Book Review: Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

This is the second volume of a trilogy on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most dynamic of U.S. presidents.  The first volume, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” deals with his youth, education, early years as a rancher in the Badlands of South Dakota, and eventual rise in politics to the vice presidency under McKinley.  McKinley’s assassination at the end of the first book propels Roosevelt into the presidency.

The second volume begins as Roosevelt, who at the time that the president is shot is far off in the Maine wilderness, makes a long journey to Washington D.C., not knowing if the president will live or die, but with a premonition that he is traveling to his destiny.  As Morris recounts details of the journey, he brings the reader up to date on the political situation in the United States.  By the time Roosevelt reaches his destination, McKinley is dead, and Roosevelt must immediately take the reins of the government.

This volume describes Roosevelt’s two terms in office as president, although at least two-thirds of the book is devoted to his first term, during which he consolidated power and achieved milestones such as the treaty that initiated the building of the Panama Canal, the settling of rebel insurgency in the Philippines, the strengthening of the U.S. Navy, and an attack on and legislation against monopolistic trusts seeking to control large sectors of the U.S. economy.  The description of his second term is almost anticlimactic in comparison.

For most of its long length, the biography held my attention better than most novels.  Morris is a better writer than most novelists.  His research is exhaustive, but he melds the wealth of material together in a tight stream of narrative.

Morris certainly has a charismatic main character in Theodore Roosevelt.  Regardless of what one thinks of his personal opinions or political inclinations, the man was dynamic, forceful, persuasive, and intelligent.  As long as he held the presidency he kept strict control of governmental power.  It is fascinating to read how he reacts to one crisis after another, although it is difficult to fathom his need to assert his manhood by going out into the wilderness and slaughtering animals.

Contradictorily, though, his love for nature and the wild led to one of his greatest achievements:  the establishment of a network of national parks, forests, and monuments to preserve the country’s natural resources for future generations.  Without his relentless devotion to protecting the natural beauty of the United States, it would long ago have been decimated by amoral entrepreneurs.

The book’s pace slows a bit in the last sections.  Perhaps, as I said, it reflects the fact that Roosevelt’s first term was far more dynamic than his second.  By the time his second term came to an end he was exhausted, and refused to run for a third term, although his popularity ensured that he would almost certainly have won the Republican nomination and the subsequent election.

This is an excellent book, although in a way it lacks the scope of the first book, being necessarily confined to Roosevelt’s actions in the White House as chief executive.  In “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” he had to struggle against innumerable odds, and the force of the book is in how he overcomes one adversity after another.  In “Theodore Rex” he has arrived, so to speak, and despite his having to contend with often recalcitrant Congressional personages and foreign governments, one does not sense the same sort of peril or odds against him as he struggles.  Still, the book is worth reading not only as the portrait of a singular individual but as a reflection of the era in which he lived.

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