on July 10, 2003
Edmund Morris has had an interesting career as a writer. A native Rhodesian (the African country dominated by whites, and replaced by the currently unstable Zimbabwe) he emigrated first to South Africa, then Britain, finally the United States. He then became a full time writer, and for his first book, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" won a Pulitzer for biography. He was then appointed Reagan's official biographer (Reagan read the previous book and liked it) and produced "Dutch", a worthwhile addition to the library of books about Reagan, but one that will remain controversial because of the way Morris treated the subject, and the format in which he wrote the book.
Morris's next book is the current one being reviewed, "Theodore Rex." This book covers his presidency, from the succession to the office on the death of William McKinley to his leaving office seven and a half years later. There is a great deal of detail about his life in office, his relations with his family and contemporaries, and the legislative issues that confronted him. The author, while pro-Roosevelt, isn't blindly so. There are instances in the book where he clearly disagrees with what the President did, and is critical of him in consequence. Most notable is the Brownsville Texas incident, where Roosevelt and the high command of the army decided that some black soldiers were guilty of rioting on the streets of that city, and the president decided to cashier the whole unit from the army without court martial or anything.
Other characters of the administration are well-drawn and interesting. These include Elihu Root, who held various cabinet positions, and could earn more money on Wall Street, John Hay, who had been personal secretary to Abraham Lincoln forty years before and seen three presidents be assasinated, William Howard Taft, the overweight Secretary of War Roosevelt chose as his successor, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court Justice who wasn't quite as dependable on cases before the court as Roosevelt thought he was.
The issues of the day are carefully delineated in enough detail to satisfy the reader and still not be boring. The coal miner's strike, the Great White Fleet, various war scares, the negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War, all are dealt with carefully, and intelligently. The whole of Roosevelt's presidency is here, and interesting.
I do have a few issues. The author has an unusual pedigree (see above) and it shows in his penchant for using strange words and phrases. Some of them (a lame duck congress quacking its last, for instance) are amusing, but others are just weird. Nouns become adverbs, sentences are long or clumsy, and it's occasionally difficult to tell what the author meant by something. Also, the way the book is constructed is sort of strange. The author uses short, choppy sections at points to illustrate things. And lastly, the author recounts events and occurances that don't seem to have much, or anything, to do with Roosevelt. One anecdote involves Woodrow Wilson telling a racist joke, another recounts briefly the Wright Brothers flying their airplane the first time. One is occasionally left wondering why they're in the book.
All in all, though, I enjoyed this book a great deal, and would recommend it.
on July 9, 2003
Edmund Morris won me back with this terrific read. I'll confess that I wasn't the biggest fan of "Dutch," and was somewhat hesitant to read this, but he stepped up to the plate and delivered a masterpiece.
Theodore Roosevelt was truly a man years ahead of his time in many aspects. His view on conservation issues, his racial views, and his desire to assert the United States as a player in world affairs were truly fitting for a president at the turn of the last century.
Roosevelt balanced so many delicate issues while in office. Worker's rights were just beginning to really take center stage and he found himself thrust in the midst of labor vs. management disputes--an issue that had the potential of wrecking his winning the Republican nomination. As always, he worked his magic, asserting himself and arriving at a mutual agreement.
With the Civil War still looming fresh in many minds, and the South still embittered over Reconstruction, Roosevelt also found himself forced to deal with racial issues. His approach, though somewhat suffering from the bigoted mindset that seemed the norm in that day, was to appoint the best people to fill government positions--whether they be white or black. If he worked to hard to appease white Democrats, he risked upsetting black Republicans who once again had the potential of costing him the Republican nomination.
The way he dealt with the Germans and British over Venezuela certainly established the supremecy of the Monroe Doctrine. He also managed to avoid a war with Germany, something that we all know would eventually be unavoidable.
He faced many of the same issues faced by the Bush Administration today. Race and charges of imperialism. Cuba, the Phillipines, and Puerto Rico could easily subsitute for Afghanistan, Liberia, and Iraq.
That being said, it's certainly relevant to today's world and a fascinating read on an amazing man.
on June 18, 2003
With the exception of men who ascended to the presidency from generalship in war, TR along with Jefferson must be among the few whose presidential years were less exciting, even anticlimatic, to what went before. And this book reflects that falling off. After the long wait for the appearance of this volume, those of us, and they were multitudes, who had thrilled to the "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" which was certainly one of the classic biographies to appear in the last quarter of the 20th century, cannot help but feel a sense of let-down at the dutiful but dull rehearsal of TR's bland presidential years. Politics seems a bit of a bore here, confining to TR's genius, keeping him strained at the leash in spite of his many successes and mastery of the role.
