Our ‘Strenuous Teddy': Local Hero, Bully President

Theodore Rex , by Edmund Morris. Random House, 864 pages, $35.

Almost exactly one century before Sept. 11, an act of terror rocked the state of New York and struck at the heart of American government. On Sept. 5, 1901, as President William McKinley was speaking on world trade at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, an anarchist walked up and shot him. When McKinley gave up the ghost nine days later, more than a few Americans were aggrieved to see power pass to Theodore Roosevelt, a “damned cowboy” to Senator Mark Hanna and a ceaseless irritant to the New York power brokers who had engineered his Vice Presidency in order to muzzle him. He was 42 years old, the youngest man ever to become President.

So begins Theodore Rex , Edmund Morris’ long-awaited sequel to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979). There have been many splendid books about Roosevelt, but this surpasses them. The timing couldn’t be better for a nation still searching for heroes. No President was ever as closely identified with New York City; none even came close, including the runner-up, his fifth cousin Franklin. Teddy Roosevelt was the only President born in Manhattan; he grew up here, and he wrote a decent history of New York City. He knew every nook and cranny of Little Italy and Chinatown from his evenings walking around with Jacob Riis, and on top of that he led the board of police commissioners.

Despite the confidence of its title (the phrase “Theodore Rex” comes from Henry James), the book’s success was not a foregone conclusion. In a sense, it’s a double sequel, because it follows hard on the heels of Dutch , Mr. Morris’ spectacularly weird biography of Ronald Reagan-in which Mr. Morris himself emerged from the authorial ether to become a fictitious character in the already fantastical life he was describing. This curious tactic did not work, to put it mildly, for the Republican faithful who wanted the Gipper’s story told straight and with Talmudic reverence. Admirers of Mr. Morris will be relieved to learn that the author appears only on the title page of his new offering.

Theodore Rex closely follows Roosevelt’s Presidency, and as such it forms the keystone in the arch of Mr. Morris’ planned trilogy. It’s the study of a planet at perihelion. From 1901 to 1909, Roosevelt fundamentally redefined the executive branch and the role of the United States in the world. No one did more to signal that a new century had begun, with new polarities forcing the compass needles to bend toward Washington. The dismal circumstances of his accession were soon forgotten as Roosevelt set out, teeth flashing, to transform the American Presidency into an endless adventure. He himself said it best: “While president I have been president, emphatically.”

For the better part of the century, Roosevelt has been popular in the West Wing, which he, not Aaron Sorkin, created-its central Roosevelt Room, just off the Oval Office, proof of authorship. Nixon spoke to him as if he were in the room when he said goodbye to the White House staff. William Jefferson Clinton quoted him more than any other President, including his namesake. Though Roosevelt did not lead the nation during a major war-usually the litmus test of greatness-his relevance is hard to dispute. He was the first President to go abroad. He was the first President to see much of the West. He gave more speeches to more people than any President ever had. He changed “the Executive Mansion” to “the White House” and completely reshaped the way the Presidency operated. After watching him in action for a few years, the New York World wrote, “He is everything.”

Mr. Morris points out that Roosevelt was an unusually gifted writer about bird songs-and in politics as well, he heard music that others could not. More than anyone who had preceded him, and more than many who followed, he compelled Wall Street grandees to play by the rules. Mr. Morris’ literary artistry restores much of the lost drama behind Roosevelt’s decision to challenge the Northern Securities merger, or his intervention in the 1902 coal strike-immensely symbolic actions that electrified a public sick of the accretion of wealth by a privileged few. Roosevelt instinctively grasped the importance of conservation, and gave substance to the word “progressive” with a host of laws directed at improving the workplace and public safety. He invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House when such a sign of equality sent shock waves around the nation-at a time when lynching was common, Woodrow Wilson enjoyed telling “coon” jokes and a crowd in Tennessee burned an African-American at the stake and sold slices of his liver to the crowd.

Roosevelt’s actions on the world stage were no less memorable. He single-handedly willed the Panama Canal into existence, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his brilliant arbitration of the Russo-Japanese War and he served notice to the despots of Europe that America was no longer a regional power at the margin of their cisatlantic intrigues. Mr. Morris painstakingly recreates a nail-biting 1902 crisis that placed Germany and the United States on a serious collision course over Kaiser Wilhelm’s strong-arm tactics in Venezuela. Through the perfect mixture of bluster and military preparation, Roosevelt scored a major strategic victory that resonated throughout European corridors of power. Henry Adams called him “the best herder of Emperors since Napoleon.”

But this book succeeds far beyond its evocation of long-extinct legislative and diplomatic triumphs. Mr. Morris is at his best when he probes the exuberant human being behind the grin and the spectacles. Is there another President who could have possibly fallen asleep under the open skies of the West, only to awake with four inches of snow for a blanket? A British diplomat once remarked, “You must always remember that the President is about six.”

There was method in Roosevelt’s madness, and his most lasting innovation may have been his translation of personality into political capital. In more than a few ways, “Strenuous Teddy” projected the aura of a pre-Kennedy Camelot. He and his large brood of children were photogenic at the exact moment when newspapers and newsreels were able to reproduce images. He delighted in manly banter with journalists, as well as the old trick of quoting obscure intellectuals about the importance of being intellectual. A former asthmatic, he inflicted a punishing survival-of-the-fittest ethos on his courtiers that left them battered and bruised (he pounded his Cuba administrator, Leonard Wood, in a game they called “singlesticks”-an early version of Rollerball). When he stepped down in 1909, after seven and a half years in office, he was 50-five years younger than George W. Bush. It’s easy to see why Henry Adams was always complaining about inertia. Who wouldn’t feel sluggish alongside this freak of nature?

Mr. Morris writes movingly, evidently because he himself is moved by T.R.’s passionate urge to reform the world. He is also transfixed by his subject’s capacity to endure pain, and provides gruesome descriptions of the physical ailments that bothered Roosevelt, including the carriage accident that nearly killed him in 1902, and the excruciating leg operation that saved his life. To his credit, Mr. Morris also explores Roosevelt’s less bully moments, including his increasing insensitivity to racial questions in his second term, his acceptance of giant campaign contributions in 1904 and his erratic handling of Taft’s succession-signs of the rigidity that will make the final volume of the trilogy more melancholy to read. But even after 500 pages, Mr. Morris never seems bored, which may be why this book is such a quantum leap forward from Dutch .

Of course, Theodore Rex is not perfect. The treatment of Roosevelt’s family life is somewhat perfunctory. Edith Roosevelt receives short shrift, despite what must have been a complicated marriage. (Has anyone else wondered why Teddy felt the need to define policy in terms of a “big stick”?) His daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth irradiates every page she’s on, but appears only fleetingly. Some of Mr. Morris’ imaginative leaps fall flat, as when he compares Czar Nicholas of Russia to a bear being chased by yellow hounds-the Japanese. But Roosevelt, who felt strongly that history should be written as daringly as it is lived, would have understood that an irrepressible writer has to take risks now and then.

In one of the countless asides that make every page of his book worth reading, Mr. Morris reveals that Roosevelt disliked the pale and retiring ghosts who populate the stories of Henry James, his fellow New Yorker. Predictably, T.R. preferred active ghosts who tip over the furniture and really stir up trouble: “The kind that knock you over and eat fire.” He would have liked the way Edmund Morris has conjured him in this arresting study of a man at the peak of his powers. Theodore Roosevelt is back as the most rambunctious ghost stomping in the attic of our national memory.

Ted Widmer, the Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, is a former speechwriter and senior adviser to President Clinton.