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Theodore Rex (2002)

Theodore Rex (2002)
4.15 of 5 Votes: 2
0812966007 (ISBN13: 9780812966008)
random house trade paperbacks
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Theodore Rex (2002)
Theodore Rex (2002)

About book: We are in the dregs of December. Soon we will experience the long dark of January, the utter waste of February, and the vindictiveness of March. And then it will probably rain. It’s a time of year meant for misery. The weather is cold and gray; you didn't get what you wanted for Christmas; you’re broke; and you probably gained fifteen pounds. Want to feel a little worse? Read a book about Theodore Roosevelt. While your life is spent sunk into an overstuffed couch, drinking cheap domestic beer while watching the Minnesota Vikings play out the string on a crushingly disappointing season (and yes, I’m projecting a bit), Teddy’s life was spent in grand motion and noble pursuit. He was a writer, naturalist and Harvard graduate. He was a police commissioner, governor, and once caught a rustler. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Honor. He was a soldier and a statesman. He even managed to shoot a Spaniard.As I noted in my review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt is easy to love, tough to hate, and impossible not to find annoying. There is something eternally grating about his optimistic bluster and his myopic can-do spirit. You can see him now, in your mind’s eye, swaggering about with his shoulders thrown back and his stomach thrust out, a monocle in his eye, twirling a cane and bleating “Bully!” at everything he sees. He strikes me as the kind of guy who never realized the leg-up in life that his wealth gave him. While he was out at the dude ranch, pretending to be a cowboy, with a copy of Tolstoy shoved in his pocket, it probably didn't occur to him why the other cowboys weren’t reading War and Peace. Leaving aside my seasonal bitterness, it is clear that Teddy lived a life in full. Theodore Rex, the second volume in Edmund Morris’s Roosevelt trilogy, begins where The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt left off: with Teddy learning the news that President William McKinley has been assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz. The book covers both Roosevelt’s terms, and ends as he leaves office and hands the reins of power to the monumentally fat William Howard Taft. By any measure, Roosevelt’s presidency was quite successful: he got the Panama Canal under way, kept the Germans and British out of Central America, brokered peace between Russia and Japan, engaged in literal gunboat diplomacy, dealt with a thorny labor dispute, busted a few trusts, and saved great swaths of America from rapacious developers. (It is this last feat, the creation of our National Parks, that is Roosevelt’s enduring legacy. Don’t believe me? Hike into the backwoods of Yosemite, away from the RVs and Nikon-wielding day-trippers, wake up at dawn, and find a vantage point from which to observe Yosemite Falls as the sun comes up. You will hit your knees and thank God and Teddy Roosevelt). The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt was a narrowly-focused epic. Morris got as deep into Teddy’s soul as a biographer can get. However, the extreme focus on Teddy came at the cost of the context in which he lived. Theodore Rex opens up the scope a little bit wider. The best part of the book, in my opinion, is actually the prologue, in which Teddy takes the train from Mount Marcy to Buffalo, where McKinley had been shot. During this trip, Morris has Teddy looking out the window. When Teddy sees some coal workers, Morris gives a disquisition on early 20th century labor. When Teddy sees some black people, Morris describes the state of America’s race relations. While this section seemed a bit imaginative on Morris’s part, it’s a clever way of describing the state of America as Teddy ascended the throne. Make no mistake: this is a great book. It’s about as good as biography gets. For the academic-minded, you can rest that Morris’s research is both broad and deep. Despite some occasional flourishes, Theodore Rex is impeccably sourced, and has wonderfully illuminating endnotes that add a lot to the text if you aren’t averse to flipping back and forth. For the literary-minded, the writing is top notch. Morris knows how to tell his story clearly, but he is also able to slip into an evocative prose that brings you into events: Indistinguishable as the whistle-stops soon became, even to him, each was supreme drama to a little audience that had been looking forward to it for weeks. Some buggy travelers had come one hundred miles to perch on the platform