If you did not like Mr. Morris's biography of President Reagan, give Mr. Morris another chance. Theodore Rex is the best book I have read on President Theodore Roosevelt's almost 8 years in office, after having started as our youngest president to that point in time.
I found the recent David McCullough biography of John Adams as the closest comparable work. Both biographers rely a lot on the subject's own words and those of the people he interacted with. I found three qualities of Theodore Rex to be superior to the Adams biography. First, Mr. Morris has chosen to magnify issues that are of more interest to us today which are often virtually ignored in conventional histories. Some of these subjects involved Mr. Roosevelt's attitudes towards minority groups including African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Jews. Other related subjects included what he chose to say and do about discrimination and lynchings, willingness to address a pogrom in Russia, and atrocities conduced by the Army in the Philippines. Second, Mr. Morris doesn't try to "pretty up" the ugly sides of his subject. In these first areas above, President Roosevelt did some good things . . . but he also did some pretty awful ones. His support for bad conduct dismissals of African-American troops after complaints in Brownsville, Texas, was particularly questionable, coming at a time when he had little at risk politically by doing the right thing and he was outspoken in other areas. Third, Mr. Morris has an eye for detail that makes the scenes come alive to extend beyond the mere words and events being presented. I particularly enjoyed the description of Roosevelt's first few days as president.
The Adams biography is superior in that most of that material came in the form of letters from Abigail and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and the quality of what they had to say was usually a lot more interesting than what President Roosevelt and his cronies and family wrote or said.
The perspective on Roosevelt is almost totally a near contemporary one. This material reads like something we might review now about President Reagan's presidency. For those who are not familiar with U.S. political, social, and economic history prior to and during this time, some of the sections will be hard to fathom. That is a major weakness of the book.
The other major weakness is that the coverage of subjects is unbalanced in length. For example, there is a lengthy section on some gunboat diplomacy to help out two hostages in Morocco, one of whom is thought to be an American. Other than showing that Roosevelt liked to send in the Navy, this material didn't warrant the attention it receives here.
If you are like me, you will enjoy the way that Mr. Morris displays how Roosevelt built a power base by espousing popular issues like trust-busting to wean himself away from political dependency on Senator Mark Hanna. President Roosevelt's ability to work the newspapers to his advantage was astonishingly adroit for an "accidental" president with limited prior experience in public office.
On the personal side, the book is filled with examples of President Roosevelt's love of all forms of physical activity, including eating, and the way that he sought to preserve privacy for his personal life. Late in his presidency, he could not read very well with his left eye due to a boxing injury received in a match while president. Having become president due to the assassination of President McKinley, you will read with interest his own close calls with death and a potential assassin. The vignettes involving his very independent daughter, Alice, will amuse you in many cases. On the other hand, you may be annoyed (as I was) to learn that President Roosevelt's final decision about the Brownsville soldiers was withheld for a few days with the probable motive of helping his son-in-law, Alice's husband, be re-elected to Congress.
The almost total silence on the drawbacks of American geographic expansion through influence over the Philippines, Panama, Puerto Rico, Cuba and some South American countries was also unwarranted. Apparently, the ideology that justified all of this was a form of Social Darwinism.
Having finished the book, I thought about the task of a presidential biographer. We want to learn about the important history of the period. We also want to learn how the president did, compared to the alternatives. We further want to know about the president's character and style. And we want to see all of this in context. Reading this fine biography of President Roosevelt made me realize what a tough task this really is.
How would our world be different today if McKinley had not been assassinated? Probably not as good because the abuses of the trusts would probably have lasted longer, conservation would not have emerged as soon as a social force, and our tradition of encouraging international peace would not be so well established.
Be prepared to encourage others to do the right thing!
on January 26, 2002
Bully book. Fascinating man and time, for sure.
Here's something I decided while reading the book: if TR were alive today, he would have a weblog; the guy wrote hours everyday: articles, letters, books, speeches. Reminds me a lot of Churchill's prolificacy. Roosevelt's topics ranged from bird watching (and listening) to naval warfare. A voracious and multilingual reader, as well.
Author Edmond Morris , (despite his missteps on the Reagan biography, Dutch) is a tremendous storyteller. Roosevelt and his times provide excellent material for Morris's skills. I couldn't help drawing parallels with today, as Roosevelt's era (turn of last century) saw so many changes taking place in transportation, communication and technology. The roles of and relationships between government and business were also major issues as they are today.
