A Preference for Strenuous Ghosts

Michael Kammen

  • Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris
    HarperCollins, 772 pp, £25.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 00 217708 0

Americans seem to relish Presidential biographies. David McCullough’s Truman (1992) was on the bestseller lists for the better part of a year, and his John Adams (2001) is providing an astonishing repeat performance. Robert Caro’s dramatically detailed look at The Years of Lyndon Johnson has been unfolding since 1982, and large chunks of Volume Three have been serialised in the New Yorker. In the meantime, Robert Dallek scooped him with Lyndon Johnson and His Times in two thick volumes (1991-98), although anyone who wants to know what lay beneath all the warts, scars and obscenities will have to wait for Caro to finish – if they live long enough. Well before Stephen Ambrose got blindsided a few months ago by the plagiarism police, he produced solid biographies of Eisenhower in two volumes (1983-84) and Nixon in three (1987-91). And though William McFeely won a Pulitzer Prize for his Grant (1981), that did not deter Jean Edward Smith from publishing a massive new Grant (2001), which some politicians have been reading with furtive pleasure because it finds that Gilded Age Administration less corrupt than had been believed.

The Conservative pundit Richard Brookhiser gave us Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (1996) in order to paint a portrait of integrity and rectitude as an exemplar of what was wanting in the Clinton White House. Books about Franklin D. Roosevelt and, above all, Abraham Lincoln have long since become a cottage industry. FDR’s elder cousin, Theodore, who occupied the White House from 1901 to 1909, has not exactly been neglected, but Nathan Miller’s 1992 biography was the first since Henry Pringle’s in 1931. Edmund Morris won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, a bestseller despite its 863 pages, and now he gives us the Presidential years in a svelte, eminently readable 772 pages. Some critics (mostly academic, perhaps) will lament the lack of more contextual information, but Morris is a marvellous storyteller. His attention to the nation that Roosevelt was transforming could have been more nuanced, but his Teddy, after whom the cuddlesome bears are named, is larger than life and the tale is compelling.

It was Roosevelt whose diplomatic skulduggery fostered Panama’s independence from Colombia and got the malarial Canal built, and whose Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine kept meddling European nations out of the Western Hemisphere. He was responsible for settling a number of fierce and recalcitrant disputes from the horrific miners’ strike of 1903 to the 1905 Russo-Japanese War (for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize); he introduced anti-trust legislation; and he launched the conservation movement whose legacy is a large number of spectacular national parks and monuments and a ‘land ethic’ that only began to see results during the latter decades of the 20th century.

Roosevelt was a centrist in politics, always seeking equilibrium, offering Americans a ‘Square Deal’ that gave hope to the labouring classes and to African Americans: hope that might then be dashed in the name of law and order, or else to avoid alienating white voters, or to placate powerful members of Congress who were inclined to see him as a traitor to his patrician past and the propertied elite. Not only a superb political tactician but an intellectual, he wrote countless volumes of history, as well as accounts of his adventures in the great outdoors, at home and abroad. He read voraciously in several languages: multi-volume histories of Rome, Britain, France and other Empires, as well as Euripides and Shakespeare, long passages of which he could quote from memory.

A man of action who loved the limelight, he could also be notably discreet, so that his international network of friends made possible a series of diplomatic triumphs that left barely any paper trail. As Morris explains, Roosevelt ‘had a far-flung network of intermediaries, men of diplomatic or intellectual or social stamp, by no means all Americans. Most of them were globe-trotting friends from pre-Presidential days.’ They included Cecil Spring Rice, an Englishman who had served as best man at his wedding and had been in the British Embassies at Berlin, Constantinople and St Petersburg, and Arthur Hamilton Lee, a Tory MP. According to Morris, ‘their urbane, literate reports’ kept Roosevelt up to date ‘with court affairs and privileged gossip’. As members of the ‘secret du roi’ – TR’s intimate and reliable circle of friends – ‘they were able to negotiate without paper, and keep agreements quiet, protecting the sensitivities of parties. They in turn could trust Roosevelt’s absolute discretion.’