and peer endlessly at the horizon, waiting for a smudge of smoke to signal that “Teddy” was imminent. Then a speck growing in the smoke, a crescendo of wind and wheels, a great locomotive advancing – too fast, surely, to stop? Despair as it indeed keeps moving. Relief when it halts, after all, under the water tank one hundred yards down the track. A general stampede toward the Elysian, where Roosevelt stands grinning in frock coat and vest. He leans over the rail, pumping hands and tousling cowlicks. “Dee-lighted!” Rearing back, he begins to orate, punctuating every sentence with palm-smacks and dental percussion, while his listeners stand mesmerized. The engine bell rings; the train jerks forward. Another grin, and a farewell wave. The Cheshire-cat flash of those teeth float in the sky long after the train is a speck again. Like all biographers, Morris is enamored of his subject. However, he doesn’t neglect Teddy’s shortcomings as president. Chief among these was race relations. Teddy started off well, having the temerity to invite Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. By the end of his term, however, Teddy had screwed the pooch with blacks by his shameful handling of the Brownsville mutineers. (A group of black soldiers was accused of leaving their barracks and shooting up the town of Brownsville; despite a complete lack of evidence, Roosevelt had all the men in these companies dishonorably discharged). The amount of time Morris spends on race issues makes it clear that he is no simple apologist. If there was an area of Teddy’s life that I wished got more play, it would be in the arena of his personal life. There is very little space devoted to his family life, specifically, his wife Edith. The only other Roosevelt besides Teddy to spend much time on the page is Alice Roosevelt, Teddy’s daughter by his first wife. Alice is described so winsomely, that I was actually a bit let down when I saw her photograph. Since this is a biography, I feel compelled to compare Morris to the great Robert Caro. This urge comes from the nagging sensation that Theodore Rex, for all its equities, lacked something intangible. By any measure, this is a five-star book, yet I set it down thinking four-stars. What was the missing fifth star? In order to solve the puzzle, I had to reach back to my Caro, and his Years of Lyndon Johnson. Finally, it struck me: there was no conflict. In order to have drama, there has to be conflict, a protagonist and an antagonist. In Caro’s books on LBJ, Caro is always able to set up conflicts within his story. Sometimes that conflict is between two men, such as LBJ’s senate race against Texas legend Coke Stevenson. Sometimes that conflict is between a man and a goal, such as LBJ’s work to get the Voting Rights Act passed. In either case, the story of a man’s life is crafted – perhaps with a bit of authorial license – into a dramatic arc. Morris doesn’t do this. He takes a strictly chronological approach. This happened. Then this. Then that. As a consequence, you are jumping from one event to the next, with the ultimate resolution for each event coming farther down the road. In fairness, that’s probably how it is to be president: you don’t get to sit down and focus on one problem; rather, you have to keep all these balls in the air. Still, it’s not the best way to tell a story, because it requires you to remember all the details of all these flare-ups as Morris leaves them for hundreds of pages before circling back.Robert Caro’s greatest trait is to expand the world of his biography. He doesn’t just tell you about his subject, he spends a lot of time – sometimes entire chapters – describing the characters who came into his subject’s orbit. At times, Morris seems to grasp for these heights. For instance, Morris devotes a lot of time to Senator Mark Hanna, who opposed Teddy’s Progressive instincts (and who reminded me of the top-hatted Monopoly guy). Unfortunately for the story (and for Hanna, I suppose), Hanna is struck dead early in Theodore Rex, leaving Teddy without a counterweight. I think Morris missed an opportunity to really explore the lives and personalities of men such as Taft and John Hay (Lincoln’s former secretary turned Secretary of State). Caro’s writing thrills you with anticipation for what happens next; he writes as though history is still unspooling before his eyes. Morris, on the other hand, surrenders to the immutability of the past. He assumes you know how things went down, and simply tries to tell this story at the highest level. It’s not a bad approach. It just fails, ultimately, to reach that highest level of biography, where you forget that you are reading about a President, and begin to feel that you know a man.

