The Magazine

TR's Greatness

Edmund Morris's return to Teddy Roosevelt.

Nov 19, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 10 • By DAVID BROOKS
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Theodore Rex
by Edmund Morris
Random House, 864 pp., $35

IN 1903, in the midst of his struggles to build the Panama Canal, President Theodore Roosevelt was asked by Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, for a list of recommended books. The list, which Roosevelt wrote out during a train ride, is classic TR--demonstrating at once his omnivorous reading and his little boy's desire to show off:

"Parts of Herodotus; the first and seventh books of Thucydides; all of Polybius, a little of Plutarch, Sophocles' Orestean trilogy and "Seven Against Thebes," Euripides' "Hippolytus" and "Bacchae;" Aristophanes' "Frogs." Parts of the "Politics" of Aristotle. . . . "

As the train bounced southward, Roosevelt toted up his favorites. He listed "Macbeth" and "Twelfth Night" along with Macaulay's essays, Carlyle's "Frederick the Great," Mahan's "Types of Naval Officers," Tolstoy's "Sebastopol" as well as "Tom Sawyer," "The Pickwick Papers," and Arthur Conan Doyle's "The White Company." In all, he listed 114 authors--adding, "Of course I have forgotten a great many." No president before or since could have poured out such a roster (not withstanding that "Seven Against Thebes" was actually written by Aeschylus) or would have made time, while president, to continue this sort of reading.

Fresh from the public-relations disaster of "Dutch," his widely panned postmodern memoir of Ronald Reagan, Edmund Morris has finally produced "Theodore Rex," the second volume of the biography that began with the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" in 1979. That first volume from Morris was nothing short of brilliant. It put me off reading biographies for nearly a year because every other one I picked up seemed pale in comparison. This new installment, covering Roosevelt's presidency from 1901 to 1909, is less gripping to read, but captures Roosevelt's growing sophistication as well as all the endearing and exasperating vitality of the man.

Covering the presidency, Morris does not have the benefit of the sort of dramatic and varied scenery he had for the first part of Roosevelt's life: Fifth Avenue, Harvard, the badlands of South Dakota, San Juan Hill. But amidst the volumes of official White House papers and the century-old policy debates, Morris hasn't lost touch with Roosevelt the man. The effect of this book is surprisingly political. Morris depicts TR as the president who was able to create something that has often been dreamed about but almost never realized: a vital center. By temperament TR was a dervish, and yet, Morris emphasizes, his instinct was to seek political equilibrium. He balanced opposing forces and embodied the middling current of American opinion without ever being wishy-washy or passive, as most centrists are.

The vitality is what makes this fun reading. Roosevelt ate about twice as much as a normal man, and swallowed a river of coffee each day (one doctor astutely observed that he was driving his machine so hard it would surely conk out prematurely). He dragged his guests on forced marches through Rock Creek Park and would lead them wading through streams in winter without even breaking his flow of conversation. He would speed through meetings, barking, "Tell me what you have to say. Quickly! Quickly!" He amused himself while president with exuberant tennis matches (no cameras allowed) and a game in which he and his trainers would don helmets and chest protectors and beat each other with singlesticks.

His closest friends and admirers were well aware that at one level he had never really grown up. "You must always remember that the president is about six," noted Cecil Spring-Rice, the best man at his first wedding. On his birthday, Elihu Root sent him a note which read, "I congratulate you on attaining the respectable age of forty-six. You have made a very good start in life and your friends have great hopes for you when you grow up."