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Theodore Rex

By Edmund Morris

Random House, 864 pages, Illustrated. $35


BULLY? BULLY!

Book cover of "Theodore Rex"

Book cover of Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

By John D. Delmar

Edmund Morris, author of "Theodore Rex", was born in Kenya, educated in South Africa, worked in advertising in London, and has no academic background or affiliation.

That could be considered a liability - or an asset - in writing a biography of Theodore Roosevelt's Presidential years (1901-1909), depending on whether one expects precise history or easy-to-swallow narrative.

Roosevelt at Yosemite

Roosevelt at Glacier Point, Yosemite, May, 1903, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Morris covered TR's prior years in "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt", published in 1979 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. He was drawn away from TR to become house biographer to Ronald Reagan, resulting in the much-criticized "Dutch". After going "Dutch" (a President Morris found rather boring, but an assignment that familiarized him with the workings of the Presidency), he returned to "Theodore Rex", the second of three acts of TR's life.

The title to the current volume is based on Henry James's quip for Roosevelt, based on Roosevelt's reputation as an imperious monarch. Morris points out, however, that TR had a very peaceful 7 1/2 years in office, other than inheriting McKinley's Philippines mess. Morris's TR is more Teddy bear than bellicose tyrant, responsible for preventing and diffusing conflicts in Venezuela, Cuba and Morocco, and using his diplomatic skills to resolve the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, earning Roosevelt the Nobel Peace Prize.

Roosevelt in his Sagamore Hill study

Roosevelt in his Sagamore Hill study, September 1905, Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College, Library, Cambridge, Mass.

TR is presented in a positive light, in some cases through judicious omissions. The author appears to be conservative (presumably why Reagan chose him as his Boswell), resulting in favorable coverage of big business and big government, and very little sympathy with labor or the conditions of the working class or the poor. For instance, in describing TR's settling of the Shenandoah coal strike of 1902, Morris spends pages describing Roosevelt's clever maneuvering to achieve a settlement, but leaves out the most basic facts of the strike: Why were the miners striking, and what were their working conditions? He states that the strike was settled when the miners eventually received a 10% increase in wages, but doesn't inform the reader that the average miner was earning $250 per year! The settlement limited them to working nine hours of work a day, since many had been forced to spend many more hours in airless mines.

In Morris's first volume of TR's biography, he lovingly describes TR shaking hands with over 8,000 visitors to the White House. Basically, anybody who showed up got to meet and greet Teddy. This was a courageous and very democratic act - three Presidents had been assassinated during TR's lifetime: President McKinley, Roosevelt's predecessor; Lincoln, in 1865; and Garfield, in 1881. But we're not told about the encounter with Mother Jones, the labor activist, who traveled from Pennsylvania to Oyster Bay with 75 children, many mangled and injured from mill accidents, to plead with Roosevelt to reform child labor laws. Roosevelt refused to meet with her.

Women are largely invisible in the book, as if they had been airbrushed out or digitally removed, leaving a planet only populated by men. And there were women in TR's world, as historian Kathleen Dalton, author of her own TR biography, stated at last year's meeting of the Organization of American Historians. Dalton pointed out that prior (male) historians weeded out from TR's archives and published material most of his letters or documents concerning women, whether they be about TR's wife, Edith, or issues of family, birth control, abortion, or women's suffrage. And yet, Dalton claims, women (particularly Roosevelt's wife and sisters) were an important influence on him.

Teddy Roosevelt speaking

Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library, Cambridge, Mass.

Morris has a good excuse, however, for excising Edith. When he was working on his first volume on TR, Morris's wife, Sylvia, was working on a biography of Edith -- husband and wife working on biographies of husband and wife. Morris recently spoke of their joint efforts and said, "When I found a letter that concerned Edith, I gave it to Sylvia. When she found a letter concerning Teddy,...she kept it for herself."

