am 8. Februar 2004
"Theodore Rex" is the second in Edmund Morris' trilogy of the magnificent life of Theodore Roosevelt. Focusing on Roosevelt's presidency of 1901-9, "Theodore Rex" is a worthy successor to "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt".
Chronologically arranged from the assassination of President McKinley to inauguration day, 1909, "Theodore Rex" covers the major issues to confront the Roosevelt Administration, both domestic and foreign. From his first day in office, TR was confronted with the task of winning over the Republican party in order to ensure his nomination in 1904. In this task he had to get around the hostility of McKinley's patron, Sen. Mark Hanna of Ohio.
Domestically, TR faced a number of issues, some more successfully than others. Although a believer in Anglo-Saxon superiority, TR did respect the accomplishments of individuals. Race relations was one issue which TR confronted early and often, motivated by a mixture of interests, grounded both in politics and principle. Much of Hanna's influence came from his control of Southern delegations, a particularly corrupt wing of the Republican party. Having no power of their own, the Republican party in the South consisted almost exclusively of whites seeking federal patronage and blacks. In a effort to gain leverage with the black wing of the party, TR made an overture to Booker T. Washington, making him the first black invited to dinner at the White House. This overture was met with overwhelming disapproval by almost all segments of the body politic. Attempts to appoint blacks to federal positions ran into Senate opposition. Even to speak out against the practice of lynching tempered the courage of a leader with calculated political risk. Toward the end of his term, his handling of the case of the 25th Infantry in Brownsville, Texas was to undue much of his record in race relations.
Labor relations presented an early test when TR became the first President to mediate a labor dispute as he brought the anthracite coal operators and miners together, turning a potential political nightmare into a major personal victory.
His prosecution of the antitrust suit against the Northern Securities company, the railroad trust, brought him into conflict with the captains of industry and finance. This would be followed by his promotion of legislation to allow federal regulation of railroad rates. He would later work with some of these same captains in averting a financial panic.
An early consumerist, TR lead the fight for the Pure Food and Drug Act, a measure inspired by Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" and opposed by strong congressional forces.
Much Of TR's legacy survives in the lands he set aside in National Parks and his beginning of conservation policies. Unimpaired by Congressional opposition, TR employed executive orders to expand the wilderness held for future generations.
It was in foreign policy that TR had some of his most enduring and spectacular successes. Confronted with a potential German takeover of Venezuela, TR reached back to the Monroe Doctrine and anticipated the war to occur with Germany in the following decade. Unlike some successors, TR was able to go to the brink of war without falling over the edge.
When negotiations with Congress and Columbia failed to secure a canal treaty, TR supported the Panamanian revolt and secured the treaty which would lead to the Canal which he considered to be the greatest accomplishment of his administration.
Mid-Eastern terrorism was not unknown in TR's day. The kidnapping of the American expatriate, Ion Perdicaris, from his home in Tangier, Morocco by the Raisuli, placed the issue on the President's desk. TR applied mounting pressure on the Sultan to achieve Perdicaris' release. With warships in place, TR finally issued the ultimatum: "We want Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead".
Japan would figure prominently among his foreign policy initiatives. Intervening to bring an end to the Russo-Japanese War won TR the respect of the world, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize, the first Nobel Prize won by an American. Despite his belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority he admired the Japanese race and preferred their victory over Russia, a victory which he confirmed after both sides had exhausted themselves in their struggle.
Shortly thereafter, relations between Japan and the U. S. drifted toward war when the San Francisco school board voted to segregate Japanese and white students. A combination of moral suation on the school board and a naval display in the Pacific delayed war by 35 years.
The buildup of the Navy, which had begun during Roosevelt's service as Assistant Secretary of he Navy, was capped by the circumnavigation voyage of the Great White Fleet, concluding a month before TR's own term.
At the end of his term, TR enjoyed an odd mixture of love by the people and hatred by the captains of industry. He was still able to take pride in his accomplishments. He had calmed a nation plunged into grief. This most beligerent of presidents, with his soft speech and big stick had achieved his goals while keeping the peace. He has showed, albeit timidly, how to treat those of other colors as equals. He had limited trusts, affirmed the Monroe Doctrine, built the great Canal, brought peace to the Far East, faced down Mid-East terrorists, settled labor disputes, reduced the lynching rate, expanded the national parks and monuments, had become the first vice-president to succeed to the presidency and win a term on his own and had honored the two term limit.