There are parallels in his years in the White House with today's headlines like the Microsoft antitrust case and the imploding of Enron. Also some striking similarities to today's challenges militarily and geopolitically. Politics aside, Roosevelt is a fascinating historical figure. And did he ever know how to get a way from it all. Even though it is not mentioned in either this book or Morris's volume on TR's earlier life, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, I seem finally to understand why TR made it onto Mt. Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.
on January 14, 2002
Having read "The Rise of TR" immediately before I continued on to "Theodore Rex," I have to say (regretfully) that the first installment in the planned trilogy of Roosevelt's life was far better than the second.
Morris' research was just as impressive for "Theodore Rex" as it was for "The Rise of TR," using countless collections of letters, diaries, books by TR, and books about TR to paint the picture of his subject.
Unfortunately, and perhaps this is the result of the sheer quantity of presidential accomplishments by Roosevelt, Morris' work reads like a laundry list of activities, events, dialogues, and crises. I felt like I was reading TR's daily planner, with Morris' commentary added under each day's schedule.
To be fair, one would expect Morris' account of TR's presidential years to be more sequential and less anecdotal that his account of his pre-presidential years. That having been said, I've read many other presidential biographies that are not like this at all, that give the big picture of a President's term(s) in office and then get into the nitty-gritty of his major accomplishments and failures.
Of course, "Theodore Rex" focused only on TR's presidential years, so Morris didn't have to spend any time or space describing how Roosevelt's mind and soul were formed (he had already done so in "The Rise of TR.").
Given this challenge of having already written an account of TR's early years, Morris does an incredible job of researching his subject, and a good job of telling his story.
on July 10, 2003
Edmund Morris has had an interesting career as a writer. A native Rhodesian (the African country dominated by whites, and replaced by the currently unstable Zimbabwe) he emigrated first to South Africa, then Britain, finally the United States. He then became a full time writer, and for his first book, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" won a Pulitzer for biography. He was then appointed Reagan's official biographer (Reagan read the previous book and liked it) and produced "Dutch", a worthwhile addition to the library of books about Reagan, but one that will remain controversial because of the way Morris treated the subject, and the format in which he wrote the book.
Morris's next book is the current one being reviewed, "Theodore Rex." This book covers his presidency, from the succession to the office on the death of William McKinley to his leaving office seven and a half years later. There is a great deal of detail about his life in office, his relations with his family and contemporaries, and the legislative issues that confronted him. The author, while pro-Roosevelt, isn't blindly so. There are instances in the book where he clearly disagrees with what the President did, and is critical of him in consequence. Most notable is the Brownsville Texas incident, where Roosevelt and the high command of the army decided that some black soldiers were guilty of rioting on the streets of that city, and the president decided to cashier the whole unit from the army without court martial or anything.
Other characters of the administration are well-drawn and interesting. These include Elihu Root, who held various cabinet positions, and could earn more money on Wall Street, John Hay, who had been personal secretary to Abraham Lincoln forty years before and seen three presidents be assasinated, William Howard Taft, the overweight Secretary of War Roosevelt chose as his successor, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court Justice who wasn't quite as dependable on cases before the court as Roosevelt thought he was.
The issues of the day are carefully delineated in enough detail to satisfy the reader and still not be boring. The coal miner's strike, the Great White Fleet, various war scares, the negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War, all are dealt with carefully, and intelligently. The whole of Roosevelt's presidency is here, and interesting.
I do have a few issues. The author has an unusual pedigree (see above) and it shows in his penchant for using strange words and phrases. Some of them (a lame duck congress quacking its last, for instance) are amusing, but others are just weird. Nouns become adverbs, sentences are long or clumsy, and it's occasionally difficult to tell what the author meant by something. Also, the way the book is constructed is sort of strange. The author uses short, choppy sections at points to illustrate things. And lastly, the author recounts events and occurances that don't seem to have much, or anything, to do with Roosevelt. One anecdote involves Woodrow Wilson telling a racist joke, another recounts briefly the Wright Brothers flying their airplane the first time. One is occasionally left wondering why they're in the book.
