Books: Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex

Mr. Gould is Professor Emeritus in American History at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Presidency of William McKinley and Lady Bird Johnson: Our Environmental First Lady.

Amid the furor over Dutch (1999), his semi-fictionalized biography of Ronald Reagan, Edmund Morris assured his critics that his next book on Theodore Roosevelt's presidency would be grounded in fact and based on the ample documentary record about his subject. Theodore Rex has now appeared with 555 pages of text and another 176 pages of end notes. Yet, this second volume in Morris's projected three-volume biography of the twenty-sixth president is as much an intellectual muddle as Dutch was. In the text, Morris writes only from Roosevelt's personal perspective at the time of his presidency and puts his direct references to historical scholarship in the end notes. The reasons for this approach are not revealed in what Morris himself has written in his biography, and the reader must look elsewhere in the book to decipher what the author is trying to do.

The book itself begins with William McKinley's death and Roosevelt's accession to the presidency in September 1901. Morris does not provide a statement of his intention for the book nor any guide to his method. There is a cryptic “publisher's note” in small type on the copyright page saying that “the narrative of this book confines itself exclusively to Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, 1901-1909.” After a discussion of spelling procedures and other technical editorial matters, the note concludes: “Expectations of 'coming events' are those of the period. Historical hindsights are confined to the notes.” The dust jacket, not usually a place to glean an author's formal aims, says that the book does not “indulge in the easy wisdom of hindsight. It is written throughout in real time, reflecting the world as TR saw it.” Morris does operate in the book as though there were a bright-line separation between his narrative of Roosevelt's life and the sporadic historical judgments that he advances in the notes.

What this means in practice is a kind of “Upstairs, Downstairs” organization. In the florid and expansive text where the” real” Theodore Roosevelt lives, Morris writes about such events as the Northern Securities case, the anthracite coal strike, Venezuela, Panama, the Perdicaris incident, the Russo-Japanese War, the Hepburn Act, and the Brownsville episode, among others. Morris relegates those subjects that he deems less worthy of attention such as the Alaska Boundary, the Government Printing Office Controversy, the flap over Bellamy and Maria Storer, and the Keep Commission to brief “chronological,” “biographical,” “historiographical,” and “historical” comments in the “Notes” section. Since these notes are not indexed, despite their substantive comments, unwary readers may miss their significance. Finally, there are subjects which affected Roosevelt that do not rise to the level even of attention in the back of the book. These comprise football reform, arbitration treaties, banking and antitrust legislation in 1908, enforcement of the Pure Food and Drug Act, policy toward Native Americans, and American diplomacy toward China, to name a few.

Morris in effect traces the lives of three Theodore Roosevelts. The first cavorts ebulliently on the subjects that Morris considers important in Roosevelt's world. The second labors away in more terse obscurity in the back of the book on less enthralling matters. And there is of course the third invisible Roosevelt who had to engage the problems that do not command Morris's attention in either the text or the notes, even though they took up much of the president's time.

Now anyone working on Roosevelt's presidency cannot devote equal time to all the countless problems that demanded the president's prodigious energy. But for all the dislike of “hindsight” that Morris's publisher imputes to the author, it seems clear that the subjects the author deals with in the main text are there because of historical perspective. The Venezuela episode of 1902 gets its salience from the knowledge that the United States and Germany went to war twice in the twentieth century and the recounting of Roosevelt's treatment of the Kaiser resonates with that perception. The Russo-Japanese War mediation of 1904-1905 has larger meaning because the United States and Japan fought in the 1940s. The taking of the Panama Canal Zone in 1903-1904 transmits lessons about the nation's present and future relations with Latin America. The anthracite coal strike and the Hepburn Act, which receive detailed coverage, are both seen in the scholarly literature as important steps toward greater government regulation and a presidential role in the economy. Morris knows that his subjects are significant not just because they were on Roosevelt's mind at the time but because of the cumulative process of historical writing on which his book rests.

The intellectual problem that Morris dodges is that in Theodore Roosevelt's world the president had to confront issues as they came to him without a foreknowledge of their historical import. He could not, as Morris does, give less weight to the Alaskan boundary, the role of the tariff, or the vexations of Maria Storer. He had to juggle these problems along with everything else that crossed his desk. Morris cannot have it both ways. If he is going to recreate “the world as TR saw it,” he needs to integrate major and minor issues into his narrative. If he is going to concentrate on the Rooseveltian episodes that history identifies as significant, then he is as much dependent on “hindsight” as any other biographer of TR.

