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The Performer

Theodore Rex

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

1.

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.”

Everything worked to make him interesting to the public. He begat a national craze for the Teddy Bear. Millions called him by the chummy nickname “Teddy.” Henry Pringle’s 1931 biography says he “loathed” the name, but it was obviously a priceless political asset. His ultimatum to the Berber kidnapper Raisuli—“We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead”—may have arrived after Raisuli had already yielded, and may have been written by John Hay, but it expressed a muscular Americanism that millions associated with—well, Teddy.

The biographer’s problem with a subject as rich as Roosevelt is that no one else is allowed much breathing room. There is an array of powerful and fascinating men in Morris’s book—Elihu Root, Henry Adams, John Hay, Mark Hanna, Joe Cannon, Pitchfork Ben Tillman, and Henry Cabot Lodge among them—but Morris’s tight focus on Roosevelt reduces them to two-dimensional figures moving on and offstage only to advance the plot. Roosevelt seems to inhale everyone else in the vicinity. Perhaps he did so in real life. At times his friends may have seemed to themselves like minor characters in someone else’s life. Henry Adams was among the regulars at the White House table who listened to “uninhibited” Roosevelt monologues. “Theodore is never sober,” Adams wrote a correspondent, “only he is drunk with himself and not with rum…. He lectures me on history as though he were a high school pedagogue.”

Roosevelt’s family, too, is scarcely present in these pages. The exception is Alice, his only child by his first wife. Alice was to spend a long, long life refusing to be overlooked, and here she is, already holding her own against heavy odds, an irksome teenager growing into womanhood, the only female who comes to life in this huge men’s club of a book.

A brief sketch of Roosevelt’s second wife, Edith, is based on a biography by Morris’s wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris.2 Strangers thought Edith “snobbish.” Morris prefers to see only “New England reserve” although her sons “had to research the antecedents of all their would-be friends.” Her views on class were not progressive. Of servants she said, “If they had our brains they’d have our place.” Theodore’s attitude toward her was “doglike adoration.” She was happy to leave the governing to him, and he liked it that way, for his view of a woman’s role was as unprogressive as Edith’s view of servants.

Auchincloss’s book assembles a batch of Roosevelt pronouncements which speak tellingly of his character, including this on the feminist question:

…I am more and more convinced that the great field, the indispensable field for the usefulness of woman, is the mother of the family. It is her work in the household, in the home, her work in bearing and rearing her children, which is more important than any man’s work, and it is that work which should be normally the woman’s work, just as normally the man’s work should be that of the breadwinner, the supporter of the home, and if necessary the soldier who will fight for the home.

Like other statements cited by Auchincloss, this illustrates how remote Roosevelt actually is from the present age. Since September 11 some journalists have read Morris and suggested that T.R. would have been the ideal president for today. Skeptics may wonder. He did not believe war ought to be left to professionals, as ours now are, or that its conduct should be governed by reluctance to take casualties. He happily sent his sons to fight, and wrote:

I hope and pray that they’ll all come back, but before God I’d rather none came back than one, able to go, had stayed at home.

Would our dependence today on professional warriors qualify us as one of the “fighting races” he had in mind when he wrote:

All the great masterful races have been fighting races, and the minute that a race loses the hard fighting virtues, no matter what else it may retain, no matter how skilled in commerce and finance, in science or art, it has lost its right to stand as the equal of the best.

He believed in male chastity and capital punishment, and his insensitivity to politically correct language about people we now call Native Americans was displayed in his writing about tortures inflicted on captives by “the wild Indian.” (“Impalement on charred stakes, finger nails split off backwards, finger joints chewed off, eyes burnt out… [and others] which cannot even be hinted at, especially when women are the victims.”)

There are other respects in which he would be a curious specimen indeed in the modern presidency. He was an intellectual with a classical education who wrote his own speeches, many state papers, and several highly popular books. He wrote or dictated more than 100,000 letters, some many pages long. Given an hour to idle away on a train trip, he uses it to write a book review. The secretary of state, arriving to talk foreign policy, finds the President sitting on a patio reading Euripides.

In response to Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, who asks him to recommend some reading, he starts listing what he has read since taking office: “Parts of Herodotus; the first and seventh books of Thucydides; all of Polybius; a little of Plutarch; Aeschylus’ Orestean Trilogy; Sophocles’ Seven Against Thebes….” He had read these in translation. In French he had read biographies of Prince Eugene of Savoy, Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, Henri Tu-renne, and John Sobieski. The list goes on and on through Shakespeare, Lincoln, Macaulay, Milton, Tolstoy, Beowulf, Tom Sawyer, Nicholas Nickleby, Conan Doyle’s White Company, and ten dozen more. Morris fills two pages with it.

He compiled the list during a train ride from New York to Washington, where he was greeted with news that his scheme for taking Panama away from Colombia was under way. His canal could soon be started. “I took the Canal Zone and let Congress debate,” he boasted. It was another instance of “pure act.”

2.

We’re all off to Washington to see Teddy take the veil,” said New York’s “easy boss” Tom Platt as he headed south for the McKinley inauguration in March 1901. Roosevelt had been governor of New York until Platt engineered his vice-presidential burial af-ter deciding he was unsuitable for high office. To serious men like Platt he seemed eccentric with his talk of let-ting government regulators annoy big-money people for getting rich by means “inconsistent with the highest laws of morality.” Then he’d wanted to stop lumber companies from dumping into Adirondack streams. He wanted laws to protect songbirds, for heaven’s sake.

Platt was old and his patience for rambunctious youth was long, but it finally failed when Roosevelt insisted on firing a corrupt state superintendent of insurance who had been enjoying “intimate and secret money-making relations” with the state’s biggest insurance companies. The argument against dumping this rascal, Morris explains, was that the big insurance companies wanted him kept on. “So, in consequence, did Senator Platt, and so did a majority of the Senate.” Roosevelt refused. Soon Roosevelt learned that Platt was telling people that “I would undoubtedly have to accept the Vice-Presidency.”

