Morris' Teddy R is a tale for today

November 18, 2001|By Mike Pride | By Mike Pride,Special to the Sun

Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris. Random House. 772 pages. $35.

Edmund Morris won appointment as Ronald Reagan's official biographer on the strength of his 1979 book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, a rich narrative of Roosevelt's life up to the McKinley assassination. For readers of that book eager for the sequel, the Reagan project was an annoying, if intriguing, detour.

Now, two years after the critical storm broke over Morris' fictionalized Dutch, Theodore Rex, his account of the Roosevelt presidency, has arrived. The question is: Can a biographer who invented characters, including an older version of himself, win back readers' trust?

The answer is yes. You won't find "Edmund Gump," as the columnist Maureen Dowd tagged Morris after Dutch, boxing with TR in the East Room or chatting up Henry James at Sagamore Hill. With Theodore Rex, Morris resumes his life as a traditional biographer -- and a fine one.

Morris' President Roosevelt is traditional, too. He is a man of brains, brawn, youthful energy, optimism, political adroitness and vision. He embraces the power the White House places at his disposal and pushes America onto the world stage at the dawn of the 20th century.

A catalog of Roosevelt's deeds from 1901 to 1908 conveys the sweep of his presidency. He intervened to end a coal strike, fought the trusts, averted a war over Venezuela, got his way in the building of the Panama Canal and won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War. A conservationist of the first order, he used executive power to preserve vast natural wonders. His Great White Fleet toured the world.

Roosevelt was "catholic in intellect, encyclopedic in memory," and these qualities served him abroad and at home. He was ahead of his time as a master of realpolitik, divining the interests of foreign powers and bending them to American aims. In domestic politics, he avoided extremes, defined what he could get and got it.

When he failed, he failed willfully, as he did on race, a subject to which Morris properly devotes more attention than earlier Roosevelt biographers. Damaged early in his presidency by inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House, Roosevelt chose thereafter to follow the prudent political course of mollifying the white South. Occasionally he protested lynching or some despicable racist remark, but racism tainted his own thinking, hence racial justice never became his cause.

Morris' portrait of Roosevelt is not flawless. His literary techniques sometimes flop, beginning with his opening device, in which Roosevelt's train ride to assume the presidency becomes a tour of the challenges awaiting him at the White House. Though useful in setting the scene, the metaphor is contrived and overdrawn. A few Morris similes cause a reader to smile for the wrong reasons. He writes, for example, that when Roosevelt motioned a group of scions to their seats inside the White House, spectators outside were amused "to see fourteen heads dropping simultaneously, like cherries in a slot machine."

The merits of Theodore Rex far outweigh any such quibbles. It is a biography for our time. From globalism to corporate conglomeration to conservation, Morris explores in Roosevelt's presidency the emergence of issues still central to the republic. It is thus impossible to read this book without measuring Teddy Roosevelt against the presidents who followed him, including the man who took office at the turn of our new century.

Mike Pride is the editor of the Concord Monitor, New Hampshire's capital newspaper, where he has worked since 1978. A former Nieman fellow, he has earned the National Press Foundation's editor of the year award. With Mike Travis, he is author of My Brave Boys, a Civil War history from University Press of New England.

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