In Morris’ second volume we are introduced to President Roosevelt. He is a far more seasoned and mature person than the TR described in the first volume. While still given to outbursts and instantaneous action, he displays political astuteness and an ability to balance his impulsiveness with pragmatism. No longer is TR the NY City Police Commissioner who walked the streets making sure cops were on their beats and who alienated so many New Yorkers by zealously enforcing the unpopular and widely disregarded Sunday alcohol laws. Nor is he the Civil Service Commissioner who personally investigated cases of the pervasive corruption of the patronage system without regard for the political consequences he would bear. His hardheaded sense of duty gives way to a nuanced rationality.The changed TR is captured by newspaperman Henry Herzberg in 1903, “Mr. Roosevelt is bold and fearless yet timid and wary; he is ambitious and striving, but circumspect and cautious. He is imperious in mind, but thoughtful and considerate in action.” By 1906 TR is playing the political game with a style easily recognized today. As Morris points out, “Roosevelt’s by now compulsive habit of following every statement with a counterstatement (positives neutralizing negatives and on the other hand used as a kind if conjunction) muted the overall effect of his speech.” In foreign policy TR demonstrates a new deftness, forestalling the German and British impending attack on Venezuela and skillfully avoiding conflict with patient diplomacy. This new TR is in stark contrast to the one who a few years earlier was a jingoist Assistant Secretary of the Navy salivating in anticipation of the Spanish American war. While he resorts to forceful intimidation of Columbia to support the Panamanian revolution and secure the Canal Zone in 1903, in stark contrast he grants Cuba its independence in 1902 and settles the Philippine war with amnesty for all combatants. His adroit handling of the Russo-Japanese peace negotiations in 1905 wins him a Noble Peace Prize. His restraint and mediation ability shine in 1906 when he avoids direct involvement in the Tangier crisis and convinces France to hold a peace conference with Germany at Algeciras to resolve a conflict which threatens war in Europe.In domestic policy TR is similarly adept. He champions breaking up the giant trusts such as Standard Oil and the Northern Securities Company which controls major railroads. He initiates a role for the federal government in regulating railroad rates. He takes on Wall Street carefully never going so far as to permanently alienate this powerful Republican constituency, presenting the argument that if nothing is done, the common people will revolt and put Progressive Democrats in control. He applies the same mediation skill to labor disputes that was effective in foreign disputes, most notably the 1902 anthracite coal miner’s strike that threatens a nation facing a winter without fuel. His political polish is recognized. Writes the Washington Post in 1906, “…that he has more political acumen in one lobe of his brain than the whole militant tribe of American politicians have in their combined intelligence; that his political perception, so acute as to amount almost to divination, is superior to that of any American statesman of the present or immediate past era.” As his presidency enters its last years more and more he embraces the growing Progressive movement. He wins passage of the Meat Inspection Act, Pure Food and Drug Act and Railroad Rate Regulation act in 1906. Perhaps his greatest legacy lies in his conservation efforts. His establishment of the many national parks, national monuments and national forest reserves is based on a reverence for nature unique among Washington politicians. His deep love of the wild means he values its salvation so much that he does not flinch in taking on the money interests dominating Washington bent on its destruction for quarterly profits.His 1907 Message to Congress proposes graduated inheritance and income taxes. His 1908 Special Message to Congress directly attacks corporate greed, “The vast individual and corporate fortunes, the vast combinations of capital which have marked the development of our industrial system, create new conditions, and necessitate a change from the old attitude of the State and the Nation toward the rules regulating the acquisition and untrammeled business use of property.” Even famous muckraking author Upton Sinclair and Democratic Progressive leader William Jennings Bryan approve. In the Message he pushes for and eventually gets meaningful employer liability and workman’s compensation laws. He calls for extending the Interstate Commerce Commission’s authority to financial supervision of railroads. Later he invites Bryan, someone in the past he had ridiculed, to a dinner at the White House and after a long conversation calls him, “a wonderful man”. If TR had wanted a third term he could have easily had it with widespread support despite the strong reservations of Wall Street and the Old Guard.The foregoing are just a few highlights. Morris covers much, much more. TR is constantly challenged as he crafts new policies to cope with the rapid social, economic and technological change that is quickly transitioning the United States from an insular rural society to an industrial age world power. TR meets the challenge, he not only grows into the job, he continues to grow with the job. While Morris is an excellent writer, all the details can get a bit dry at times. But if one is to truly understand the man and the period, they are all probably necessary. And to understand American history it is important to understand this gifted man and what his remarkable ability to lead meant to America and its future.
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Ol' Teddy Roosevelt. One of two Republicans that it is okay for liberals to like (the other is Abraham Lincoln of course. Who did you think I was talking about? Rutherford B. Hayes?)I've always liked this guy because of the snippets of history you hear about him: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." Big game hunter. Conservationist. Great public speaker. Teddy Bear.I feel like I've grown up listening to his "Greatest Hits" and this is the first time I've actually sat down to listen to all of his albums, in context. (Yeah, I don't know where I'm going with this metaphor either.)An interesting read. To be sure, his foreign achievements seem quite impressive. He personally negotiated several volatile situations in Central America and Japan that no modern day President would ever DREAM of attempting. He rolled the dice big several times and won big, most notably in securing the Panama Canal. However, I believe it was these successes during his presidency that led to his overconfidence (hubris?) that ultimately tarnished his legacy later in life, but that'll be covered in the next book.His biggest domestic policy contribution was is environmental conservation. It is so funny that he was the first President to ever promote conservation and that if he did that in the modern day Republican party he would be crucified as a commie-liberal-pinko. He shoved several pieces of conservation legislation and executive orders that had long ranging effects on our country. Clearly he had a big impact with this, I mean, his face is carved into a mountain for crying out loud.The Teddy Roosevelt in this book is the one we remember but he had many miles to go before he slept. This is all covered in the next volume, "Colonel Roosevelt" which I plan on reading ASAP.A decent read but too short and not enough detail for my taste. In that regard, it reminded me of "Truman" by David McCullough. After this book you'll know all of the facts but not necessarily know the man.
