I wondered as I made my way through all three volumes of Edmund Morris’s study of Theodore Roosevelt why my emotions were in gradual decline. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the story moves quickly from Roosevelt’s sickly childhood, through unrelenting hard work on his body and mind to the New York legislature, tragedy and triumph, but always forward. The tragedy was the death on the same day in the same house of his mother and his young wife.
A tragedy that would shatter any man or women, perhaps for life. But not Teddy. He finished his legislative duties for the year and went West. As far West as the train would take him in the late 19th Century into the Dakota Territories. Mocked as an Eastern dude he gradually won his new neighbors respect through his cattle ranch, as deputy sheriff, and hunter. By this point in his career he was an accomplished author, whose The Naval War of 1812 remains a definitive study today.
Then in a whirlwind of reforming positions in New York state government and the federal government, including the Assistant Secretary of the Navy on the eve of the Spanish-American War this man of action began a relentless rise to the Presidency. Once the Navy was fitted and armed for the conflict, Roosevelt resigned, helped recruit a volunteer regiment, and sailed to Cuba as a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army. His actions in combat won him the Medal of Honor, although it was awarded long after his death for political reasons.
After his return from Cuba he became Governor of New York, Vice-President, and upon President McKinley’s assassination he achieved his destiny and became President. Morris tells Roosevelt’s rise in such vivid colors and action that when I laid down The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt my overriding desire was to write in TR’s name on the next presidential ballot. And Theodore Rex, the second volume, merely confirmed my conviction that in a time of war and economic challenge America was blessed with a great man as President.
Roosevelt is the only US President who holds both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize. The latter was awarded for his successful mediation of the Russo-Japanese War. He was a man of action and Morris captures all of it from the heroic to the comical. But the originator of the “bully pulpit” built a strong centrist coalition that carried not only himself but his country forward onto the international stage. Then, through crucial economic reforms broadly supported throughout the nation, he laid the foundation for the vast wealth of the American Century .
But the final volume, The Colonel, moved slower. As Roosevelt split his party and propelled Woodrow Wilson into power over Taft, his fellow Republican, Roosevelt diminished himself. Despite the safari, the grand tour of European monarchs, the numerous books, the Bull Moose Presidential campaign, the exploration of an unknown river in the Amazon, Roosevelt divided the nation he had united. The Roosevelt of 1912 I would not vote for in any office.
Morris’s superb story-telling cannot mask that a man of action must lead from the center. He may move the center to the left or the right, but he must lead from it. From Roosevelt to Reagan to be a great leader, a President must reach beyond his core constituency and lead an overwhelming majority. He must inspire a whole nation to believe not in small things, but in a destiny for good toward all its citizens and the nations of the world. And once in power he must use that majority not to push a partisan agenda, but a broad vision equal to the coalition that brought him to the White House.
I highly recommend Edmund Morris’s Trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt.