket; founding a finance club, a stockmen's association, and a hunting-conservation society; reading some twenty thousand books and writing fifteen of his own; climbing the Matterhorn; promulgating a flying machine; and becoming a world authority on North American game mammals. If the sum of all these facets of experience added up to more than a geometric whole - implying excess construction somewhere, planes piling upon planes - then only he, presumably, could view the polygon entire.”
Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex


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