All in all, though, I enjoyed this book a great deal, and would recommend it.
on March 14, 2004
Edmund Morris has done an admirable job in this book of detailing the presidential years of Teddy Roosevelt. Be aware however that there are a number of things that Morris does not handle well. For example, Roosevelt's relationship with his family is seldom mentioned. Basically, the Roosevelt family is pretty well ignored. His eldest daughter, Alice gets some attention but not much. To Morris' credit, Roosevelt's very intense relationship with his family would have been impossible to fully cover in this volume. An entire book could be written just about the father-daughter relationship with Alice, let alone Edith and the rest of his brood. When Edith is covered she comes across as a pretty hard to like snob. Maybe she is left out so as not to muddle the warm feeling the reader will develop for T.R. Still, Morris could have given a little more attention to what T.R.s family was up to and how it might have influenced him. One of the very things that makes David McCullough's biographies so wonderful is his ability to weave his subject's family life into their professional life. Morris has done a good job but he is no David McCullough.
Morris however does an excellent job of including Roosevelt's associates in his narrative. John Hay in particular comes across as someone who is somewhat uncertain of how to take T.R. and is often swept aside by his sometimes rash boss. On the other hand, the reader will easily begin to see that Hay and Roosevelt bonded in such a way as to end in a deeply affectionate relationship. His relationships with the rest of his entourage are well covered also as one gets a pretty full picture of their interaction. Morris has also done an excellent job of presenting Teddy's relationship with several members of Congress, including GOP stalwarts such as Mark Hanna and Joseph Foraker, along with a few Democrats like "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman. Through these relationships one gets a very clear picture of the President as he moves with great political skill, picking a fight here, and spreading manure there to get his way. It becomes very clear very early in this book that Theodore Roosevelt was one of the great politicians of all time.
The Roosevelt foreign policy is a little harder to figure as his decision making process, if indeed there was one, is a little hard to fathom. It is clear of course that he is an imperialist but some of his actions regarding conflicts in Europe defy description. Although he spent a large amount of time in Germany in his youth, Roosevelt come across as very anti-German. In a sad comment on Roosevelt's style of leadership, he seems to have sometimes made judgments based on the advice of his favorite tennis buddies. The French Ambassador being one of his favorite tennis opponents might help to explain the President's attitude toward Germany.
After being elected on his own in 1904, Roosevelt made a leftward shift and began pushing even more progressive reforms. The shift is clear in this book but not much discussed and in fact much more than half of the book is taken by the first term. In dealing with the second term the author seems to dwell on the President's legislative successes and mostly ignores the many things Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried to push through Congress. Unfortunately, the failures may much more clearly illustrate the real Roosevelt than the successes and again an opportunity to more fully understand the subject of the book is lost. Morris does however touch on Roosevelt's growing admiration for William Jennings Bryan, a clear indication of the President's leftward shift.
Morris has put together a book that is sometimes very informative and sometimes a little lacking in depth. It is overall a very good book and is a well-written and easy to read volume. Some of the more personal antidotes dealing with T.R. are excellent and Morris certainly had an interesting subject to work with. Unfortunately, one never gets the feeling of really knowing Roosevelt. There is a lot of fascinating information here but I can't help but feel that something is missing. Still, I highly recommend this book because while it may come up a little short of the mark, it is no doubt the best work on Roosevelt's presidency to date.
on December 10, 2001
"Theodore Rex" is the second and long-awaited volume in Edmund Morris's two volume work on President Theodore Roosevelt. Years ago, I attempted to read the first volume, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" and never made it through the book. Morris's recitation of Theodore's experiences with lesser public offices simply didn't hold my attention.
Happily, the second book, "Theodore Rex", is far more interesting. The book begins with Theodore assuming the presidency after the assassination of William McKinley. And, what a time it was to become President! The United States was undergoing tremendous progress and technological change. Railroads were spanning the country. Electricity was beginning to illuminate all major American Cities. Use of the telephone was becoming more widespread. American production of goods and services had surpassed every country on the planet. Morris somehow has a way of making the reader feel the excitement of being in America at the turn of the century. In fact, I felt that the book was as much a recitation of the historical period as it was a chronicle of the Roosevelt Presidency.
Yet Morris also points out the difficulties. Many people labored in low paying jobs for ten and twelve hours a day. Monopolies and trusts were carving up entire industries to profit a mere handful of people. Natural resources were being plundered in an unwise fashion. The people of the United States had yet to understand the responsibilities that went along with becoming a great economic power.
