The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris

May you live in interesting times. The old unattributed Chinese curse has a stranglehold on the country and something interesting/disturbing/terrifying has been happening almost every day. The 2016 election, the hurricanes, the shooting in Las Vegas, more hurricanes, more Trump, the wildfires in California, the Russia investigation, the terrorist bike path attack in New York…

Twenty four hour news is not enough. I’m skipping from local to national to world to BBC, back to CNN and then a five minute check in with FOX just to see what the other side is saying.

Things seem to be more “interesting” than ever. But reading historical biographies reminds me that interesting things have been happening for ages, albeit in the absence of television and social media. In rereading the Prologue to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, I was surprised that during his presidency some of his contemporaries considered him to be insane (Mark Twain among them). and his Speaker of the House, Joseph Cannon, colorfully stated, ” Roosevelt’s got no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.”

TR had healthy self-respect and didn’t seem to hesitate in patting himself on the back for a job well done. At one point in his career, Morris writes, “The word ‘I’ invaded his speeches to such and extent that The Herald took to reproducing it in bold type and the effect on a column of grey newsprint was of buckshot at close range.” Morris never fails to choose just the right words to fit the subject.

TR loved power and publicity. Also, my hero Teddy had “tapered hands and absurdly small shoes.” But if you have even the fleetest of thoughts that maybe TR has anything in common with TR-ump, let that cloven-hoofed, monstrous ideaflee right out of your head to dissolve into the ether never to be considered again.

TR was powerfully built and inspired young boys and men to pursue physical fitness. He was a devoted husband and moral to the point of prudishness when it came to sexual matters. The more power he was given the “calmer and sweeter he becomes,” Morris writes. He is not vain, exactly. Though he does like his clothes, his love of costume has more in common with childlike delight in dressing up (in buckskins, for example) than masculine preening.

Most importantly, TR was supremely well-mannered, highly educated, and had an astounding vocabulary and an extraordinary memory, including an ability to quote long passages from Shakespeare, philosophy and other texts. He read one book a day if he was busy, and two or three if he wasn’t.

TR was an incredibly able politician. He was beloved by the American people, and was well-liked, respected, even admired, by leaders around the world. Have I used enough superlatives? John Muir, steward of nature, paragon of simplicity, wisdom, and integrity, loved him. Enough said.

I thought Morris’s biography of TR’s early years might be a little boring to read so soon after David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback, but it isn’t at all and I’m glad I reread them in that order. Morris, though admiring, is definitely less romantic about the Roosevelts than McCullough. He describes Teddy’s mother, Mittie, “languorous,” then later “lethargic,” and finally “lazy.” It is a different perspective of her which helps to explain why her husband, sister and oldest daughter were so involved in the raising of Teddy and his younger siblings.

The long family trips to Europe and the Middle East that I felt so jealous of when reading McCullough’s book seem much less ideal (though still somewhat enviable) in Morris’s account. Morris divulges that according to papers and letters, the Roosevelt children complained, were homesick, often ill and hated the first, year-long trip to Europe. They were extremely well-behaved children and certainly had some wonderful and very educational adventures on the trip, but it is nowhere near the perfectly privileged jaunt McCullough described.

Similarly, Teddy was not the completely adored and revered brother McCullough chronicled as he dissected birds on the houseboat sailing down the Nile. Morris describes him as an awkward, smelly, waifish child that no one wanted to share a bedroom with because he kept entrails in the sink and had other unsavory habits. Morris even uses the words “the enforced claustrophobia of travel” to explain why the elder Theodore sent his wife and eldest daughter off for cures and shopping and put the younger children into school in Germany while he handled business in Vienna. As Teddy was ill for much of the trip following the time on the Nile, his father obviously needed a long break.

In general, Morris has a way of telling TR’s tale that has made me laugh and smile with surprise because he inserts colorful, humorous bits in unexpected places, much like young Teddy would hide a bat in the folds of his trousers or frogs under his hat.

Morris is much more likely to point out when TR is being naive, saccharine, self-important, and is very clear that this political god and American hero has very clay (not to mention small) feet. Most shocking to me at this reading was a comment that had his first love and young wife Alice lived past the age of 22, Roosevelt would have been bored silly due to her simple, childlike nature. The author makes a point of showing that TR’s early grief was really a piece of luck so that he could end up with the book-loving Edith Carrow.

Early in his political career Roosevelt coins the term, “wealthy criminal class,” which as we are learning about the millions of dollars laundered by Paul Manafort and others as part of the investigation into Russia and the 2016 election sounds as fresh now as it must have then.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt continues to follow the subject’s career as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a surprisingly entertaining section. Not only was this section educational (and alarming) in describing TR’s role in making the US “defense” department, specifically the Navy, so large and powerful, it was also delightful and human to see him deftly outwit the actual Secretary of the Navy, taking advantage of the Secretary’s love of home and dislike of Washington summers to accomplish an outrageous amount of TR’s own agenda.

Morris does not comment or imply whether or not TR was correct in his “forgiveness not permission” technique for getting things done in government, though history seems to show that if it weren’t for TR’s insight and efficiency Hawaii would not have become a state (and an important US presence in the Pacific) and Cuba would still be under Spanish rule.

The Spanish American war gave TR an opportunity to experience the life of a soldier. This was my least favorite part of the book, but it could be that it was the subject matter and not the writing that was’t to my liking.

The Spanish American war was fought over who had control of Cuba, with the United States on the side of Cubans fighting for liberation from Spanish rule. TR gathered a band of cowboys, range men, foresters and others to form the Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and along with other regiments, went to war in Cuba.

It seemed a miserable, bloody war with senseless loss of human and horse life for very little gain to the US (or Cuba, who came under communist control and did not enjoy much local quality of life these many years later). But it was TR’s opportunity to fight and become a war hero, perhaps making up for him psychologically for the only fault he ever saw in his own father who had hired a man to fight the Civil War in his place.

Although not my favorite section, Morris does bring it to life–you can picture the drowning of a poor horse being unloaded ineptly from a ship and feel the heat of the jungle, the irritations of the bug bites, the exhaustion and hunger of the men.

Finally, Roosevelt is elected governor of New York and then becomes Vice President for McKinley’s second term. Although by now I was desperate to be finished with Roosevelt’s politicking for awhile, Morris tells the story well and makes clear that TR was practically superhuman, unstoppable in his tireless campaigning. The man was even mountain climbing when the telegram informing him of McKinley’s death from an assassin’s bullet arrived.

I came away from the second reading of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt with less adoration of the subject in one sense but a lot more in another. I don’t love his self-promotion, his prudishness and moralizing, some of the political machinations, horrible war mongering and sleazy tax evasion (which I noticed much more clearly in this reading–since I am reading in the era of Trump/Pence and am hyper-aware of these types of flaws in our leaders). I’m also not a fan of how he treated his very smart (though too often pregnant) wife Edith, especially when she was ill (Morris leads the reader to believe TR felt Edith’s illness inconvenient). But I still completely admire his curiosity, unearthly energy and unbelievably perceptive mind.

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