Friday, November 23, 2001

NEW YORK — Biographer Edmund Morris feels quite comfortable at the birthplace of Theodore Roosevelt, a reconstructed brownstone off Fifth Avenue. He is looking about the large, oak-paneled library, where years ago he wrote much of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.”
“I’ve always had a kind of attachment to this place,” says Mr. Morris, a slender, bearded 61-year-old with a quick, polished speaking style.
“When I was working on the ‘The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,’ I discovered this enormous old ream of paper here at the library. So I dusted it off and wrote the book on that pile of paper.”
Many know Mr. Morris as the author of “Dutch,” the notorious biography of Ronald Reagan in which he inserted himself as a fictional character. Although authorized by Mr. Reagan, who allowed Mr. Morris extensive access during his presidency, “Dutch” enraged Mr. Reagan’s supporters and remains an unhappy subject among them.
Roosevelt followers, however, respect Mr. Morris and credit him with popularizing the late president among contemporary readers. “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” published in 1980 and reissued recently by Modern Library, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The long-anticipated sequel, “Theodore Rex,” comes out this fall with a first printing of about 200,000.
Mr. Morris set aside his work on Roosevelt to write about Mr. Reagan, a project he expected to take five or six years but that lasted 14. He evolved from an authorized biographer to a baffled biographer (unable to get inside the mind of his subject) to a reviled biographer whose book was labeled by critics as everything from “irrelevant” to a “scandal and a tragedy.”
Mr. Morris has never indicated any regret about “Dutch” and said during a recent interview that he wouldn’t change “a syllable.” He continues to call Mr. Reagan a great president, even though he found the man himself unmemorable.
Despite the extended, distracting hiatus, Mr. Morris says he readjusted almost instantly to the Roosevelt sequel.
“T.R.’s personality is so compelling that I forgot about Reagan almost immediately,” he says. “‘Dutch’ seems to be the work of somebody in the past.”
Upholders of tradition should be relieved that “Theodore Rex” is old-fashioned narrative biography, with no imaginary friends. The book begins with Roosevelt’s 1901 ascendancy to the presidency upon the assassination of William McKinley and ends eight years later with the conclusion of his second term.
A recent hero of the Spanish-American war, Roosevelt as president became the country’s unchallenged political leader. He was the bullish “trust buster,” conservationist and diplomat, crusading against corporate monopolies, advocating preservation of the land and winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his resolution of the Russo-Japanese War.
At first, Mr. Morris sympathized with those who had labeled Roosevelt a mere “cowboy,” but he says he believes power actually ennobled Roosevelt. Petty tantrums and shallow opinions subsided, and grander qualities emerged.
“When I wrote the first book I was repulsed by his bloodlust. I still don’t quite understand why a man who loved animals so passionately and knew so much about the natural world could have this overwhelming desire to kill and kill and kill and kill,” Mr. Morris says.
“The fact is, as president he matured so rapidly and became, indeed, far from a bellicose president, an extremely subtle diplomat. His richness and catholicity, his basic decency, are all admirable qualities.”
Like the reputations of many presidents, Roosevelt’s declined temporarily after he left office. A Pulitzer Prize-winning biography published in 1931 and written by journalist Henry Pringle portrayed him as an immature, militaristic leader and convinced many that Roosevelt had fascist tendencies.
Roosevelt’s standing began improving in the late 1950s, however, after the centennial of his birth, and now he is ranked among the greatest presidents.
Mr. Morris himself became interested in Roosevelt in the 1970s. He attended a musical and noticed that the character who impersonated Roosevelt got the biggest applause. “I remember saying, ‘There’s something about him that appeals to something very basic in the American folk memory,’” recalls Mr. Morris, a native of Kenya who came to the United States in 1968.
Roosevelt’s story had great appeal in his own lifetime. Born in 1858 to a prominent New York family, he willed himself from a sickly, asthmatic child into a barrel-chested adventurer. He entered politics in his early 20s, as a state assemblyman, and quickly became an explosive public figure and a maverick within the Republican Party.
Mr. Morris speaks of Roosevelt’s “polychromatic” quality. He was both reformer and patrician, warrior and peacemaker, outdoorsman and man of letters. As if rebelling against his own childhood, he condemned “slothful ease and ignoble peace,” and his endorsement of the “strenuous life” hunting, fighting, horseback riding impressed young Ernest Hemingway and millions of others.
Roosevelt’s presidency began Sept. 14, 1901. A foreign-born anarchist had just shot McKinley.
“McKinley was the third president to be assassinated in 40 years. Many Americans felt the third assassination was the beginning of the end for American freedoms,” Mr. Morris says.
“And the country was being flooded with immigrants, ‘dark, primitive immigrants.’ The first major statement T.R. made as president was to the effect that we were nurturing the plague of anarchism in our midst and that they should be sent back where they came from.”
Roosevelt helped transform the United States from a regional power into an imperial power. He soon abandoned his initial promise to follow the cautious policies of McKinley, and “Theodore Rex” documents a presidency of energy, luck and accomplishment.
Simultaneously calculating and decisive, Roosevelt succeeded in virtually everything he attempted, from using military force to enable work on the Panama Canal to using diplomatic force to settle a coal miners’ strike. He endured few scandals, major legislative defeats or lasting controversies.
“Whatever comes hereafter, I have had far more than the normal share of human happiness, far more happiness than any but a very, very few men have ever had,” Roosevelt wrote to a friend near the end of his second term.
Mr. Morris’ next volume will cover the final years of Roosevelt, who died in 1919. Readers should not expect a happy ending: Mr. Morris says the old, belligerent Roosevelt resurfaced once he left office.
Estranged from his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt ran a destructive third-party campaign in 1912 that cost the Republicans the presidency. He then scorned the winner, Woodrow Wilson, who later refused Roosevelt’s request to command a division in World War I.
Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, once observed that her father “was certainly right for the period he lived in” but questioned whether he could have succeeded at any other time.
Mr. Morris says he could not imagine such a leader in the United States today.

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