Theodore Roosevelt is one of the United States’ most beloved presidents thanks to the Teddy Bear as well as his grand enthusiasm for life, which he often expressed in the terms of an adolescent (or even younger: a friend once noted that Roosevelt sometimes acted as if he were about six years old). Many of his statements or expressions have become common lore, such as using the presidency as a “bully pulpit” and to “speak softly but carry a big stick.” A many-sided individual, he was a rancher and cowboy, war hero, moral reformer, astute politician, brilliant diplomat, recipient of both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor, and a notable author—no U.S. president wrote more books and articles than Roosevelt. The nation’s youngest president, he and his family (which included six children) captivated the country during the first decade of the twentieth century. His presidency in many ways was the paradigm for the twentieth century in his use of executive power, and he was a powerful influence on his cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, he is immortalized in granite at South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore.
Roosevelt’s presidential reputation has varied over time. When he died in 1919 at the age of sixty, his approval rating was at its apogee, and if he had lived he likely would have been the Republican presidential nominee in 1920. In the reaction to the destruction of World War I and in the years of the Great Depression, his energetic personality and enthusiastic optimism seemed, in restrospect, misguided by some, and his reputation was overshadowed by the other Roosevelt. However, by the end of the twentieth century, most historians ranked him among the top four presidents, behind only Washington, Lincoln, and his cousin Franklin. Theodore Roosevelt’s high standing is due in part to several biographical works which have appeared in recent decades, not least Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), which related Roosevelt’s youth and pre-presidential years. The work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and Morris’s sequel was widely anticipated.
It would be more than twenty years before Theodore Rex appeared. In the interval, Morris had become the official biographer of Ronald Reagan. The result was Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, published with great controversy in 1999. Apparently unable to fathom the depth—or lack of it—in Reagan’s intellect, Morris invented scenes and added characters which made Dutch appear to be more novel than historical biography, a result which incensed many reviewers. What was successful in Dutch, however, was Morris’s very readable narrative style. Theodore Rex is also eminently readable, and its publication just two years after Morris’s work on Reagan indicates that Morris had continued to work on the Roosevelt biography even as he attempted to come to grips with the often opaque Reagan.
There was little that was opaque with Roosevelt, as is indicated in his own extensive writings, including the 100,000 letters that he wrote over the years. One does not have to invent or fictionally create a Roosevelt persona. If Dutch might be called the first deconstructionist presidential biography, Theodore Rex is utterly orthodox in its historical approach, as is indicated in the extensive sources cited in the 165 pages of notes accompanying the narrative. The biography begins dramatically in September, 1901, with Roosevelt madly racing through the night from Mount Marcy in New York’s Adirondacks to Buffalo, where President William McKinley lay dying, the victim of an assassin’s bullet. Morris argues, correctly, that few persons in the history of the United States were better qualified to be president than Theodore Roosevelt in spite of his relatively young age of forty-two years (John F. Kennedy was forty-three when he was elected). He had served in the New York legislature and as that state’s governor after his heroic and well-publicized actions in the Spanish-American War. He had been a federal civil service commissioner and the assistant secretary of the Navy in Washington, D.C. A member of one of New York’s old Dutch families, Roosevelt was partly driven to excel and to serve because of a class sense of noblesse oblige and partly perhaps to compensate for the physical weaknesses he had experienced as a child. Always ambitious,...
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