Somehow I have a suspicion that the final volume (The Decline of TR?) will return Edmund Morris to the level of brilliance demonstrated in volume one, as he charts the contentious, exciting but tragic last years of one of the American originals.
on June 3, 2003
Morris' second book of the trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt (TR) is a most enjoyable read. This book covers TR's White House years and gives great insight into one of Americas greatest presidents and most influential men of the twentieth century. Morris gives you an in depth but not dry look at what TR accomplished in his two terms. He created the Dept. of Interior and protected more land for posterity than any other president. He created the Food and Drug Administration after reading a book written by Sinclair Lewis about the unsanitary conditions in the meat packing industry. He mediated the peace treaty between the Russians and the Japanese after the Russo-Japanese war for which he was the first president to be awarded the Nobel peace prize. He built our Navy from fourth to second place in the world and prepared us for super power status. He was instrumental in our building of the Panama Canal, which made us a two-ocean power. These are just some of the highlights of his busy administration. He wrote over 30 books in his life was fluent in six languages and was an astute politician and statesman. There is much to be learned from reading about this great American, the man who was always in the arena.
As a retired Army officer and student of political philosophy, I found this to be a great book on leadership.
on May 29, 2003
Mr. Morris does not seem to have the desire to do the primary research that he did in his pre-Dutch days. There are so many fine works - and so much primary material dealing with TR's life and times remaining untouched that Mr. Morris could have used, but didn't. TR's complex life and times cries out for a good writer to simply and clearly state the facts of this fascinating president. It is a great shame that this is not that book.
ROBERT A. CARO HAS SET THE STANDARD for political biography and he has made us aware of how a careful researcher can give real insight into the life and political world of a president. Mr. Morris does not follow Mr. Caro's example.
Consider a little of what isn't in this book:
If you are interested in how and why TR became the Bull Moose Candidate, don't look here ... Mr. Morris didn't think that TR becoming the last Third Party President elected was worth exploring in any detail! How TR came to the decision to change parties and the story of the policies, politics and power plays that lead to such an extraordinary circumstance could be an entire biography.
TR established wilderness protection for the Tongass, the last temperate rain forest in the United States. . . and industry has fought (and won) access to that wilderness despite TR's unprecedented action to protect it from development. Mr. Morris doesn't even note the existence of the Tongass matter, perhaps TR's most important conservation act.
Dutch was, in my opinion, pure fiction; Theodore Rex is, in my opinion, mere faction. If you love the popular perception of Teddy Roosevelt - buy the book. If you are a student of political history, the conservation movement, international diplomacy, or the US Presidency...look elsewhere.
on May 10, 2003
As he did with the excellent first volume THE RISE OF TEDDY ROOSEVELT, Edmund Morris continues to create a gold standard of biographical portraiture of the man who came to embody and personify the America of the young 20th Century.
Using as always his scrupulous eye for fine detail and expert hand at crafting cunning anecdotes (I am ignoring his one great misstep- DUTCH), Morris makes Theodore's trustbusting, conservationalist and imperialistic two term Presidency come to vivid life.
Theodore's devout passion for life reverberated throughout the young nation and the world according to Morris who deftly balances (again continuing from his fascinating first volume) praise and criticism. Roosevelt, while beloved as perhaps no other President in history also had his enemies and Morris meets them all head on. That is exactly as TR would have wanted it.
The blustery, hyperactive and thourougly intellectual Roosevelt was a complete human being, according to Morris. He was and continues to be a true role model for all.
Along with THE RISE OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT, this is a must read for anyone possessing even a passing interest in American History.
Please finish the third volume Mr. Morris.
on April 25, 2003
In his sequel to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris masterfully helps his (American) readers better understand how and why they still bask in the legacy of President Roosevelt both here and abroad. Roosevelt, who leveraged President Monroe's doctrine, turned the United States of America into a superpower on the global scene. The other great powers of that time duly took note of Roosevelt's expeditions in the Americas and Asia and his key role in bringing the Russo-Japanese war to an end. On the domestic front, Roosevelt has left an enduring legacy as his contributions to the development of national parks, anti-trust legislation ... and the Teddy Bear have revealed. Roosevelt progressively liberated himself from the influence of the Republican Party by pursuing an increasingly progressive legislative agenda to the discontent of some fellow Republicans. To the chagrin of some readers, Morris does not spend too much time discussing Theodore's beloved Edith, their children and the rest of his family.
on April 23, 2003
"Theodore Rex," the sequel to presidential biographer Edmund Morris's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," is a thorough examination of the seven years Theodore Roosevelt (TR) spent in the White House as the 26th President of the United States. It picks right up where "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" ended - with the assassination of TR's predecessor, William McKinley. It ends on March 4, 1909, when Roosevelt reluctantly surrendered the reins of power to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft.
