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September 11, 2012

Book Review - Theodore Rex

"Theodore Rex, is at any rate a really extraordinary creature for native intensity, veracity, and bonhomie - he plays his part with the best will in the world and I recognize his amusing likability."

Henry James

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President: September 14, 1901 - March 4, 1909

Theodore Roosevelt was one of those larger-than-life figures that comes around only once a generation or so. Anyone who becomes a U.S. president must be somewhat extraordinary, but some are more so than others. Rough Rider and scholar, militarist and peacemaker, distrusting of socialism and trust-buster, naturalist and hunter, Theodore Roosevelt was just about everything. Both conservatives and liberals today can find things to admire and distain.

Theodore Rex is Edmund Morris' second in a series of three biographies of the 26th president. The first, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, covered his birth to assassination of President McKinley. Theodore Rex is about his assumption of power until the day William Howard Taft is sworn in as his successor, and Colonel Roosevelt about his days after leaving the White House.

As a side note, yes, he was related to our 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. They were fifth cousins, and the best explanation of what that means was at Yahoo Answers, so take this for what it's worth:

FDRs wife was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt. Elliot Roosevelt was the brother of Theodore Roosevelt, and Elliot was Anna Eleanor Roosevelt's father. She, of course married FDR.

They are also related by blood, though the marriage is closer. By blood they are related because Nicholas Roosevelt (1658 - 1742) was Teddy's Great-Great-Grandfather and FDR's Great-Great-Great-Great-Grandfather.

I post this because is it somewhat interesting and I always wondered about it.

Book Review

There is much more to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt than I could possibly mention here. What follows are just a few of the highlights.

Roosevelt because president at a turning point in our history. The frontier closed, as there was no more land to settle. We become more interested in the rest of world than ever before.

Personal Style

He was a master politician, running circles around his opponents time and again. As anyone involved in it knows, politics is as much an art as a science. Either you have an instinct for it or not, and he certainly did.

He was also an expert at dealing with the press. He manipulated them time and again into telling the story that he wanted told, using them to get what he wanted in Washington.

Roosevelt was a man of almost unbelievable personal energy. As president he did not give up his "rough rider" style at all. He took jujitsu lessons, relishing the contact sport. He played tennis almost every day, no matter what the weather. He took horse rides all time of year. He led dignitaries and assistants alike on journeys up and down the Potomac River, climbing rocks and swimming where necessary. Impervious to heat or cold, nothing slowed him down. He held boxing matches on the White House lawn. He had boundless energy and an appetite to boot.

Dominating every room he went into, his friendliness and "de-lighted to see you!" was so energetic as to almost unnerve visitors. In conversation he was insightful and humorous...

His energy was not just in the physical and personal, but in scholarly pursuits as well. He once listed the books he read while president; they went into the hundreds, and most were of the most scholarly type. Lest a modern reader think he must have just skimmed them, contemporaries attest that his powers of concentration were such that he did read all of them, more devoured them, and could talk about each one as if he'd spent his whole life studying it.

Domestic Policy

The term most associated with Roosevelt is of course "progressive." And he did certainly push through many good and lasting reforms. But as will be discussed below, his progressivism is not quite the same as i our modern time, and what struck me as I read the book was how cautious he was, and how his reforms were far more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Famous as a "trust buster," he was no wild-eyed extremist. He was very careful not to go too far or too fast. Conscious of the need to assuage conservatives, from the vantage of today his actions seem more cautious than anything.

The great anthracite coal strike of 1902 is illustrative of his attitude. The loss of the coal supply threatened to cripple the economy, and initially neither side was in a mood to compromise. But Roosevelt's adroit maneuvering convinced both sides to accept a special commission, and he then convinced each side to accept it's finding. Indeed, such as his skill that both sides claimed victory.

Roosevelt pushed Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, as well as the Meat Inspection Act of 1906. Partially as a reaction to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. At first, many did not believe the description of the meat-packing industry in the book, but Roosevelt's investigators proved every point and then some.