The frailty of Morris's approach emerges in two other instances. He spends an ample amount of time on Roosevelt's deteriorating relations with William Howard Taft, and he does so because of a shared knowledge with his readers that the two men will split apart in 1911-1912. In 1908-1909 there were some intimations of tension between the incoming and outgoing president but these figured little in the contemporary reviews of Roosevelt's presidency that then appeared in the press. Morris is not especially perceptive about the roots of the Taft-Roosevelt break. He concentrates most on Taft's obesity and gives less consideration to the divergent way in which the two men viewed the presidential office. Some hints of that difference of emphasis can be found in Taft's contemporary campaign speeches in 1908. But then Morris omits a key event that occurred in his “real time.” Following the 1908 election, Taft wrote Roosevelt a thank-you note in which he said that “you and my brother Charlie made that possible which in all probability would not have occurred otherwise.” (Taft to Roosevelt, November 7, 1908, Taft Papers, Library of Congress). The remark infuriated Roosevelt who complained to friends for the next four years about being bracketed with Taft's wealthy half-brother. It was, he said, like saying"Abraham Lincoln and bond seller Jay Cooke saved the Union."(Lucius B. Swift to Mrs. Swift, July 8, 1910, Lucius B. Swift Papers, Indiana State Library). Both Roosevelt and Taft, of course, knew about the letter at the time and it had a large effect on how they perceived each other. In line with Morris's own interpretive criteria, the incident demands inclusion.

Morris properly makes much of the deplorable Brownsville episode where Roosevelt summarily discharged black troops falsely accused of shooting up that Texas town in August 1906. The problem for his method is that in the world of 1909 the case was not seen as a major element in Theodore Roosevelt's presidential record. What makes it crucial in 2001 is the work that John D. Weaver did with his book The Brownsville Raid (1970) to demonstrate the innocence of the soldiers and to obtain for them belated justice. Before Weaver, Brownsville was a subsidiary aspect of Roosevelt biography. Now it has become a central part of understanding the president's view of race relations. That “easy wisdom of hindsight” pops up in the most unexpected places.

Given the approach Morris takes, reliable historical evidence is a crucial element in carrying out his intention to remain true to the 1901-1909 period. Anecdotes recalled years later, however tempting, would seem out of bounds. Instead, Morris comes from the school of biographers who live by the adage: “Good stories are true, bad stories are apocryphal.” As a result, he is quite content to ground key moments in his narrative in the verbatim recollections, set down two or three decades after the fact, of Roosevelt associates whose reliability is often doubtful. Like most famous presidents, Roosevelt accumulated tall tales and legends about his life and times and sorting them out is not easy. Herman Kohlsaat, a Chicago publisher with more pretensions than political influence, brought out memoirs in 1923 that are a most dubious resource for alleged Roosevelt conversations. Yet Morris happily uses them. Owen Wister also wielded his skills as a novelist to enrich his recollections of his friend Roosevelt in his 1930 memoir and these too serve the author's purposes. Morris's credulity about these sources, ones usually written after much hindsight, is a notable weakness in his treatment of Roosevelt.

By placing his narrative in this historical lockbox of 1901-1909 and providing historical judgments only in his poorly organized notes, Morris gets the worst of both analytical worlds. He does not use the insights of scholars to illuminate his narrative and to emphasize the importance of key events such as Roosevelt's decision in November 1904 to rule out a third term in 1908. And because his work is so time bound to this eight-year period, it cannot offer much that is new or fresh about Roosevelt's presidency on its own terms. The result is a work that reads smoothly because many of the complex questions of public policy and historical analysis are placed where few readers will look for them. But in terms of the historiography of Theodore Roosevelt's life, Theodore Rex will likely be of only minimal value for serious researchers on this significant chief executive. Much as Dutch seems a dead end for understanding Ronald Reagan, Morris's book on Theodore Roosevelt appears likely to become a little-visited rest stop on the long highway of Roosevelt scholarship. Meanwhile, readers looking for a reliable treatment of Roosevelt's life that puts his presidency in context can consult William H. Harbaugh's The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt (1975), a book whose balance, good sense, and dispassionate judgments have stood the test of the years. Above all, the current renewal of interest in TR ought to direct renewed attention to the most important analytic book written about him during the twentieth century, John Morton Blum's classic The Republican Roosevelt (1954).

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