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Theodore Rex. (Books in review: TR grit).

Theodore Rex By Edmund Morris. Random House, 864 pages, $35.00

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,
   gamebirds, 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

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 loved him.

"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 many."

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, for example, 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 reformer."

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 now.

MICHAEL J. YBARRA is completing a book about Senator Pat McCarran and the communist problem in American politics from the New Deal to McCarthyism.
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Author:Ybarra, Michael J.
Publication:The American Prospect
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 11, 2002
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