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Swinging A Big Stick

Biographer Edmund Morris captures TR's vitality and larger than life stature


In 1901, an anarchist assassinated President William McKinley, making him the third commander-in-chief killed during the last 40 years. His replacement, 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, regarded the anarchists as a threat to the nation's survival. Roosevelt's challenge: restoring confidence and security to a nation rocked by tragedy and destruction. The parallels with contemporary America aren't lost on biographer Edmund Morris, whose second Roosevelt chronicle, Theodore Rex, continues the story begun in the author's 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Morris regards Roosevelt's day-to-day life as little different from that of George W. Bush's today. The man credited with coining the phrase "bully pulpit" carried a burden every bit as heavy as modern presidents.

"It's exactly the same," Morris says by phone. "The presidency doesn't change. Presidents come in, they have to deal with crises, they have to personify moral resolve, they have to represent the best in our nation and they have to deal with moral issues. That has been the case from the time George Washington was president to this moment."

The youngest man ever to serve as president, TR, as he's inevitably called, is among the small group of historical figures befitting the cliche larger than life. Self-proclaimed for swinging a big stick as a corporate trustbuster, he proved insatiable in all walks of life. Hunter. Historian. Adventurer. Conservationist. Politician. Husband. Father. Reader.

Theodore Rex covers the eight years Roosevelt served as president, a time which, by his gargantuan standards, was marked by events less compelling than those before or after his White House days. This is saying quite a lot, as the Roosevelt presidency included a Nobel Peace Prize, numerous diplomatic struggles and the building of the Panama Canal. The reader never suffers waning attention in the capable hands of Morris and TR. The author smoothly spins out vignettes in a you-are-there manner. The technique, combined with bite-sized sections, makes this doorstop offering downright breezy. It is a praiseworthy, and enviable, performance by Morris, an esteemed biographer briefly sidetracked by a disastrous 1999 account of Ronald Reagan's life.

Roosevelt's appetites proved endless. He ate twice as much as the average man, gulped gallons of coffee, worked double the speed of colleagues and read at a prodigious rate. Two years into his presidency, TR, asked by a friend for a reading list, reeled off the names of 100 authors spanning Dickens, Tolstoy, Plutarch and Thucydides.

Those hoping to catch more than a glimpse of the nation's chief executive could head over to Rock Creek Park, where Roosevelt enjoyed frequent skinny-dipping sessions with beleaguered Cabinet members in tow. Many days, he spent time on the White House lawn seemingly talking to the trees as he meticulously documented bird species.

Perhaps most surprising, TR evinced a knack for behind-the-scenes diplomacy at odds with his typical blustery demeanor. Morris documents a 1902 crisis that put the United States and Germany on the brink of war. It stemmed from a $62 million debt Venezuela owed a consortium of lenders headed by Germany and Britain. Venezuela had no money to repay its loan. This prompted the frustrated Kaiser to plan a blockade and, later, occupation of Venezuela. The Germans realized Roosevelt's likely consternation, mulling a possible invasion of America. Still, the Kaiser pressed on, at one point seizing four Venezuelan gunboats. TR then sent American battleships to the region and, behind the scenes, convinced Britain to drop its support of Germany. That maneuver, combined with the strong naval presence, prevented war. Without firing a shot, Roosevelt made the Kaiser blink.

"That was one of the pleasant surprises of this book," Morris says. "TR's subtle diplomacy was something I really hadn't expected."

After two decades studying TR, Morris remains fascinated. He calls Roosevelt our most well-rounded president (with the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson) and says he has already begun plotting the third and final volume of TR's biography.

It will cover Roosevelt's adventurous post-presidential years ­ African big-game safaris, the Bull Moose ticket, the tragic death of his son Quentin in World War I ­ through his death in 1919.

Despite a wealth of adventures before and after his presidency, Roosevelt's most lasting legacy came in office. He preserved 230 million acres of wilderness as president, a powerful testament to his lifelong love of nature and the wild.

His foresight, making conservation part of the common language, impresses Morris most. TR's reigning popularity a century later, Morris believes, stems from his force-of-nature personality and indomitable spirit. People who met Theodore Roosevelt found themselves captivated. Morris describes such overwhelming likability as a link between TR and his other biographical subject, Reagan.

"They did have in common personal charm and delicious humor," he says. "And they used this charm and this humor to amass real political power. It was, by general consent, impossible to resist TR in his time, as people found when they met Reagan in his."

In a smaller way, the same can be said for Morris's work. Like David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose, Morris finds himself in the select company of historians who can prod Americans to enjoy learning about the past. Critics sometimes carp, but not readers. Morris, unlike many social critics, doesn't blame Americans for their intermittent historical enthusiasm.

"The melancholy truth is that most American history in the last century has been extremely dull," he says. "History has become so scientific and so obsessed with large social movements and statistics and things like that. It has very little left in it the way it is written. Therefore, Americans have been turned off by history simply because it's been so boringly written."

Ever-conscious of his favorite subject, Morris turns to a 1912 speech TR made as president of the American Historical Association for solace. "The historian of the future," Roosevelt remarked, "must ever remember that unless he writes vividly, he cannot write truthfully." He would be happy to learn that his biographer has, again, done just that.

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