Pure energy

Early in his presidency, the New York World described Theodore Roosevelt as “the strangest creature the White House has ever held” and one of his oldest friends commented, “You must always remember that the President is about six.” Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris’ superb sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, brings vividly to life TR’s years as the youngest and literally by leaps and bounds, the most vigorous president in U.S. history.

Boxing, jujitsu, climbing all over Washington’s Rock Creek Park, and playing with his youngest children did not remotely begin to exhaust Roosevelt’s legendary energy. He also read three books a day, carried on a large personal correspondence and found ample time for a variety of social engagements. All of this, of course, in addition to his duties as president, which he met with unprecedented enthusiasm.

Morris sees TR as the first modern president, an artful political genius adept at manipulating public opinion through the press, skillful at ushering in the United States as a new and powerful player in international affairs, and sensitive to the aspirations and opinions of the burgeoning white-collar class. Despite his reputation as a trustbuster, Roosevelt was not an enemy of the rich nor was he a particular friend of labor. As Morris describes it, TR tried to regulate the power of both the wealthy and the workers, ultimately benefiting the middle class.

Personally pugnacious and rhetorically bellicose, Roosevelt proved to be a surprisingly pacific president, even winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation of the 1905 Russo-Japanese peace talks. Continuing to build up the U.S. Navy, TR believed strongly that the projection of power generally made the use of power unnecessary.

In domestic affairs, he strengthened the federal government’s regulatory powers over giant corporations chiefly by more effective enforcement of existing laws. But his most enduring legacy lay in the impetus he gave to conservation of the country’s natural resources.

Theodore Roosevelt may not fit the modern conception of an environmentalist. For one thing, he was a habitual and unrepentant assassin of large game. But he was also a lifelong naturalist whose love of the outdoors remains unsurpassed among American presidents. It’s worth remembering, as we approach Earth Day 2002, that not only did Roosevelt set aside more national parks and forests than all previous chief executives combined, he convened the first National Conservation Congress, prevailing upon governors and congressmen alike to join in concerted efforts to preserve precious resources.

If Morris’ vividly realized biography has a flaw, it is that he assumes Roosevelt’s greatness rather than demonstrating it. There is no doubt that the ebullient Teddy captured the popular imagination of early 20th-century America, arriving as he did in the wake of a series of presidents notable for their complete absence of personal charm or political charisma. But the list of TR’s accomplishments, while not trivial, is not exactly overwhelming either. And, despite Roosevelt’s authorship of 27 books and innumerable articles and public addresses, he wrote little that was quoted or even remembered after his death.

And so we’re left with the impression of a powerful and willful personality, a human engine of enormous energy who, despite his considerable intelligence, can perhaps best be summed up in his Waspish friend Henry Adams’ phrase, that Theodore Roosevelt had “that singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter—the quality that medieval theology assigned to God—he was pure act.”