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The Performer

Theodore Rex

by Edmund Morris
Random House, 772 pp., $35.00

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Theodore Rex concludes in 1909 with President Theodore Roosevelt leaving the White House and pretending he doesn’t hate to give it up. People who stayed awake during high school history know better. Of course he hates to go. He is only fifty years old and his energy has always been volcanic. This is no candidate for a shawl and rocker, but a vigorous middle-aged man ripe for a bully midlife crisis.

He has always liked being boss, and nearly eight years in the presidency have strengthened his conviction that he is the best man around for getting things done right. What’s more, although a Republican, he has been moving toward political ideas that are dangerously unorthodox. Not a good omen, this. The Republican Party has been the home office of orthodoxy ever since the Union army and Yankee capital won the Civil War.

The party had suffered a traumatic shock in 1901 when the McKinley assassination confronted it with the nightmare of the party’s most powerful leader, Mark Hanna: an accidental Roosevelt presidency. (“Don’t any of you realize that there’s only one life between this madman and the Presidency?” Hanna had warned the party bosses who put Roosevelt in the vice- presidency, believing it a safe place to bury a damn nuisance.) Now as his presidency ends, Roosevelt is no longer Hanna’s lunatic but a popular hero, an internationally acclaimed peacemaker, and a remarkably shrewd politician. He has learned how to have his way on matters he is passionate about (a canal in Panama, environmental preservation, a two-ocean navy) and to compromise or let the party prevail on others.

Roosevelt’s transformation from “madman” to political giant is the central story of Theodore Rex, the second volume of Edmund Morris’s mammoth biography. The first, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,1 took T.R. from birth to the vice-presidency and the moment at which McKinley’s assassination made him president. With this book the biography now exceeds half a million words, and the final decade of Roosevelt’s life is yet to come.

The quarrel that will eventually shatter the Republican Party is not clearly inevitable here, although the potential for disaster between T.R. and the party has always existed. He is a passionately moral man inclined to righteousness in an age when party regulars consider it political heresy to pass moral judgment on methods by which men and corporations accumulate wealth. Their political philosophy is: Anything goes. During most of his presidency Roosevelt and the party’s hard-minded men have kept passion submerged, and the results have been good enough to produce a fine Republican electoral victory in 1908.

Roosevelt himself might very well have won another term had he chosen to run. He didn’t. Four years earlier, on the night of his landslide victory in 1904, he had impetuously announced that ”under no circumstances” would he seek another nomination. It was a foolish thing to say, but he felt bound to stand by his word. If he had run anyhow, he wrote a friend,

My power for useful service would have forever been lessened, because nothing could have prevented the wide diffusion of the impression that I had not really meant what I had said, that my actions did not really square with the highest and finest code of ethics….

And so as Theodore Rex concludes, he is off to Africa to hunt, and Republican conservatives are happy to see him go. They cannot know of course that he is not going, but merely receding. He will return. He is already acting as though entitled to give instructions to the new president, William Howard Taft.

Stopping just as the story turns toward its climax, the book feels like part of a serial. “To be continued” should be its closing line, and it surely will be. We who did not doze in high school history eagerly await Volume Three, confident that it will be a barn burner.

If Theodore Rex is not quite as entertaining as The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, it’s because Morris’s design confines him to a very cramped landscape—the presidential years, 1901 to 1909. This requires dwelling on the politics and diplomacy of a remote and unthrilling age. The Northern Securities case, coal-mine strikes, Kaiser Wilhelm’s threat to Venezuela, railroad rebates, the Russo-Japanese war, America’s clumsy fling at imperial-ism in the Philippines—such matters, though terribly important a century ago, are apt to be sedative to modern readers indifferent to political history.

Still, Roosevelt is such a vital character that no one can drowse as long as he is onstage, and Morris rarely lets him exit. Roosevelt is a biographer’s dream. It must be impossible to write a dull book about him. His was a life of action—“pure act,” in Henry Adams’s phrase. Action produces narrative, and narrative requires scene-setting, and Morris has an uncommon talent for both. He is splendid when telling a story and describing the scenery against which it unfolds. In Theodore Rex his long, detailed account of a lynching in Wilmington, Delaware, for example, becomes a tale of suspense and horror. He tells it to illustrate the state of race relations during Roosevelt’s presidency, an era when American mobs were committing an average of four lynchings a week. A writer less interested in moving the reader might cite the statistic and leave the reader to make of it what he will. Morris has the storyteller’s need to breathe life into the fact.