Roosevelt’s urge to put morality back into government no longer seemed so amusing after fate dealt Platt a ghastly trick and put Roosevelt into the White House. The man was a reformer. The world’s Platts have always looked on reformers as political aberrations to be scorned as “bleeding hearts” and “do-gooders” out of touch with reality, if not actually tetched in the head, and therefore dangerous to political stability.

Everything in the Republicans’ history since the Lincoln assassination thirty-five years before argued that political and financial success depended on giving capitalism unrestricted license to do whatever was necessary to maximize profits. Government became an instrument for providing services to private capital. Court injunctions and national guard firepower were provided to minimize labor unrest. Congress maintained a constant alert to detect and hurl back reformers with their threats of government regulation.

Not surprisingly, the golden age of excess that resulted gradually churned up turmoil among farmers, laborers, miners, small business operators, and all other such who believed themselves unjustly abused so the rich could become richer. Radical ideas were in the air. The unmoneyed classes were organizing. A Populist party was born. The Democrats, long cursed by their old loyalty to slavers, had suddenly come to life and terrified bankers everywhere by nominating an authentically radical presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan.

In this context Roosevelt’s reform impulses seem timid, almost namby-pamby by modern standards. Not to Wall Street in the early 1900s. In 1903, Morris writes, Wall Street still saw Roosevelt as “an extremely dangerous man” representing “a pretty pronounced type of socialism.” In Wall Street’s view, Roosevelt “had shown prejudice against railroad owners, beef packers, and coal-mine operators…[and] now he was protecting foliage and threatening to strengthen the public-land laws.” If elected in his own right in 1904, “there would be no holding him.” Financiers were almost unanimous in saying they wanted the 1904 nominee to be “somebody like Hanna.”

A 1907 letter from Roosevelt to Jacob Schiff expressed surprise at “this belief in Wall Street that I am a wild-eyed revolutionist”:

I cannot condone wrong, but I certainly do not intend to do aught save what is beneficial to the man of means who acts squarely and fairly…. Sooner or later I think they will realize that in their opposition to me for the last few years they have been utterly mistaken, even from the standpoint of their own interests…. I wish to do everything in my power to aid every honest businessman, and the dishonest businessman I wish to punish simply as I would punish the dishonest man of any type.

Morris details his clashes with the “trusts,” which built his reputation for “trust busting,” and in the process establishes that his political philosophy before 1912 was little more than a moralist’s conviction that bad men should not be allowed to do bad things. The phrase constantly on his lips was “a square deal.” His “square deal” was not to be a “new deal,” in which government would assume new responsibilities for the underclasses, as his remote cousin Franklin later proposed. It proposed a government with just enough muscle to make the biggest corporation behave itself. Corporation men were wiser. They realized that once the door was cracked, there could be no closing it.

Liberals of the later twentieth century belittled Roosevelt’s fight with the “trusts.” It amounted to very little, went the argument, because it was based not on an understanding that capitalism must inevitably produce abuses, but on a Sunday-school faith that good people could make a complicated economic system produce a “square deal” for everybody. As Auchincloss observes, it was not the corporations’ size that Roosevelt objected to; it was “their too frequent wickedness.” His anger about this “wickedness” is palpable in a letter written after his campaign manager had asked E.H. Harriman, the railroad tycoon, for a campaign contribution:

To this Harriman answered that… whenever it was necessary he could buy a sufficient number of senators and congressmen or state legislators to protect his interests, and when necessary he could buy the judiciary. These were his exact words. He did not say this under any injunction of secrecy to Sherman and showed a perfectly cynical spirit of defiance throughout….

Harriman was more accommodating in the 1904 campaign when Roosevelt had him to the White House and pointed out that he might have to deal with a Democratic governor from Tammany Hall unless New York’s Republican Party received a money infusion. Harriman promised to raise $260,000. Harriman “had a pleased sense of usefulness and high importance,” Morris writes. “‘They are all in a hole,’ he boasted to an aide, ‘and the President wants me to help them out.’”

Still Wall Street Republicans never accepted Roosevelt’s notion that government had to be stronger than the corporations in order to police the wicked. Fear and hatred of government intervention against the moneyed interest remains today a dominating characteristic of the Republicans’ conservative movement. Government, Ronald Reagan’s people liked to say, is not the solution, it is the problem.

Long before Reagan, this debate was destined to wreck the party when Roosevelt attempted a comeback in 1912. That is for Morris’s next installment, but he salts the closing pages of Theodore Rex with hints of a dark and stormy tale to come. We have already had a glimpse of Helen Taft, wife of the new president, behaving badly. Her “plump, lovable” husband has always wanted to be a Supreme Court justice rather than president, but “the rather less lovable Mrs. Taft” made it clear back in 1906 that she preferred otherwise. When a vacancy occurred on the Court that year she “begged” Roosevelt not to appoint him. “She was already mentally redecorating the White House.”

Even after Roosevelt anointed Taft president-to-be, Mrs. Taft remained alert. That her husband owed his nomination to T.R. embarrassed her. “She wished he could be a candidate in his own right, and resented everything Roosevelt had done to help him.” When the Republican convention of 1908 produced a big demonstration for the retiring Roosevelt, Morris says, “Mrs. Taft turned white.”

A zealous woman near the seat of power usually signals a good story ahead. See Lady MacBeth, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Wallis Warfield Simpson. What role will Mrs. Taft play in the next dramatic installment? Stay tuned.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    Edith Kermit Roosevelt: Portrait of a First Lady (Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1980).

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