TR’s boundless energy, idiosyncrasies and absence of inhibition make him an intriguing subject. When he sat in the Episcopal church with the handle of a revolver poking from his pocket, it unnerved people. After receiving an honorary degree from Harvard, his alma mater, he retired to a guest suite to change. The president of the university watched with fascination as TR tore off his coat and vest and slammed a large pistol on the dresser. Asked if it was his habit to carry firearms, TR replied: ‘Yes, when I am going into public places.’ He had succeeded to the Presidency when William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist.

After winning a major fight with Congress in May 1908 over increasing the number of US battleships, he led the French Ambassador Jules Jusserand and four other hikers on a strenuous expedition along the Virginia side of the Potomac River. ‘When all were pouring with perspiration,’ Morris relates, ‘Roosevelt suggested a swim and stripped naked. His party followed suit, but Jusserand absentmindedly kept on his black kid climbing gloves. “Eh, Mr Ambassador,” Roosevelt called from the water’s edge, “have you not forgotten something?” Jusserand shouted back: “We might meet ladies.”’ TR’s well-known love of exertion extended to ghosts. As he explained to a tennis and hiking friend, ‘I want ghosts who do things. I don’t care for the Henry James kind of ghosts. I want real sepulchral ghosts, the kind that knock you over and eat fire . . . none of your weak, shallow apparitions.’ As a man who read to his adoring children, he would have loved Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

His ebullient, uncontrollable spirit is in many ways a biographer’s dream, and whenever a major event occurred in his life, especially in the realms of diplomacy and domestic politics, he wrote long letters to his son Kermit or to his close friend Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. He knew perfectly well that they would be found some day by the likes of Edmund Morris, and help to shape his biography. They must be taken with a grain of salt, and Morris is savvy enough for that.

Born in Nairobi and educated in South Africa, Morris worked as an advertising copywriter in London. After moving to the US in 1968, he became a freelance writer, produced his vast volume on TR’s early career, was appointed the official biographer of President Reagan, and caused considerable controversy when Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan appeared in 1999 because in it he created an imaginary narrator. That willingness to experiment with narrative technique continues in the present volume, though less obtrusively. When major events are unfolding at home and abroad, Morris provides running accounts of both in short segments of a single chapter, rather than devoting separate chapters to each, thereby giving a sense of a President dealing simultaneously with different crises all equally demanding of great skill and insight. The device is rarely confusing, though it sometimes leaves the reader feeling like someone at an airport watching planes landing and taking off.

Reading this volume prompts you to contemplate what has changed since the start of the last century. In 1901, the population of the US was 77 million; it is now approximately 285 million. TR’s control of the press corps was absolute. On becoming President he warned reporters that they would enjoy his confidence but needed to understand that the privilege depended on their ‘discretion as to publication’. When he received news of his nomination for a second term in 1904, he invited newsmen in for an ‘executive session’, laughing as they fired questions at him. ‘Prophecies, jokes, reminiscences, and indiscretions poured out freely, enchantingly,’ Morris writes. ‘Roosevelt asked that nothing he said be printed. And nothing ever was.’ In 1904, when TR and Judge Alton Parker were chosen as candidates for the Presidency by the two major parties, they did not attend the Conventions, received formal delegations at their homes informing them of their nominations, were expected to do nothing during the planning phase of the campaign, and nothing more later beyond delivering one acceptance speech and writing one formal letter of acceptance.

There are some interesting similarities between Roosevelt and Clinton, both of whom left the Presidency as relatively young men (TR at 51). From the outset, Roosevelt worried about what he would do following his term of service. Clinton is still sorting out his options, though his objective in Africa is the eradication of poverty rather than hunting big game, which topped TR’s agenda when he left office in 1909. Cecil Spring Rice, while serving as British Commissioner in Egypt, remarked: ‘You must always remember that the President is about six’ – referring to his impulsiveness, high spirits, bellowing laughter and love for intensely physical games. Like Clinton, TR felt genuine sympathy for African Americans, and caused consternation when he invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House early in his first term. Unlike Clinton, TR doubted the social and intellectual capacities of most blacks, but he did believe in treating them fairly and fought against lynching at a time when it was becoming commonplace. He also set aside vast tracts of public land to preserve them from commercial development, an important objective for Clinton, too.

