Saturday, September 15, 2012

Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris

Theodore Rex
By Edmund Morris
Copyright 2001

Edmund Morris got a bit detoured after publishing The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt in 1979, having agreed to serve as official historian of the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Having concluded this gig, he finally got to the second installment of his Theodore Roosevelt trilogy, Theodore Rex. The second book chronicles the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt – a presidency with a fanciful mix of progressivism and old fashioned Stalwart Republicanism.

The book recaps just a little of Theodore Roosevelt’s time between the federal agents finding him at his remote camp ground and his trip to Buffalo. Roosevelt spent little time mourning William McKinley. He wasn’t fond of the man. He was, outraged, however, at McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz – a self professed anarchist. Roosevelt wanted justice – swift and harsh – for Czolgosz. Roosevelt despised anarchists.

Roosevelt first tried to maintain a stable transition of power by declaring that McKinley’s cabinet would be staying on. Slowly, many would be phased out, but credit Roosevelt for having the wisdom to restrain himself and make a slow, gradual transition from the McKinley presidency to his own.

Morris covers Roosevelt’s complex race relations conduct in great detail. Roosevelt had worked hard to cultivate the South. They were never going to vote Republican in Dixie, but southern Republican delegates were important at the convention and Roosevelt entered the presidency with the 1904 Republican nomination on his mind. That is why it is mystifying that one of his first acts as president was to invite a black man to dine at the White House. Booker T. Washington -- America's most prominent black leader at the turn of the last century, had dinner with Roosevelt and discussed race relations, black voting rights, and lynching with the president.

The entire nation was stunned and the South infuriated. This was a time when lynchings were a monthly occurrence in the South and prejudices ran high. Whatever support Roosevelt enjoyed in the South evaporated while northern progressives hailed the move.

Roosevelt was not so progressive in his thinking a few years later when he went to war with Ohio Senator, Joseph Foraker over the Brownsville Affair and 167 black soldiers who were dishonorably discharged for rioting in the Texas town.

After an altercation between a black soldier from nearby Fort Brown and a Brownsville businessman, the city banned all black soldiers from its municipality. On August 13, 1906, a bartender and police office were shot in the town. Residents claimed there had been a riot and that they had evidence – a shell casing – that clearly demonstrated that the murderer or murderers had been soldiers from Fort Brown.

The evidence was thin and none of the more than 100 soldiers questioned would offer testimony. Based on that, the Army dishonorably discharged the soldiers. Blacks and civil rights activists were outraged. Southern whites and bigots in the North were satisfied. Presidential aspirant Foraker saw a wedge issue and sought to exploit it.

Morris correctly leads the reader to believe that Foraker’s motives were not entirely noble. Foraker had two aspirations. First and foremost, he wanted to be the political equal if not superior of Ohio power broker, Mark Hanna who had traction with the White House. Secondly, “Fire Alarm Joe” needed an issue to catapult him to national prominence for a possible presidential run.

The two battled in the press and Foraker tried to press the Senate for committee hearings to look into the matter. But this was the time when the South was developing its dominance of the U.S. Senate and Foraker’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Despite being on the side of the angels, the issue petered out as did Joseph Foraker’s political career. Meanwhile, Roosevelt stood by his decision while providing scant justification.

It is also worth noting that Roosevelt frequently scolded the South for lynching black men. Lynchings during the Roosevelt administration occurred approximately once per month. While he gave the issue lip service, he never enacted any federal legislation nor did he employ the powers of the justice department to stop it.

On the issue of trust busting, Morris’ examination of Roosevelt’s record leads the reader into a much more gray area. Roosevelt has a popular reputation as being a great trust buster. However, Morris’ examination of Roosevelt’s record reveals that it was mixed. Roosevelt was perfectly willing to abide monopolies and make deals with them when it suited his political needs.

Acting on his own, he brokered a settlement between striking coal miners and mine owners in the anthracite coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. This was one of the early and defining moments for Roosevelt as a leader. The strike threatened the nation’s economic health and the welfare of citizens who relied on that coal to power industry and to heat homes. The bargain he struck won him fans in organized labor and the respect of big business.

He and his attorney general, Philander Knox, took on a huge railroad trust when they took the Northern Securities Company to court under the Sherman anti-trust act. They succeeded in breaking up the railroad monopoly that would dominate and fix rates for the entire American Northwest. But he was unwilling to take on powerbrokers such as J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and their monopolistic activities continued unabated. The government had come to so heavily rely on Morgan that alienating him would have had dire economic impact. It was Morgan who first came to define the phrase, “Too big to fail.”

When Roosevelt came into office, the fight over the canal through Central America was already being waged in Central America and in the halls of U.S. government. The fight was not over whether or not to build it, but where to build it. Some favored Colombia and others favored Nicaragua. When the Colombian route won out, the Colombians started making unreasonable demands. Roosevelt, who seldom let the interests of others thwart his plans, did all he could – including sending warships into the region – to foster a rebellion in the Panamanian region of Colombia. The revolt was essentially bloodless and the new government let the Americans have their land for a canal.

