Rex, by Edmund Morris (Random House,
772 pp., $35)
on the scale of September 11 is new to America, or to anywhere else
for that matter. But there is nothing unprecedented about political
attacks on U.S. soil. On September 6, 1901 100 years, almost
to the day, before the carnage at the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon the president of the United States, William McKinley,
was gunned down by a Polish-American anarchist named Leon Czolgosz.
Theodore Roosevelt succeeded McKinley, and devoted a good portion
of his first message to Congress to denouncing foreign terrorists,
in words that seem strikingly relevant to the present day.
is sowed by the men who preach such doctrines, and they cannot
escape their responsibility for the whirlwind that is reaped.
. . . They and those like them should be kept out of this country;
and if found here they should be promptly deported to the country
whence they came; and far-reaching provision should be made for
the punishment of those who stay.
There was no
mention of the civil liberties of law-abiding immigrants, no bows
toward America's great respect for the Polish people, no genuflections
toward anarchist doctrine. Instead Roosevelt warned in stern tones:
"The American people are slow to wrath, but when their wrath
is kindled it burns like a consuming flame."
quotes these words near the beginning of the long-awaited second
volume of his Roosevelt biography. This book was gripping enough
prior to September 11, but has acquired added resonance in the atrocity's
aftermath. As I read, I could not help wondering how the 26th president
would have handled the present crisis, and pining, in these dark
days, for his soaring eloquence, his boundless energy, and his indomitable
warrior spirit. Though George W. Bush has been a capable president,
he's no Teddy Roosevelt. But then, who is?
has the curious distinction of having written both one of the very
best political biographies and one of the worst. He began his career
with a masterpiece, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979).
Its success led to Morris's appointment in 1985 as Ronald Reagan's
court chronicler, and the publication, 14 years later, of Dutch.
The book was subtitled A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, but was
really the memoir of a biographer overwhelmed by a subject he did
not understand. Morris tried to mask his failure of comprehension
by resorting to all sorts of weird literary devices, the most notorious
being the creation of a fictional "Edmund Morris" whose
life kept intersecting with the future president's. The resulting
book was self-indulgent, solipsistic, silly.
now redeemed himself with Theodore Rex, devoted entirely
to TR's presidential years, 1901-1909. (A third and final volume
is promised.) There are no scenes here of Edmund smoking a cigar
and shooting the breeze with Teddy; this is an old-fashioned narrative
that hews for the most part to the historical record but nevertheless
manages to scale high peaks of literary achievement. Every reader
will have favorite moments. I was particularly dazzled by the evocation
of the summer White House at Oyster Bay; one can almost hear the
squeals of the Roosevelt children scampering through the daisy fields.
If there is
one fault, it is that the narrative is largely devoid of analysis.
Coming to the end of its 555 pages, the reader hungers for some
sense of what it all meant, but Morris does little to satisfy this
craving. He offers a mere three paragraphs of summation, in which
he blandly notes TR's legacy of new national parks and refers to
a "folk consensus" that he was "the most powerfully
positive American leader since Abraham Lincoln."
This lack of
reflection is disappointing, because TR and his legacy loom very
large today. He is much invoked by Republicans who think that their
party is once again in the grip of wealthy reactionaries, and that
it will take a man of Roosevelt's independence to steer it back
toward a progressive path. John McCain's backers tout him as the
new TR; a prominent McCainite website regularly castigates ruling
Republicans in a column called "The Bull Moose," named
after the third party TR founded after bolting the GOP in 1912.
What are the
parallels between TR and McCain? What ideology did TR represent?
And who best champions his ideals today? Edmund Morris does not
address these questions, but Theodore Rex together
with other recent volumes about TR does provide raw material
for such a consideration.
foreign policy. Though TR gained a reputation as a reckless war
hawk, his own presidency did not see a single major war. Instead
he became the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for his
role in ending the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. This was no accident,
for (like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan) he often displayed a
caution in diplomacy at odds with his popular reputation.
skill was on full display during a 1902 showdown with Germany. Venezuela
had reneged on its debt; Germany responded as Western countries
did, in those days by dispatching gunboats. TR deemed Germany's
deployment a violation of the Monroe Doctrine, and sent the bulk
of the Navy under Admiral George Dewey, the hero of the Spanish-American
War on "maneuvers" to the region. He did not bluster
in public, or issue "demands" that might back Kaiser Wilhelm
II into a corner; instead he told the German ambassador in a private
chat that "I should be obliged to interfere, by force if necessary,
if the Germans took any action which looked like the acquisition
of territory in Venezuela or elsewhere along the Caribbean."
After the Kaiser took the hint, TR did not gloat. In order to avoid
embarrassing Berlin, he apparently went so far as to order all evidence
of this exchange expurgated from the archives.
As this incident
makes clear, Roosevelt was hawkish but not recklessly so. His philosophy
was a simple one: peace through strength. He did not believe the
U.S. should go around irritating strong powers unless it had the
means to impose its will. He condemned as "prize jackasses"
those who combined "the unready hand with the unbridled tongue"
a criticism aimed at Woodrow Wilson, but one that applies
equally to Bill Clinton, another interventionist who lacked the
will to implement his good intentions.
