Theodore Rex is the second volume in Edmund Morris’s three volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt and covers his presidential years. Once again, I found the reading, in Teddy’s favorite expression, a “dee-light”! What stands out most to me in reading this portion of Roosevelt’s biography is that from the moment of his ascension to the Presidency following the assassination of McKinley, here was someone “dee-lighted” to be in the office and to exercise (and expand) its powers in the pursuit of his convictions of providing a “square deal” to all Americans, even if this branded him as a “traitor to his class”.
His first major crisis was an example of his skillful use of presidential power. Anthracite coal-miners were striking for higher wages, better working conditions and the right to organize. Violence was increasing. Yet private interests and the prerogatives of state government hindered Roosevelt from getting involved. Finally with winter approaching, violence escalating, and people freezing in their homes, he intercedes and succeeds in bringing the interests to the table, quelling violence, resuming mining and finding an eventual resolution through a combination of cajoling and sometimes using the weight of the presidency when all else failed.
Similarly, working with his Attorney General, Philander Knox, he finds ways to break up monopolistic railroad and other interests even while working with Wall Street bankers like J.P. Morgan to reassure investors in the soundness of American finances, which sometimes include joint efforts to pour money into Wall Street during financial panics.
Perhaps most fascinating was his work in decisively acting to establish the Panama Canal. The French interests had dithered and the Columbian government had try to extort increasing sums from the Americans without an agreement. Whether one likes the use of US force in this way, Roosevelt precipitates the “independence” of Panama through a strategic use of force and diplomacy that opens up the Canal Zone to US engineers.
Force and diplomacy characterized by the famous saying associated with Roosevelt, “speak softly and carry a big stick,” occupy much of this book. Roosevelt strategically gathers US naval power to head off a German and British invasion of Venezuela, reinforcing US commitment to the Monroe Doctrine. He works to bring an end to the conflict between Russia and Japan in a way that brings him a Nobel prize while also realizing that Japan’s presence in the Pacific called for the building up of the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Pacific (another reason for which he saw the completion of the Panama Canal as critical).
Morris portrays Roosevelt at his noblest and basest. We see his skillful use of both legislation and executive orders to set apart National Parks and Monuments preserving places like the Grand Canyon from mining interests who would have destroyed its beauty. One of his final accomplishments was a conservation conference with governors throughout the country that raised the issue of the conservation of our natural resources for the first time on a national basis.
Roosevelt began his presidency hosting Booker T Washington at the White House to outcries of anger from many in the south. He persisted in supporting some key federal appointments of African Americans. Yet as his presidency went on, it seemed he back-pedaled from these actions. Most notorious was the Brownsville incident, where complaints of black soldiers firing on and assaulting the citizens of Brownsville resulted in the dishonorable discharges of 167 troops, including some who had fought with Roosevelt on San Juan Hill. Evidence was scant to non-existent but Roosevelt never re-considered his “rush to judgment” and this remains the most significant blot on his presidency.
Morris lets us seem daily life in the Roosevelt White House, including his romps with his children and their friends (Edith sometimes spoke of him as one of the children!), his continued literary interests, his gargantuan appetite combined with physical exertions on the White House tennis court with diplomats and Secret Service officers, and his hikes in all weather in Rock Creek Park. He explores the complicated relationship with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who accompanies William Taft on a diplomatic trip to Japan, who often expressed frustration at the constraints upon her and yet remained his loyal daughter.
The book closes with Roosevelts departure from office and the transition from a president who loved every minute of the exercise of power to one in Taft who would rather have been a Supreme Court justice. Morris explores both the difficult and remarkable dance we go through in this country in the peaceful, if not always easy, transfer of power from one president to the next. Roosevelt and Taft loved each other’s company, yet this transition strained even that jovial relationship.
I rated this book slightly lower (I would actually have given it 4.5 if Goodreads permitted this). This somehow seemed a less satisfying read, perhaps because of the constraints and ambiguities of presidential power that even such a dynamic personality as Roosevelt had to contend with. Roosevelt probably used and enjoyed the use of presidential power probably as much as any man. Yet one senses that Roosevelt the man was constrained and sometimes distorted by the office. This is no fault of Morris, although I wonder if he might have explored this aspect further, as it is the challenge of the most difficult and powerful job in the world. That said, Roosevelt’s use of the office, his ideals of a “square deal” for all Americans, and his stewardship of the country’s natural and military resources should probably be a primer for anyone aspiring to the office. This book might well serve as a primary textbook.