The president who learned to walk softly

The second volume of Edmund Morris's study of Theodore Roosevelt

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Theodore Roosevelt is a biographer's dream, an epic character not out of place in an adventure novel. Edmund Morris captures perfectly the frenetic atmosphere that surrounded a president of boundless energy, imagination, and ambition. Though minutely detailed, this account of Roosevelt's 7-1/2 years in the White House remains lively throughout.

That said, Morris's first volume, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" (1979), must have been a great deal more fun to write. His early years were full of swashbuckling adventure; Roosevelt scored points with his fists and with his brain.

But the presidency constrained Teddy. Protocol and propriety encouraged an understanding of limits, even though he did not always respect them. It smoothed his rough edges, taught him subtlety. Gone was the Rough Rider, replaced by a leader who learned to walk softly and carry a big stick.

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Roosevelt was a man who straddled two distinct ages of America. He carried within him the limitless ardor of the 19th-century pioneer, but he understood and encapsulated the emergence of the United States as a great modern power. He was America - brash, naive, clumsy, powerful, occasionally dangerous, but fundamentally well-meaning.

Roosevelt's deep intelligence and raw power seem attractive today, when politicians are often bland, one-dimensional creations of PR professionals. Roosevelt wrote his own speeches and said what he wanted. But he lived in a time suited to his free-wheeling instincts. He stole Panama from Columbia, yet most world leaders applauded. He spoke of the inferiorities of African Americans, yet he invited Booker T. Washington to the White House - the first black man to enjoy such a privilege.

If he provides lessons for the present, it is difficult to understand what they might be, because it is hard to imagine Roosevelt surviving in the immensely more complicated politics of today.

It is nevertheless impossible to read this book without thinking of recent events. Of the anarchist who shot William McKinley, Roosevelt warned: "The wind is sowed by the men who preach such doctrines, and they cannot escape their responsibility for the whirlwind that is reaped." "As civilization grows," he wrote, "warfare becomes less and less the normal condition of human relations."

But he understood that conflict would not disappear. "More and more the increasing interdependence and complexity of international political and economic relations render it incumbent on all civilized and orderly powers to insist on the proper policing of the world."

Morris loves his subject, but love clouds judgement. The detail suggests a "warts and all" biography, but the warts are transformed into beauty marks. Roosevelt, it should be remembered, was an expert at self-promotion. "Theodore is never sober," said Henry Adams, "only he is drunk with himself and not with rum."

Historians are supposed to prick the balloons of myth that great men inflate to carry themselves aloft. Morris might, for instance, have pointed out that a man who claimed to have read 20,000 books before he became president would have had to read 1-1/2 books every day of his eventful life. We don't need any more exaggeration; Roosevelt provides enough by himself.

Most readers will adore this book, but purist historians will find it annoying. Roosevelt's career is presented as a day-by-day account; minute reconstruction of his administration is interwoven with detailed descriptions of hikes and bear hunts. This style captures the frenzied pace of presidential life, but it does not allow pause to reflect, or the quiet interlude essential for deep analysis.

There is no more complete biography of Roosevelt. But there are always details in a subject's life that the historian cannot possibly discover. Usually these are insignificant. Morris, however, aims not simply to explain but to reconstruct in real time. At one point, for instance, he recounts Roosevelt's vacation at Sagamore Hill: "Two dogs greeted him; a third stared indifferently." How does he know? Did the dogs leave diaries? Although such detail makes for a good story, discerning readers will question its veracity.

"Theodore Rex" is a massive achievement and hugely entertaining. But, while long on detail, it is short on insight. Historians should not just reconstruct the past; they should also reflect upon it. Here, that kind of reflection is left entirely to the reader.

Gerard J. DeGroot is chairman of the department of Modern History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

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