This is not
to suggest that Roosevelt disdained all considerations of morality
in foreign policy; the attempts by Henry Kissinger and other advocates
of realpolitik to claim him for their camp won't wash. As police
commissioner of New York, TR had atop his desk a tablet inscribed,
"Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the
world affords." He acted on this belief when he helped whoop
America into a war to liberate the Cuban people from "murderous
oppression," and when he refused to support a pro-American
president of Panama who had gained power through election fraud.
neither an "idealist" like Jimmy Carter nor a "realist"
like George H. W. Bush. Instead, like Reagan and FDR, he combined
these two strands, and used American might to champion American
ideals. Today, Sen. McCain is an eloquent champion of this brand
of foreign policy, but his views are not so different from those
of President George W. Bush or, for that matter, those of centrist
Democrats like Joe Lieberman and Richard Holbrooke. This muscular
idealism is the dominant tradition in U.S. foreign policy.
views are harder to translate into the modern context. On most issues
he was (like Disraeli and Bismarck) a conservative reformer, disdaining
both reaction and revolution. He condemned the "malefactors
of great wealth" and insisted upon vigorous enforcement of
the antitrust laws. In response to scandals uncovered by "muckrakers"
a term he popularized Roosevelt created the Department
of Commerce and Labor, and signed into law the Pure Food and Drug
Act. But he was as troubled by the misbehavior of labor unions as
by that of corporations, and he never went nearly as far as most
reformers wanted him to. His great passion (aside from warfare)
was the outdoors; his big achievement the expansion of the national
parks. But even here he was no extremist: He disdained John Muir's
purist brand of conservation in favor of Gifford Pinchot's pragmatic
approach, which allowed logging and mining of national forests.
Burns and Susan Dunn suggest in The Three Roosevelts (Atlantic
Monthly Press, 678 pp., $37.50) that there was an essential continuum
between the views of TR and those of his relatives Franklin and
Eleanor. They quote William Allen White, who knew both TR and FDR:
"When the New Deal came with its program, it went little further
than Colonel Roosevelt's Progressive Party had gone twenty years
before." Burns and Dunn argue that the TR reform legacy was
carried on by JFK, LBJ, and Carter, only to be snuffed out by Ronald
is that TR, had he lived so long, would not only have joined the
Democratic party but also stayed within its ranks as it moved ever
further left; but it's more likely that he would have become disaffected
and like Reagan abandoned the Democrats. TR was, for
example, eager to expand federal protection of the wild, but would
he be in favor of more federal parks today, when Washington already
owns almost 60 percent of the land in the western states? TR's abiding
passion was not for big government per se, but rather for reform
measures aimed at those who abused their power. Today those abuses
are as likely to be found in bloated government bureaucracies or
in labor unions as in the corporate sector.
Who best embodies
the Republican reformist impulse today? McCain supporters think
the answer is obvious, but it isn't. True, McCain has some claim
to the mantle because of his support for campaign-contribution limits.
(TR, too, proposed campaign-finance restrictions in 1912, though
he had been perfectly happy to accept huge checks from wealthy donors
for his 1904 reelection campaign.) But George Bush might with equal
plausibility claim the mantle with his advocacy of faith-based initiatives
and Social Security privatization.
over TR's policy legacy will continue, but his qualities of character
were an equally important factor in his elevation to Mount Rushmore.
With his boyish enthusiasms, ranging from bear hunting to simplified
spelling, TR charmed the world. His mannerisms the chopping
hands, flashing teeth, and exclamations of "Bully!"
have passed into legend. His occupations, from author to rancher
to cavalry commander to police commissioner, are enough to fill
a dozen résumés. Even more impressive, if less obvious
to the public, was his erudition; TR was the greatest intellectual
to occupy the White House in the 20th century.
Letters of Theodore Roosevelt (Cooper Square Press, 464 pp.,
$32), edited by H. W. Brands, demonstrates that he was a vigorous,
elegant, and often humorous writer. Nothing better conveys the breadth
of his learning than a 1903 letter responding to a question about
what he had read during the first two years of his administration.
To quote only a small sample:
Herodotus; the first and seventh books of Thucydides; all of Polybius;
a little of Plutarch; Aeschylus' Orestean Trilogy; Sophocles'
Seven Against Thebes; Euripides' Hippolytus and Bacchae;
and Aristophanes' Frogs. . . . [Biographies, in French,
of Prince Eugene, Adm. de Ruyter, Turenne, and Sobieski]. . .
. Macbeth; Twelfth Night; Henry the Fourth;
Henry the Fifth; Richard the Second . . . Church's
Beowulf; Morris' translation of the Heimskringla.
. . . Sienkiewicz's Fire and Sword . . . Rob Roy;
Waverly . . . Pickwick Papers; Nicholas Nickleby;
don't even write their own speeches; Roosevelt churned out speeches,
innumerable letters, and a steady stream of books and articles.
And therein lies the vast gulf between Roosevelt and his would-be
imitators. It takes more than "progressive" noises, or
even wartime heroism, to make another TR. There was, alas, only
Boot is author of the forthcoming book The Savage
Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.