Morris chronicles how TR jumped into the void left by the death of McKinley to become one of our country's greatest Presidents. TR immediately took charge and initiated the antitrust prosecution of the Northern Securities Company which ultimately ended with a court ordered breakup of that railroad trust. He hotly pursued the creation and building of the Panama Canal and left office as construction was well underway. He successfully arbitrated a strike in the coal mines that paved the way for union recognition and collective bargaining. He presided over the passage of legislation mandating the production of sanitary foods and beverages. He got legislation passed limiting and restricting freight rates by monopolistic railroads. He succeeded in getting money from Congress to build a world class navy and military. Finally, he promoted conservation of natural resources and got the legislation passed that allows presidents to designate national monuments.
Morris points out some of Theodore's failures as a President. His rhetoric while speaking sometimes made enemies instead of winning converts. He was not immune from racism. He presided over the discharge of many black soldiers from the military based on the "Brownsville Incident" where proof of individual wrong-doing was totally lacking. Sometimes he was impulsive and inclined to ignore the law based on his interpretation of the greater good. Finally, he failed to win passage of other progressive legislation he championed such as the eight hour work day and child labor laws.
Its a fascinating book. Its on par with "Truman" and "John Adams" both excellent books written by historian David McCullough. This book simply should not be missed by anyone interested in American History.
on May 13, 2002
Morris follows up with another excellent biography. On the plus side is his extensive coverage of Roosevelt's presidency. He shows clearly how TR masters the political issues associated with limiting the Trusts that had taken hold of the American economy; and, how he established an executed his imperialistic vision of America.
The book falls short in two areas - the first is in the discussion of Roosevelt's personal life. Morris provides anecdotes but not any real view of how his family affected him. Given the apparent amount of time he spent with them (a contrast to his early years), something other than anecdotal snippets of the life of daughter Alice should have been included.
Second, and more significant, is that Morris again does little to address the huge paradoxes in Roosevelt's policies. This is most evident in his views and actions on race relations. Clearly, Roosevelt tried to make some progress in this area; but, he only attempted to make small steps forward. The president who made America a real world power, cut the Panama canal, reined in the trusts, surely had the political power to do more with race relations. Roosevelt appears to have been genuinely sympathetic to the needs of American minorities, but Morris never makes it clear what restrained him. It appears that TR thought race was a lower political priority than other parts of his agenda. If that's the case, Morris should provide that explanation; if not, then the question is unanswered.
These concerns should not stop you from reading this otherwise terrific book. TR was definitely one of our great presidents, and this biography makes it clear how he transformed America and the world for the better.
on February 24, 2002
I must say I'm surprised to be the lone negative review of this book, but all the more reason to voice it. While I have to admire Edmund Morris' scholarship, I simply cannot stand his writing style. It's passage like this that make my skin crawl: "The sun was setting, and its rays gilded the misty transpirations of peach orchards and tobacco fields. An old farmer, hearing the onrush of the train, climbed off his harrow and stood to attention, his red shirt incandescent in the horizontal light. Children ran to cluster around him. Their spindly shadows, leaping east, briefly stroked the wheels of Roosevelt's car." (p. 36) With no footnote, I can only assume that this is 100% conjecture. I appreciate Morris' intention of painting a full picture and setting the scene, I just cannot grant him that license. And every page contains if not a paragraph like this, a sentence at least which, for me, great diminished my enjoyment.
I so much prefer David McCullough, E. W. Brands and Doris Kearns Goodwin for their straightforward presentation of a story. Which is not to say that their writing is not compelling. But I think it takes greater skill to make a page-turner out of the unvarnished facts that it does to burden them with syrup-y prose.
Edmund Morris captures the times and the person with marvelous descriptions of contemporary events, people, places and the newsmaking headlines of the era. What struck me most about the book is how personable Theodore Roosevelt seemed to be ... although born to wealth, he seemed in touch with the common people, too. He had a sense of how unique the United States was on a global scale in terms of world events and politics. He had a rare genius for balancing the interests of the rich and the ordinairy hard-working man ... This skill and gut instinct knowledge no doubt earned him re-election to the Presidency for a second term. It is something *ALL* elected officials today could stand to develop and apply in modern times.