«On the fourth of March next I shall have served three and a half years, and this three and a half years constitutes my first term. The wise custom which limits the President to two terms regards the substance and not the form. Under no circumstances will I be a candidate for or accept another nomination.» - Theodore Roosevelt, after winning the 1904 electionsI read this book right after reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and after reading a combined 1300+ pages (so far) about Theodore Roosevelt, I still want to read more about him! Lucky for me, there's Colonel Roosevelt.Yes, TR lived an eventful life and was quite a character, but it's also the way these biographies are written by Edmund Morris that makes them compulsive reads. Rich in detail and meticulously researched, yet flowing and easily readable. What more can you ask for?The book is divided into 2 parts, one for each of his Administrations. The first two thirds of the book cover his first term (the three and a half years after the assassination of McKinley), with only the last third for his second Administration. Is it really because less happened to TR in those last four years? Or maybe just less interesting things happened? Because the author doesn't go in as much detail and covers more time in less pages, movement forward in the timeline is much quicker, and before you know it Taft is President and the book's finished. Thinking back, the change in pacing makes me feel like I've missed out on a few things, some details of TR's life that, although possibly - and most surprisingly! - mundane, still would've been great reading. Oh, well... C'est la vie!Next up: Colonel Roosevelt.
Steve“Theodore Rex” is the second volume in Edmund Morris’s highly acclaimed three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. The series’ inaugural volume debuted in 1979 but more than two decades elapsed before this second volume was published in 2001. Morris spent much of that time working on his now-infamous memoir of Ronald Reagan.“Theodore Rex” conveniently picks up where “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” left off – with Vice President Roosevelt receiving word of President McKinley’s imminent death and his inheritance of the presidency.The first forty pages cover his breathless dash from a remote cabin in the Adirondack Mountains to take the oath of office in Buffalo. The remainder of this biography covers his almost eight-year presidency in extensive and attentive – if not uniformly fascinating – depth.Similar to its predecessor volume, “Theodore Rex” is unpretentious but erudite. It feels like a biography written by a keen observer of people, and events, rather than one authored by an ivory-tower academic. But readers who appreciate Morris’s reputation for careful research will not be disappointed. Countless letters, newspaper articles, diary entries and other sources are parsed in search of unique insights and critical observations.At times, its 555 pages are dense and detailed – and yet this volume lacks the heavy-handed scholastic impression that often accompanies a book with more than 160 pages of endnotes. And the author often allows Roosevelt’s own words to speak on his behalf, providing a sense the biography has tapped directly into the mind of this whirling dervish.Focused exclusively on Roosevelt’s presidency, “Theodore Rex” lacks much of the excitement and adventure of the first volume. But this is hardly surprising; the tedious grind of managing the nation’s affairs can hardly compete with the rambunctious exploits of Roosevelt’s intrepid youth and his early career.But Morris makes up for this lack of similarly-spirited raw material by refining his writing style. Where the first volume was often clunky and cumbersome, this installment is more elegant and sophisticated. Interminable sentences no longer punctuate each page and the author’s masterful talent for scene-setting has been perfected. Morris’s ability to capture a person’s essence in one or two paragraphs is breathtaking.Unfortunately, though, Morris falls short in fully covering Roosevelt’s family and other contemporaries. His wife and children make infrequent appearances and there is a relative lack of focus on important advisers (and adversaries) whose political or personal orbits intersected with his own. It almost seems as though TR proves such a commanding presence that no one else can be afforded much time on the stage.And although Morris provides a brief (and useful) glance at Roosevelt’s political legacy in the book’s final pages, a deeper and more satisfying discussion of his impact on the presidency is lacking. Or perhaps Theodore Roosevelt’s lasting impression on history is so self-evident it does not require elaboration?Overall, “Theodore Rex” is an admirable and satisfying successor to “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.” There is little doubt it lacks the drama and intensity of the first volume and is far more prone to dry, serious moments. But this second volume of Morris’s series performs a valuable service, providing an interesting and thoughtful historical narrative if not so much an interpretation of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.Overall rating: 4¼ stars
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