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