Many controversial concerns of the era captured my attention: some outstanding ones were how the U.S. presence in the Phillipine Islands made headlines as news of misconduct by U.S. soldiers toward Phillipine guerilla fighters was published in the newspapers. Another headline making event was when Theodore Roosevelt invited Dr. Booker T. Washington (a black man) to dinner at the White House, without consulting anyone or thinking about how this might play out politically (he needed Southern votes for certain issues). Despite being a highly educated man, Theodore Roosevelt had a unique personality that made him jump in feet first and consult later of what the consequences of his actions were. This open and honest personality trait no doubt earned him the respect of the majority of the public.
Some of the most difficult issues of his day involved creating a satisfactory treaty with Columbia regarding the Panama Canal, at the time Panama belonged to Columbia. Nicaragua was the second choice for the canal which would link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and ease up shipment of goods throughout the world ... The revolution in Panama to break from Columbia placed the U.S. in a very delicate position on the world scene ... Roosevelt, his Ambassador to Columbia, and the U.S. Navy circumvented the problems to meet U.S. and global trade interests. The times were indeed very unique but on many levels not too different from today ...
Two other areas thoroughly covered by Morris are the Anti-trust laws which were passed after much heated debate and political clashes. The law prevented the wealthiest men from creating monopolies within certain industries ... mainly the railroads and fuel/oil. Another well rendered account in the book was the coal miner strike in Pennsylvania which could have had very grave consequences for the nation. It mostly affected the northern states, since coal was the sole source of fuel and heat during the winter months.
Overall, this was a highly fascinating book which covered a great deal of important U.S. history as it was lived and created by one of the most flamboyant and energetic U.S. presidents: Theodore Roosevelt. Morris interspersed interesting side-lights about his second wife Edith, eldest daughter Alice, and sons, Quentin and Teddy. Some of Roosevelt's hunting expeditions and visits out West were described. One of the most important ideas espoused by Roosevelt was conservation, to set aside specific public land for future generations to enjoy. We can thank Theodore Roosevelt for preserving the Grand Canyon as a national park. He is the first President who can be properly labelled an "environmentalist" (despite enjoying hunting wild animals). Lastly, Morris does a superb job of describing Roosevelt's relations with some of his selected Cabinet, Elihu Root, Secretary of War, for example, and other political contemporaries, for instance, William Howard Taft, who succeeded him as President. Considering the vast and complex subject matter, this book is an outstanding reading experience.
Erika Borsos (erikab93)
on July 21, 2002
Under normal circumstances, this book would've probably earned a five-star rating. But "Theodore Rex" follows in the wake of one of the great biographies of the century ("The Rise of Theodore Roosvelt"), raising expectations that it too will be among the best. Sadly, it is not. Instead, "Theodore Rex" is a well-written and detailed look at one of America's most interesting presidents, and is more workmanlike than inspired.
There may be mitigating circumstances for why this is so. Roosevelt's pre-presidential life is more interesting than his presidency, more wide-ranging and adventurous. And yet there is also an overarching theme to Roosevelt's early life that gives continuity to the narrative in "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" in a way that "Theodore Rex" lacks. As we read the first volume, we constantly ask ourself 'How will the young Roosevelt steamroll this obstacle on his rise to ultimate power?'
But there is no such unifying theme in Roosevelt's presidency to give coherence to his blur of activity while in office: no great depression, no major war. As a result, "Theodore Rex" feels more disjointed even as it covers less territory than the first volume. We jump from race relations to congressional relations, from the Panama Canal to The Treaty of Portsmouth, from conservation to the Great White Fleet. Most of it is quite interesting, even fascinating, but one can read a section without feeling a compelling need to go on. That was not true of the first book, where even the ending left one yearning for volume two so the story would continue.
One can argue that this is not Morris's fault, and I'm inclined to agree. No matter what your talents as a biographer and a writer, you are always constrained by the material. But where one can fault Morris in "Theodore Rex" is in the decline of the quality of his prose. There are numerous lines, metaphors, and similes in the first volume that are so memorable as to make one believe the book came from the pen of a poet; those type of lines are far and few between in this volume, even though it's still well-written.
I hope I have not given the impression that I dislike this book. It's a fine biography and one which I can recommend without hesitation. But for those who've read the first volume, there is a noticable drop in quality and inspiration.