By today's standards (or at least the standards set by the political pundits in the media), a President's overall "greatness" seems to be guided by whether or not he was responsible for at least one major positive accomplishment during his term(s) of office, while at the same time avoiding any major blunders. If you apply these standards to Theodore Roosevelt as he is portrayed in "Theodore Rex," he arguably ranks as one of the five greatest Presidents in our Nation's history. Not only was he responsible for "one" major accomplishment - he was responsible for many. As Morris points out, Theodore Roosevelt, more than any President before him, and maybe since, transformed the Presidency from an almost figurehead-like office into what it is today: the most prominent and powerful office in the world.
In "Theodore Rex," Edmund Morris abandons the highly controversial literary device he used when writing "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan" (in which he placed himself as a fictional observer of events), and wisely returns to what he does best: writing Presidential biographies with his stylishly crisp, clear, and highly entertaining prose. Never once does he let the pace of his eloquent narrative in "Theodore Rex" flag. I found myself immediately "hooked" while reading this superb book's first few pages. TR's means of handling his assumption of the Presidency after the assassination of William McKinley is a dramatic story in itself, and it's deftly handled by Morris. Nearly all of the major events of TR's presidency are handled with equal skill.
"Theodore Rex" is a highly detailed and polished narrative that places both TR and his presidency in a decidedly positive light. Roosevelt is portrayed as a highly principled man, almost puritanical in his values, and unwilling to compromise on most deeply felt issues. Morris allows TR's youthful vigor, optimism, progressivism, and hunger for approval to shine through on every page.
"Theodore Rex" shouldn't be mistaken as an exercise in hagiography, though. It is, at its heart, a scholarly, judicious, and finely balanced biography. Throughout the book, Morris provides an incisive analysis of Roosevelt and what he accomplished during his seven years as President. Successes and failures, good judgments and misjudgments... all are presented in equal measure.
Of all the Presidential biographies I've read in recent years, "Theodore Rex" is one of the best. This eagerly anticipated sequel to "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," written twenty years after its Pulitzer Prize-winning predecessor, is certainly its equal in quality of writing, scholarship, and insightful historical analysis. Not only that, but it's a great read!
on March 30, 2003
Teddy Roosevelt was one of the two or three most interesting people to serve as President of the United States. You get some hint of this in Edmund Morris' book, but the organization of this book works against it. Because the narrative proceeds as a straight chronology, subjects are dealt with piecemeal, which means the treatment is both superficial and repetitive. For example, the discussions of the diplomacy leading to the acquisition of the Panama Canal territory and the crisis with Japanese immigrants in San Francisco schools are so broken up they do not do justice to the subjects and become hard to follow. The author fails to note the historical significance of some of the events of TR's presidency, such as the fact that his trip to Panama was the first visit outside the United States by an American president. Finally, the author's insistence upon referring to William Taft's weight each time the future president is mentioned goes from annoying the first few times to offensive the 12th or 13th time. For my money, I'd go with H.W. Brands' TR: The Last Romantic, a much better treatment of the subject.
on March 19, 2003
THEODORE REX details Roosevelt's presidency from September 1901 (after McKinley was assassinated) to March 1909 (when TR's hand-picked successor Taft took office). At times the book is a gripping, comprehensive guide to both TR himself and U.S. history. Readers feel the tension and drama of worldwide events like the Russo-Japanese war, the revolution in Panama that led to the U.S. control of the Panama canal, and diplomacy with the menacing Germany. And the coverage of the elections of 1904 and 1908 is interesting, especially for two presidential elections which are not particularly well-documented (probably because they were barely competitive). At other times, however, details slow the pace down significantly. Far be it for me to criticize a Pulitzer-winning author - and I recognize this series IS the definitive TR biography - but my only qualification on this book's excellence were passages of several pages here and there devoted to the specifics of a certain hunting trip, gossip about TR's socialite daughter, or the details of TR's Long Island home, etc. Though I suppose that's what makes this a biography, and not just a U.S. history text. The illustrations and pictures added to the complete picture of oft-overlooked historical figures in TR's cabinet. Overall, you get a sense that TR might have been even larger than the office of the President of the United States - constantly challenging Congress for reform and promoting conservation issues - dominating every personal interaction, never backing down in struggles with big business, negotiating settlement of a war and a nation-crippling coal strike - and being well read, athletic, and cultured all at once. I look forward to part 3 of the series, especially the coverage of the historical 1912 presidential election.