The Rough Rider, Warts and All

By Richard S. Dunham


By Edmund Morris

Random House -- 772pp -- $35

The first thing you notice about Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris' new biography of the Republican Roosevelt, is its voluminous supply of footnotes and bibliography. Indeed, Morris furnishes us with 177 pages of details on the factual basis of his work. Normally, an author doesn't have to prove that a book is meticulously researched. But Morris, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, seems determined to exorcise the ghost of Dutch, his controversial 1999 memoir of Ronald Reagan. Morris created characters and dialogue for Dutch, rendering the book useless as history. A smart man who learns from his mistakes, Morris in Theodore Rex reverts to what he does best: straight-on history.

The result is an enlightening and entertaining portrayal of an American original. The Roosevelt of Theodore Rex is not the universal icon invoked by today's spectrum of politicians--everyone from liberal environmentalists to maverick conservative Senator John McCain. Morris' T.R. is a nuanced character with warts not fit for Mt. Rushmore.

On one hand, this Roosevelt is bold and visionary--in many ways defining 20th century America at the moment it became a world economic and military power. He's witty and literate, as well: a best-selling author, fluent in French and Italian. But the youngest man ever to serve as President also comes across as a brutish bully and an impulsive egotist who nurses grudges and all too often speaks before he thinks. And while Roosevelt revolutionized the role of government by extending its reach into regulation of American business, conservation of nature, and protection of the health and safety of workers, he often proved far more cautious in deed than he was in word.

It is the contradictory impulses in T.R. that make Theodore Rex so interesting. These are captured with particular skill in the sections on race relations. Like nearly all other white Americans of his time, Roosevelt was a racist who believed African Americans as a group were inferior to European Americans. But he was also denounced by Southern senators because he was the first President to invite a black man (Booker T. Washington) to dinner at the White House and a black woman to another White House social event. He condemned lynching, and he refused to back down when racist demagogues sought to oust all blacks from patronage positions in Dixie. On the other hand, Roosevelt was so traumatized by the vicious backlash to his overture to Washington that he never invited the Alabama educator to dine again. And he refused to hear Washington's appeal to his cruel order dishonorably discharging a regiment of black soldiers after an incident in Brownsville, Tex.

Roosevelt's America was changing rapidly--economically and socially--just as the nation is now, at the turn of the 21st century. It was being transformed by new technology and a flood of immigrants. Like today's William H. Gates III, the Wall Street moguls, monopolists, and "robber barons" were targets of populist scorn. The GOP was dominated by reactionaries such as Senators Mark Hanna of Ohio and Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, who believed that laissez-faire capitalism should not be subjected to government oversight. Roosevelt detested the status quo "stalwarts" and wanted government to ensure fair competition. He was a reformer, but he was no radical. He was a forward-looking conservative who sought to preserve the capitalist system against threats from socialists and anarchists. He wanted "a fair deal" for all, factory owners and workers alike. A pragmatist, he pushed for incremental reform.

At one point, Morris describes an exchange between T.R. and Senator Robert M. LaFollette, a radical populist from Wisconsin. LaFollette is pushing for tough curbs on business. "But you can't get any bill such as that through Congress," says Roosevelt. "That is not the first consideration, Mr. President," the Senator responds. "But I want to get something through," T.R. retorts.

Morris obviously respects a President who "left behind a folk consensus that he had been the most powerfully positive American leader since Abraham Lincoln." And that despite being initially dubbed "His Accidency": He assumed power following the 1901 assassination of William McKinley. Morris' T.R. understood--and wanted to shape--the changing world order. He predicted the decline of Britain's empire and watched Japan's military ascension with admiration and foreboding. "I believe that Japan will take its place as a great civilized power of a formidable type," he said in the midst of the Russo-Japanese War. T.R. even forecast an eventual war between the U.S. and Japan.

On the economic front, he saw the need to protect capitalism from its own excesses. He pushed for the first sanitation standards for mass-produced food, protections for child laborers, shorter work weeks, federal mediation of labor disputes, and regulation of insurance. But he had a blind spot when it came to fiscal policy. With the U.S. credit structure near meltdown in the panic of 1907, T.R. gloated: "Do I look as though those Wall Street fellows were really worrying me?" No wonder, writes Morris, that J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and other plutocrats felt he "was fiscally retarded."

Roosevelt was a man of profound accomplishments and great historical significance. The contradictions skillfully detailed by Morris only serve to enrich the portrait and enhance our understanding of a most important President.

Dunham covers the White House.

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