While not dealing much with women, Morris must deal with race, and Roosevelt gets mixed grades. TR was brave enough to have Booker T. Washington to dinner, although TR was surprised by the furor it caused, and Washington wasn't invited back to dine again. Roosevelt had a variety of politically incorrect ideas, many of which were common in his era (Indians, for example, were savages and blacks were social inferiors), but which are totally repugnant today. And Morris does deal with what he considers Roosevelt's most serious error, dismissing an entire black batallion from the Army because the soldiers refused to implicate one another after a killing in Brownsville, Texas.

The author's background in advertising and lack of academic credentials result in fairly breezy prose, sometimes more appropriate to selling products that a sober historical review. At times, he gets carried away with literary pretensions, waxing on at one point: "Here was Fecundity, symbolized by the women on every stoop, lifting their babies to bless the new President. Here was Industry, in the form of an immaculate paper mill. And here--palpably, all about--was Morality."

Morris seems transfixed by mostly irrelevant physiological descriptions (TR is sculpted on Mt. Rushmore, after all-- I think most Americans know what he looks like). Further, the book has several photographs of the leading protagonists, making Morris's florid descriptions largely superfluous. In what almost amounts to nasal porn, we hear about Woodrow Wilson's "beaky" nose twice, about poor J. P. Morgan's "carbuncled" nose and "bottle-nosed", about the "sharply beaked nose" of the French Ambassador, and about Taft's "chuckling rolls of fat."

Despite these flaws and misgivings, the author makes a convincing case that TR was a great man and a great President (and the source of many great stories). Roosevelt was responsible for creating the modern strong executive, responsible for setting aside 148 million acres of land as pristine national forest (ironically, TR, the bloodthirsty hunter who slaughtered scores of animals for sport, became the great champion of conservation). He was responsible for regulating unhealthy food and drugs. He was responsible for taming Wall Street, preventing the Robber Barons from robbing the public with Trusts no one could trust. And he asserted American power and influence throughout the world, without firing a shot (well, hardly)(and had so much damned fun doing it, too!).

Many of the issues TR faced-- big corporations out of control, interest in natural resources and conservation, freedom and independence for Cuba, concern about political fanatics and dangerous immigrants, and even worry about mistreatment of "foreign prisoners" (in the Philippines), Muslim fanatics (also in the Philippines), and Americans kidnapped abroad, have a very contemporary ring to them. One can only hope that, a hundred years after TR, the current Republican in office can have as much success with these problems as Teddy Roosevelt had.

(The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, a reconstruction of the original where Teddy was born, and packed with Rooseveltiana, is located at 28 East 20th Street, New York City, and is open to the public. The Theodore Roosevelt Association is a group interested in every aspect of TR's life and legacy, and publishes an informative newsletter. They can be accessed at: http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org).

Copyright 2002, by John D. Delmar

Click here to visit the Theodore Roosevelt Association website which includes material about the origins of the "teddy bear," which was an old and injured bear that he refused to shoot and was depicted in a cartoon by Clifford Berryman and then made into a stuffed toy by Morris Michtom who asked permission from Roosevelt to name him "Teddy". It also includes a listing of the conservation projects initiated in his administration and a very good "time-line" of his career which also included being Police Commissioner of New York from 1895-7, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, 1897-8, his service with the "Rough Riders" in the Spanish-American War in 1898, his service as Governor of New York State from 1898 to 1900, his election as Vice President of the United States in 1900 under President McKinley, his being shot in the chest by a would-be assassin in Milwaukee in 1912, and his losing to Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 Presidential race. It also has a long section of quotations from the man who once wrote a friend that he had "always been fond of the West African proverb: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.'"

Click here to visit the Friends of Sagamore Hill website named after Teddy Roosevelt's home in Oyster Bay Cove, Long Island, which is open to the public

Click here to visit the National Park Service's website on Sagamore Hill

Click here to go to an illustrated article "On Safari With Theodore Roosevelt, 1909

Click here to order the book from amazon.com for 40 percent off its $35 list price

Click here to order a paperback edition of "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," the first volume in Edmund Morris's planned triology, from amazon.com for 30 percent off its $17.95 list price

Click here to order a paperback edition of Edmund Morris's book, "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," from amazon.com for 20 percent off its $16.95 list price

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