Two Christmases ago I received Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. I felt both delight and angst. I find our first president endlessly fascinating, and I have enjoyed previous Chernow books. But it is more than 900 pages long; when would I have the time to read it? It sits on a shelf above my desk with many other thick, uncracked tomes, such as David Cannadine’s 800-page Mellon: An American Life. Collectively, these books form the Ulysses portion of my library, thousands of pages of an aspirational monument that silently rebukes me. I leaven my guilt by telling myself that, one fine day when my children are older and less needy of me, I will tackle these books, every last one of them.
The arrival of Lewis L. Gould’s Theodore Roosevelt provides a temporary buck-up. I tore through it in a few hours and felt slightly less negligent. Oxford, certainly, is not the first publisher to peddle short presidential biographies: Burton Doyle and Homer Swaney’s short Lives of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur came out in 1881. More recently, Holt’s Times Books has been pumping out succinct, 200-page texts, with mixed success: John Patrick Diggins’s John Adams is very good; Kevin Phillips’s William McKinley is egregious.
But Oxford seems to have upped the ante with this volume. Theodore Roosevelt is a mere 104 pages, and 13 of those pages are endnotes. Call it a microbiography, perhaps designed to appeal to the short attention spans of the Internet age. Gould gives readers cradle-to-grave coverage of the man who became our 26th president. He uses the theme of fame as the prism for viewing Roosevelt’s life, and this works well, as TR spent his adult life drawing the public eye.
Roosevelt was born to privilege on October 27, 1858, in Manhattan. His mother was Martha Bulloch, a Southern belle descended from Archibald Bulloch, a Revolutionary War officer and third governor of Georgia. His father, Theodore Sr., was a glass importer and philanthropist who devoted much time and wealth to aiding the poor children of New York. Theodore Jr. rejected the staid, George Apley, blueblood life. He was pugnacious and outspoken. Gould quotes Roosevelt’s Harvard geology professor as chiding him, “Now look here, Roosevelt, let me talk. I’m running this course.” Nor was Roosevelt loath to extol his achievements. “I think I have been the best Governor within my time,” he said after two years’ service, “better than either [Grover] Cleveland or [Samuel] Tilden.”
Theodore’s self-assuredness helped him buck the old system wherein young politicos slowly rose in power by supporting party leaders. Roosevelt had not the patience for that. His genius, Gould notes, “lay in grasping that fame and celebrity could enable him to leap up the political ladder.” Roosevelt proceeded from Harvard (class of 1880) to the New York state legislature (1881), the U.S. Civil Service Commission (1888), the New York City Police Commission (1895), the United States Navy (1897), the New York governorship (1898), the vice presidency (1901), and the presidency (1901). Along the way he wrote books, spent time ranching (not especially successfully), and dashed off articles that extolled his view of the “strenuous life.”
Gould’s use of the prism of fame highlights Roosevelt’s transformation of the presidency. He seized upon the nascent communications technologies of his time to mobilize public support for his positions. Reporters who wrote supportive articles retained access to him; those who criticized him were shut out. He was wildly popular with the public and drew often-frenetic crowds who cheered his rambunctious oratory. Like other modern presidents, Roosevelt read Article II of the Constitution broadly, and, when he could not cow the Congress, drew upon the inherent executive authorities he divined to compel government action.
Roosevelt’s genius for fame ultimately devoured him. After he left office in 1909 he proved incapable of abandoning the limelight. He embarked on extended hunting/scientific expeditions to Africa and South America, toured Europe, and then publicly railed against his two successors, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, and ran for an unprecedented third term. As a Progressive (“Bull Moose”) candidate he drank deeply from the cup of populism, advocating a national living wage and referenda on judicial decisions, and in his 1912 campaign sounded like the evangelical William Jennings Bryan when he proclaimed, “Our cause is based on the eternal principle of righteousness. . . . [W]e stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord.”
Gould’s thumbnail portrait well serves the casual reader, but his brevity can be befuddling. Roosevelt the man comes off as one-dimensional, a vainglorious dilettante, which he was not. We read about Roosevelt’s peacemaking in the Russo-Japanese War, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize; but why those two nations fought goes unmentioned. We learn about the application of a new foreign policy doctrine to the Dominican Republic, but what that means is not explicated.
For a more substantial biography the reader might usefully turn to Gould’s 350-page The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, or, more usefully, to Edmund Morris’s 2,500-page trilogy, which comprises The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and Colonel Roosevelt. And which, in fact, I have read.
Kevin R. Kosar is the author, most recently, of Ronald Reagan and Education Policy.