Book review: Theodore Rex
Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. Highly recommended.
Theodore Rex (from the dubbing given Theodore Roosevelt by author Henry James) is the second part of a trilogy-in-progress by Edmund Morris but is easily read on its own as coverage of Roosevelt’s presidential terms. This installment covers Roosevelt’s life from the day of McKinley’s assassination and his swearing-in to seven years, one hundred sixty-nine days later, when he departs Washington, D.C., by train and “did not show himself [at Baltimore], as if to emphasize to a small, wistful crowd that he was no longer public property.”
Roosevelt’s partial and whole terms are set during a time of unsettling transition — rapid developments in military technologies and abilities, influx of immigrants from Slavs to Japanese, growing global trade and interdependencies, spreading racial violence, uncontrolled combinations and trusts and corporate greed, and an increased awareness of the mismanagement of and need to conserve natural resources. In Theodore Rex, reflecting the logistics of Congress and the waning powers of a president not returning to office, the shorter first term covers more pages than the full second term.
During his presidency, Roosevelt adds the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, begins the Panama Canal after nudging Panamanian independence, supports the liberation of Cuba, resolves a Moroccan crisis, prevents a German-Venezuelan war and all that would imply, settles the Russo-Japanese conflict and wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, balances capital (much to its chagrin) and labor, rebuilds the U.S. Navy and solidifies the U.S. as a world diplomatic and military leader, and preserves an unprecedented amount of land (including five national parks, thirteen national forests, and fifteen national monuments — the Grand Canyon and Muir Woods among them).
Morris shows, through personal and family writings, the letters of friends and enemies, speeches, newspaper accounts, commentary (especially that of “Mr. Dooley” — Finley Peter Dunne), and other contemporary sources Roosevelt’s intelligence, erudition, strength of will, personal conviction of righteousness, foresight, and uncanny ability to manipulate everyone from the media to senators and diplomats. He is a man who knows what he wants, that what he wants is right, and how to make what he wants happen. His determination and conviction lead to greatly expanded executive power — which in his mind is not incompatible or inconsistent with democracy. He has his weaknesses, too — most notably, an utter lack of understanding of business, finance, and the markets.
Although Roosevelt achieves much that directly benefits the public (such as settling the United Mine Workers strike and passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906) and earns popular support bordering on adulation, neither he nor his wisdom is perfect. Morris darkly hints that Roosevelt’s enemies may have found their privacy compromised, for examples, senators who find their correspondence has already been opened by the Secret Service, although he later casts doubt on Roosevelt’s involvement.
More importantly, he discusses the Brownsville (Texas) incident at length, which reveals what can happen when democracy is subverted and power is abused. Roosevelt orders three entire companies of black soldiers — including at least one career soldier with whom he had served in Cuba — dishonorably discharged and banned from the military for life based on an incident that may have been fabricated by resentful white townspeople. Morris writes, “Brownsville had been proof to many, and perhaps even a warning to himself, of the truth of Lord Acton’s famous dictum.”
Morris succeeds in bringing not only Theodore Roosevelt and his compelling personality to life, but those of many others as well: wife Edith Kermit Roosevelt; daughter Alice; son Quentin; House Speaker Joseph Cannon; United Mine Workers president John Mitchell; Cabinet members such as John Hay, Philander Chase Knox, Elihu Root, and George Cortelyou; long-time nemesis Mark Hanna; successor William Howard Taft (“who must have been a very pink and white baby,” according to Kate Carew); and confidantes such as Captain Archie Butt.
Theodore Rex is not limited to political life, however. Roosevelt is portrayed not only as a writer, reader, hunter/sportsman, adventurer, hiker, swimmer, and athlete. He is shown as a difficult father to Alice (who resents his silence about her own mother, the late Alice Hathaway Roosevelt), didactic disciplinarian to Quentin (along with his “White House Gang” of friends), and favourite uncle to broods of Roosevelt clan children at his Sagamore Hill summer retreat in Oyster Bay, New York. Even in his family relations, however, Roosevelt is always mindful of his image and that of his progressive platform, hence, his “posterity letters” — seemingly personal letters to family and friends, often signed with his full name, he uses to document his viewpoints for posterity.
Morris is clearly passionate about Roosevelt, and it shows in the life he brings to events that are more than one hundred years old. Whether you are interested in American history, the U.S. presidency and its holders, turn-of-the-century events, or Theodore Roosevelt himself, Theodore Rex is not to be missed for its honest portrayal of a complex man in changing times and for the light it throws on today’s political climate and workings. Be sure to read the notes, which contain many anecdotes, quotes, and other material.
18 October 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
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