He also has the careful reporter’s reluctance to disclose his own judgments. This is likely to create problems for the reader when the subject is treated in encyclopedic detail, as Roosevelt is in these volumes. In this vast expanse of fact and story it is hard to see Roosevelt whole.

What are we to make of him? Why was he worth all these words? Was he a great president or, as some think, a buffoonish blowhard whose trust-busting was mostly myth and whose big stick was mostly loud talk? And what of all those people who thought him a case of arrested boyhood? Was that the authentic Roosevelt? Or was he the erudite Harvard intellectual whose diplomatic subtlety impressed European foreign offices and pacified Japan? Morris may speak his mind at the end of Volume Three, but for now he leaves judgment to his readers.

Louis Auchincloss’s concise Theodore Roosevelt, which compresses the full life, cradle to grave, into an elegant 136 pages, is a dandy handbook for the reader seeking guidance through Morris’s great forest. Auchincloss states his judgment at the outset:

…[He] was capable of the most profound political shrewdness, of a deep humanitarian concern, of a hatred of hypocrisy and deceit and a greatness of heart. TR was a political idealist who had the wisdom to know that only by astute and well-considered compromise in our legislative process could he hope to see enacted even a fraction of the social and military programs that he deemed…essential to the welfare of his nation. Which is why I believe he deserves his rank among our great presidents. He not only created an inspiring symbol—for his era, anyway—of courage and adventure in leadership; he contrived that his maneuvers “to get things done” should never descend from the strictly practical to the near corrupt. And we mustn’t forget that in his day he could speak of standing at Armageddon to do battle for the Lord without being laughed off the platform.

Auchincloss’s judgment goes directly to Roosevelt’s humanity rather than his political and diplomatic career, and it is Roosevelt’s humanity that absorbs us in Theodore Rex as he comes to grips with an office famous for dehumanizing and breaking so many of the men who win it. That anyone might speak of the presidency as a splendid misery or a lonely burden would have astonished Roosevelt. He loved almost every moment of it and everything about it. What would he have made of modern stories of presidents being worked to exhaustion despite the swarms of staff assistants that now come with the job? For T.R. there wasn’t enough work.

On the death of Secretary of State John Hay, Roosevelt wrote Henry Cabot Lodge that, though he greatly loved Hay, the old gentleman had been so frail for the past two years that “I had to do the big [diplomatic] things myself.” Besides doing the secretary of state’s work, he was constantly looking for activity. Morris describes him hauling reluctant luncheon guests outdoors for exhausting walks along the Potomac and horseback romps through Rock Creek Park. He writes a friend:

Can you send me on three pairs of boxing gloves; and can you tell me some good men here in Washington who, in the winter months, I can have come around two or three times a week to box with me and my son and another young kinsman?

He found time to write thousands of letters, many of great length, most suffused with the sense of a man having a wonderful time in his job. After nearly four years in office and starting what is essentially his second term, he writes the British historian George Otto Trevelyan, “Well, I have just been inaugurated and have begun my second term. Of course I greatly enjoyed inauguration day, and indeed I have thoroughly enjoyed being President.” He then dashes off two thousand words telling why.

H.W. Brands, a professor of history at Texas A&M, has published a new selection of Roosevelt’s letters written over fifty years, which convey a strong sense of his personality. One to his son Kermit shows his impatience with whiners and groaners. In the winter of 1909, when military people were complaining about a new physical exercise program he’d ordered, he rode ninety-eight miles on horseback one day to “put a stop to any grumbling because I required other people to ride ninety miles in three days.” He left the White House at 3:30 in the morning and was back at 8:30 that evening. The last fifteen miles were ridden “in pitch darkness and with a blizzard of sleet blowing in our faces.”

He was the pioneer model of what almost all future presidents would be: the star performer in a government that would increasingly take on characteristics of show business. The president as performer was new to history. Before Roosevelt there had been the martyr Lincoln, the hero Grant, and a run of forgettable political tools, but stardom, which requires mass communications to create widespread public interest in certain individuals, was a twentieth-century development.

Nowadays it often involves creating an artificial persona for the politician or entertainer being fitted for stardom, but Roosevelt needed no image designers to make him fascinating to the crowd. The big teeth and eyeglasses made him a cartoonist’s delight. Striding through crowds, hand extended for shaking, telling one and all he was “dee-lighted”—he was born for the limelight. And what a master of the theatrical moment. Campaigning in 1912, he was shot while on his way to give a speech, but insisted on making his speech anyhow after telling the crowd he would be unable to speak loudly because “there is a bullet in my body.”

  1. 1

    Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1979; reissued by Modern Library, 2001.

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