Conservation of our natural resources became important to Roosevelt as his presidency went on, and towards the end of his second term he held a first-ever "Conference of Governors" at the White House to promote conservation. He signed into law the creation of five national parks, numerous national monuments, bird sanctuaries, and national forests

Foreign Policy

It was similar with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Although the Japanese had won every battle, by middle of 1905 they were financially exhausted by the war unable to continue. Roosevelt persuaded each side to meet in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he mediated the dispute. As with the coal strike, it appeared at first that the positions of each side were irreconcilable.

It's hard to imagine it now, but the United States hardly had a navy for most of the 19th century. Most of the Civil War fleet was made of ships only suitable for river work, or for coastal blockade work. When he took office, our navy was small and insignificant. When he left, it was the world's third largest.

The new navy came together in what became known as the "Great White Fleet." Essentially, he decided that it was time to announce to the world that the United States was to be counted among the world's great powers, and what better way to do it then sent our new navy on a trip around the world. When asked how many battleships he wanted to send, his answer was to ask how many we had. Fittingly, the fleet returned to it's home base at Hampton Roads, Virginia, only a month before his successor was to be sworn in. "I could not as a finer concluding scene for my administration, " he said, as the fleet arrived.

Perhaps his most lasting legacy is not even in the United States. The idea of a canal, or waterway, linking the Atlantic and Pacific was not new. But Roosevelt took a failed attempt and made it a reality.

Toward the end of his second term he developed a near-contempt for our traditional constitutional system of checks and balances. In his last, "Eighth," message to congress was terribly extreme. He claimed that concentration of power was democratic, not the other way around. Earlier he had suggested the courts should affirm his policies more than examine the Constitution and rule that way. And as mentioned above his theory that true democracy required a concentration of power rather than a separation of it can at best be read as an intemperate response to congressional opposition and at worst a tendency toward soft tyranny... all for the good of the people, of course.

Although it can be said that Roosevelt was relatively enlightened on racial matters for his day, he was no civil rights crusader. He did invite Booker T Washington, the most important black leader of the time, to dinner at the White House, which was a noble move. Yet the white outcry, especially from the south, was so strong that he declined to repeat the move. He recognized that lynchings, which were occurring at epidemic rates at the time, were horrible, yet he was timid in speaking out against them, holding back at times for purely political reasons; he didn't want to hurt his parties chances in one set of mid-term elections, for example.

Roosevelt was hugely popular with the public throughout his term and could easily won election a second time. But since he assumed power a mere six months into McKinley's second term, he thought that seven and a half years was enough. That he willingly gave up another four years of power must be counted in his favor.

Conservative or Liberal?

The fact is that once you go back in history a certain distance, you simply cannot ascribe modern labels to people or parties. The issues were different, and the political philosophies not the same as today. Even "progressive," had a somewhat different meaning then than today.

The fact is that both modern conservatives and liberals will find things to like and dislike about Theodore Roosevelt. No modern movement can claim him as entirely their own.

My Take

Not that one should get the impression that Roosevelt is that of hagiography, for many of his attitudes and actions were nothing we would accept by modern standards. There was almost a cult of personality that came out at party conventions, for example.

Roosevelt was a remarkable man, truly a one-of-a-kind. There are so many facets to him, and so many seeming opposites (scholar and rough rider, for example). So energetic, so charming to his guests and frustrating to his opponents. So much to both admire and dislike.

The book itself is very readable. Morris is an excellent storyteller, and the events are pretty much laid out in straight chronological fashion.

The downside is that in 500 pages you only get seven and a half years of his life. I just don't have the time to read the other two sets in the trilogy, so although this book captures the most important part there's still so much more that I'll miss. Although I enjoyed this book it would have been nice to get his entire life in one volume.

All in all, a good read, and I recommend it. Roosevelt was president during an important part of our history, and he decisively shaped what our nation would look like in the 20th century.

Posted by Tom at September 11, 2012 9:00 PM

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