On the other hand, TR’s greatest interest was in foreign affairs, which he handled with aplomb: domestic politics often brought him bitter conflict and limited success. He cared greatly about the size and power of the military, and doubled the size of the American fleet during his first term (the military felt neglected during Clinton’s Presidency). TR moved to the left during his last years in office, joining the Progressives in calling men like John D. Rockefeller and E.H. Harriman ‘criminals of great wealth’: Clinton by contrast continued to court the wealthy in his ceaseless effort to raise funds for his Party.

Morris deftly weaves in the necessary background information for those who haven’t read the previous volume. He is also a master of delightfully trivial details. The Presidential candidate of the Prohibition Party in 1904 was Silas Swallow, but ‘to the regret of satirists and cartoonists, Mr Swallow was unable to choose the General Secretary of the Methodist Conference, Ezra Tipple, as his running mate’ because Tipple was already a Roosevelt supporter. He has a gift for thumbnail sketches, describing Philander C. Knox, for example, who served as TR’s first Attorney General, as ‘short, smooth, pale and expressionless, a porcelain egg of a man, weighted in place, yet tilting to the slightest touch. His dark blue eyes stared in different directions. No spoon could crack him open for inspection.’ We learn how American orthography came to be formally different from British (‘honor’ instead of ‘honour’), though TR himself favoured the more radical reforms – ‘pur, ript, snapt, thru’ – proposed by Columbia University’s Simplified Spelling Board in 1906.

The rapid increase in the quality and export of American manufactures exactly a century ago prompts this overview:

Current advertisements in British magazines gave the impression that the typical Englishman woke to the ring of an Ingersoll alarm, shaved with a Gillette razor, combed his hair with Vaseline tonic, buttoned his Arrow shirt, hurried downstairs for Quaker Oats, California figs and Maxwell House coffee, commuted in a Westinghouse tram (body by Fisher), rose to his office in an Otis elevator, and worked all day with his Waterman pen under the efficient glare of Edison lightbulbs. ‘It only remains,’ one Fleet Street wag suggested, ‘for [us] to take American coals to Newcastle.’ Behind the joke lay real concern: the United States was already supplying beer to Germany, pottery to Bohemia and oranges to Valencia.

Morris’s prose can be memorable. Describing Roosevelt’s manipulative sharing of information among members of his secret du roi, he observes that

even to such intimates, he told only what he wanted to tell. Like a mirror-speckled sphere at a prom, sending out spangles of light, he beamed fragmentary particulars at different dancers. They circled beneath him (or did he revolve above them?) in movements of accelerating, apparently random intricacy. The resultant sweep and blur was enough to make any bystander dizzy, because it looked centrifugal; Roosevelt, however, felt only a centripetal energy, directed inward.

Occasionally this kind of flourish sails over the top. Now and then Morris also falls victim to tired stereotypes. He describes Henry Cabot Lodge as overjoyed by a victory at the Alaska Boundary Tribunal, but adds: ‘insofar as a Brahmin could feel joyful about anything’.

Finally, there are a few times when Morris’s insertion of information about Roosevelt is both awkward and confusing. In Chapter 18, where he writes about the highly dramatic events that led up to the Panamanian revolt against Colombia, making possible TR’s preferred location for the Canal, Morris calls attention to a request from Nicholas Murray Butler, the President of Columbia University, for a list of Roosevelt’s favourite books. Segments devoted to the tense drama unfolding in Washington and the Caribbean alternate with bibliographies that display TR’s extraordinary erudition. Theodore Rex may well have been the greatest ‘man of letters’ among American Presidents but he was no smarter than John Adams, Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln.