This eagerly awaited second volume of Edmund Morris’ biography of Theodore Roosevelt could not have been better timed. Just as scholarly and readable as the first volume, which won Mr. Morris his Pulitzer Prize, “Theodore Rex” is as relevant to an understanding of our post-September 11 world as it is to an understanding of the colorful first decade of the 20th century. It is about thought and action and the scope of and limits to power.
Because Mr. Morris eschews hindsight and never seeks to draw dubious parallels between past and present, his book gains rather than loses in relevance. Moreover, because of its theme and because of the scale of Roosevelt’s own actions, it is a book not only for the United States but for the world. Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his work in ending the distant war between Russia and Japan. “What I did,” he cabled the chairman of the Nobel Committee, “I was able to accomplish only as the representative of the Nation of which for the time being I am President.”
Mr. Morris is a gripping commentator on “the time being.” Indeed, in parts of his book, particularly at the beginning and the end he follows Roosevelt day by day. He describes in detail the days after Roosevelt took over the presidency in the aftermath of William McKinley’s assassination and, at the end of his book, the days before and after William Howard Taft took over the presidency from him in 1909. Wheels came full circle as Roosevelt travels back home by special train from Washington on the same railroad track as he had covered eight years before. Already premature obituaries of him were being written. H.G. Wells called him “a very symbol of the creative will in man.”
Henry Adams, whom Mr. Morris quotes more often than any other contemporary observer, was just as memorable, if less succinct. “More than any other man living within the range of notoriety, he showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter the quality that medieval theology assigned to God he was pure act.”
Roosevelt, in this volume, was not “Deus,” but “Rex,” a title bestowed upon him by a different kind of writer, Henry James. The most revealing word in Adams’ judgment was “notoriety.” He did not place Roosevelt in a temple of fame where he now indubitably belongs. And James did not bow before a throne when he quipped his way through to “Rex.” “The President is distinctly bending or trying [the reader must decide which] to make a ‘court?’” James added that “Theodore Rex is at any rate a really extraordinary creation for native intensity, veracity and bonhomie,” not normal courtly qualities. “He plays his part with the best will in the world and I recognize his amusing likability.”
There were very many people who did not recognize it, like Sen. Marcus Alonzo (“Mark”) Hanna who died disappointed in 1904 and most of his rich and many of his folksy supporters. Mr. Morris is at his best in exploring political relationships, like that between Roosevelt and Elihu Root, and Roosevelt and Taft, who at the president’s behest replaced Root as war secretary, and, above all, that between Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington, the first Negro to be invited to a dinner at the White House.
That was a quiet dinner which the Memphis Scimitar described as “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” Hate mail poured into the White House, only one of many signs that there was as much hate as bonhomie in the United States of the first decade of the 20th century. There was ample “pure act,” too like a terrifying lynching in Wilmington, Del., in 1903. Mr. Morris never pushes it aside. He confronts it as part of his scene.
Roosevelt was the first president to mingle Union and Confederate blood and he wanted “to see the South back in full communion” with the North. If only because of his reading, he would have been interested in comparisons with kings with crowns on their heads, but the comparison with Abraham Lincoln was the one that meant most to him. John Jay, secretary of state from 1898 to 1905, spanning the presidencies of McKinley and Roosevelt, gave Roosevelt a heavy gold ring containing a strand of Lincoln’s hair. The ring meant more than a crown, and there was something different from dynastic continuity in the fact that Hay had been assistant private secretary to Lincoln. Thanking him for the gift, Roosevelt used the word “love” for the first time in his male, non-family correspondence.
There was always “something different” in Roosevelt, including his inaugural address, the shortest that anyone could recall, in which he promised to “continue absolutely unbroken the policy of President McKinley for the peace, the prosperity and the honor of our beloved country.” The experience was to be different. Roosevelt’s two consecutive spells of power did not represent a simple extension of McKinley beyond the grave. The most interesting illustration in the volume is a picture not of Roosevelt in action but on a peak in Yosemite in 1903. It bears the contemporary title “A Place of Worship.”
Roosevelt’s own comment when he descended was more earthy, “I never felt better in my life.” Nonetheless, he was concerned with more than himself. Speaking soon afterwards in Sacramento, Calif., he urged Californians to preserve intact their “marvelous natural resources.” “We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages.”
Lord Briggs is the author of numerous books, including “A Social History of England” and “Victorian England.”