Theodore Roosevelt lived quite a story. Edmund Morris has written quite a book.
If you did not like Mr. Morris's biography of President Reagan, give Mr. Morris another chance. Theodore Rex is the best book I have read on President Theodore Roosevelt's almost 8 years in office, after having started as our youngest president to that point in time.
I found the recent David McCullough biography of John Adams as the closest comparable work. Both biographers rely a lot on the subject's own words and those of the people he interacted with. I found three qualities of Theodore Rex to be superior to the Adams biography. First, Mr. Morris has chosen to magnify issues that are of more interest to us today which are often virtually ignored in conventional histories. Some of these subjects involved Mr. Roosevelt's attitudes towards minority groups including African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jews. Other related subjects included what he chose to say and do about discrimination and lynchings, willingness to address a pogrom in Russia, and atrocities conduced by the Army in the Philippines. Second, Mr. Morris doesn't try to "pretty up" the ugly sides of his subject. In these first areas above, President Roosevelt did some good things . . . but he also did some pretty awful ones. His support for bad conduct dismissals of African-American troops after complaints in Brownsville, Texas, was particularly questionable, coming at a time when he had little at risk politically by doing the right thing and he was outspoken in other areas. Third, Mr. Morris has an eye for detail that makes the scenes come alive to extend beyond the mere words and events being presented. I particularly enjoyed the description of Roosevelt's first few days as president.
The Adams biography is superior in that most of that material came in the form of letters from Abigail and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the quality of what they had to say was usually a lot more interesting than what President Roosevelt and his cronies and family wrote or said.
The perspective on Roosevelt is almost totally a near contemporary one. This material reads like something we might review now about President Reagan's presidency. For those who are not familiar with U.S. political, social, and economic history prior to and during this time, some of the sections will be hard to fathom. That is a major weakness of the book.
The other major weakness is that the coverage of subjects is unbalanced in length. For example, there is a lengthy section on some gunboat diplomacy to help out two hostages in Morocco, one of whom is thought to be an American. Other than showing that Roosevelt liked to send in the Navy, this material didn't warrant the attention it receives here.
If you are like me, you will enjoy the way that Mr. Morris displays how Roosevelt built a power base by espousing popular issues like trust-busting to wean himself away from political dependency on Senator Mark Hanna. President Roosevelt's ability to work the newspapers to his advantage was astonishingly adroit for an "accidental" president with limited prior experience in public office.
On the personal side, the book is filled with examples of President Roosevelt's love of all forms of physical activity, including eating, and the way that he sought to preserve privacy for his personal life. Late in his presidency, he could not read very well with his left eye due to a boxing injury received in a match while president. Having become president due to the assassination of President McKinley, you will read with interest his own close calls with death and a potential assassin. The vignettes involving his very independent daughter, Alice, will amuse you in many cases. On the other hand, you may be annoyed (as I was) to learn that President Roosevelt's final decision about the Brownsville soldiers was withheld for a few days with the probable motive of helping his son-in-law, Alice's husband, be re-elected to Congress.
The almost total silence on the drawbacks of American geographic expansion through influence over the Philippines, Panama, Puerto Rico, Cuba and some South American countries was also unwarranted. Apparently, the ideology that justified all of this was a form of Social Darwinism.
Having finished the book, I thought about the task of a presidential biographer. We want to learn about the important history of the period. We also want to learn how the president did, compared to the alternatives. We further want to know about the president's character and style. And we want to see all of this in context. Reading this fine biography of President Roosevelt made me realize what a tough task this really is.
How would our world be different today if McKinley had not been assassinated? Probably not as good because the abuses of the trusts would probably have lasted longer, conservation would not have emerged as soon as a social force, and our tradition of encouraging international peace would not be so well established.
Be prepared to encourage others to do the right thing!
am 22. November 2001
Edmund Morris's second volume on TR is - again - a masterpiece. Everybody who enjoyed "The Rise of TR" will spend highly interesting hours reading about the presidency years. "Theodore Rex" is full of details, anecdotes and funny little episodes. Morris paints a bright and vivid picture of the life and work of Teddy. I especially like the stories involving the whole Roosevelt family. Family life with TR the father is never boring, always active but also difficult at times. What a remarkable family! Besides, let's hope that Morris will not wait for another 22 years before publishing the final volume of his view on TR!