Teddy Roosevelt, a full century later

December 28, 1997|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | Joseph R. L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"TR: The Last Romantic," by H. W. Brands, Basic Books/Harper Collins. 912 pages, $35. Does he really belong up there on Mount Rushmore? Up there with Washington and Lincoln, whom he revered, and Thomas Jefferson, whom he despised? Up there where cousin Franklin would be a more appropriate great face carved into Dakota granite, according to historians who consistently rate Theodore Roosevelt only a "near great"?

With the centennials of the Spanish-American War, the triumph of TR and his Rough Riders at San Juan Hill and his accession to the presidency almost upon us, H.W. Brands' excellent new biography opens up a new period of retrospection on one of the most colorful politicians this nation has ever produced.

At least one and perhaps two other major biographies are under preparation; Edmund Morris is expected to renew his multi-volume effort once he has disposed of Ronald Reagan.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first president of the century now gasping to a close.

He got to the White House only because New York's Republican bosses thought him too unruly to be given a second term as governor and an assassin disposed of William McKinley just months after TR was passed off with the consolation prize of the vice presidency. But once the nation's highest office was in his grasp, Roosevelt transformed it through his expansive interpretation of presidential powers and U.S. power on the world scene.

"Roosevelt established the principle that the people of the United States, acting through their government, have a right to regulate the private economy in the public interest," Professor Brands writes in his summing up. ". . .it was enough for him to believe - to know - that he was in the right in building an isthmian canal, in declaring an American police power in the Western Hemisphere, in mediating a peace between Japan and Russia, in browbeating the kaiser."

Although TR failed to make his Republican Party a permanent force for progressivism, although he had to watch the loathed Woodrow Wilson at the helm in the world war he might have prevented or terminated much more quickly, his life was so full of exuberance and adventure that he became a genuine folk hero - and knew it.

Americans admired his determination to overcome childhood frailties, his fight against Tammany Hall and his reformist stint as New York City's police commissioner, his willingness to take on the big railroads and corporations. What other ex-president hunted big game in Africa, almost lost his life in an uncharted tributary of the Amazon and remained, so long, as major player in the national dialogue. Indeed, had he lived past his 60th birthday, he might have been re-elected president in 1920 after failing for many years.

Roosevelt had a way with words, not only in his political rhetoric but in his huge volume of letters to family, friends and public figures. Professor Brands lets TR speak often for himself, while punctuating his biography with flashes of his own good writing and instinct for irony. This is surely a valuable addition to the growing Roosevelt bookshelf.

Joseph R.L. Sterne was, for many years, editorial page editor of The Sun and before that a political and foreign correspondent. He is now senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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