From the time he entered office, Theodore Roosevelt was eyeing reelection. He was certainly popular nationally, but had rivals within the Republican Party. Chief among those was McKinley’s old friend and mentor, Marcus Hanna. When Roosevelt would take one of his occasional forays into trust busting, it was Hanna that businessmen turned to to dissuade the president, mistakenly believing that Hanna had some influence as he’d had with McKinley.

Roosevelt and Hanna – certainly the two most powerful men of their time – did not trust each other. Roosevelt had felt that Hanna held too much sway over McKinley and was determined to not let the Ohio industrialist and senior senator influence policy in his White House. Hanna regarded Roosevelt as somewhat impulsive an immature; prone to act without thinking through the consequences. The two maintained a tense but functional relationship.

Based on what Morris tells us about Hanna, the reader can conclude that Hanna knew he was not physically or mentally up to the job of the presidency. He was chronically pained by gout and a weak heart. Nor did he seem to have a passion for the job. He never overtly or covertly sought the Republican nomination. He seems to have been content to let others throw his name around to curtail the young upstart’s developing progressivism. Hanna would die in 1904 before Roosevelt left office.

The 1904 Republican convention nominated Roosevelt by acclamation and chose Charles Fairbanks of Indiana as his running mate. What is interesting is how little thought went into the selection of Fairbanks, given that the selection of Roosevelt as McKinley’s running mate had turned out to be an important decision four years prior.

Sen. Fairbanks had a lackluster record in the senate as far as high profile issues. He was a yeoman senator, capable of wading into important, but unexciting issues. To Roosevelt, who did not like to share a stage, Fairbanks was the perfect running mate. Roosevelt was grooming several in his cabinet to be his possible successors including Knox, Elihu Root, and William Howard Taft who had emerged as a great leader under terrible conditions in the Philippines during the native uprising and was now serving as Secretary of War. The easygoing Fairbanks would not rival those men. Fairbanks was scarcely seen or heard during the second Roosevelt administration.

The Democrats nominated New York appeals court judge Alton Parker as their candidate who tried to run against the notion of an imperial presidency – a term not yet invented, but a concept embraced by Democrats. The deliberative Parker was no match for the decisive Roosevelt and Roosevelt easily crushed him in the 1904 election.

With a clear mandate and his own ego to drive him, Roosevelt was less deliberative than ever and more prone to taking progressive measures. He enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Morris points out that Roosevelt had a close professional relationship with journalist Upton Sinclair and it was his popular book The Jungle, that drove Roosevelt to clean up meat packing plants in the country.

Roosevelt the conservationist was in full swing as well, setting aside thousands of acres across the country and placing them under the protection of the Department of the Interior to be preserved. This angered oil men, mine owners, railroads, and timber harvesters who relied on cheap or free access to federal lands for their businesses.

As Roosevelt’s second term neared it s end, there was talk of a third term. But Roosevelt would not hear of it. He was a young man in his early fifties and certainly did not appear tired of the job. He seemed to revel in it. But he was not willing to set a precedent for a president serving three terms. He’d come to regret that decision.

He settled on grooming William Howard Taft to be his successor. This remains unexplained in Morris’ examination of Roosevelt because the two men could not have been more different in politics and personality. Roosevelt was gregarious, forceful, energetic. He loved to hunt and play tennis. Taft was affable, needed affection and acceptance, and preferred golf to tennis and lived a sedate lifestyle. Roosevelt secured the 1908 nomination for Taft and quickly realized that Taft was not going to campaign hard for the job. He sent a constant barrage of suggestions to the Taft campaign on how to be more aggressive. Fortunately for the Republicans, the Democrats had recycled William Jennings Bryan whom the nation had twice rejected before. Taft won easily in his own easy going manner.

Morris eludes to Helen Taft’s passion to become First Lady as the driving force behind the campaign to elect Taft. Taft had informed Roosevelt that he wanted nothing more than to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – a lifetime appointment at the head of the judicial branch of government. Teddy was determined to see him as chief executive and so was his wife.

Roosevelt left office in 1909 apparently satisfied with what he’d accomplished and with his own conduct of affairs. He planned to do some big game hunting in Africa and domestically and to pick up his writing career, serving as a commentator on American politics. That is where Morris ends his second volume.

Theodore Rex won the Pulitzer Prize for biography and deservedly so. Seldom is any historical figure and his conduct so closely scrutinized as Roosevelt was by Morris. No detail of Roosevelt’s presidency is left unexamined and thoroughly discussed.

But the second installment in Morris’ three part biography of Roosevelt is not as well written as the first. While sound on a scholarly level, it lacks that narrative energy of the first. Morris relies heavily on Latin for adjectives. As someone not well schooled in Latin, the words meant nothing to me and mean little to those outside the legal and medical professions. While similes are seldom deployed well in scholarly writing, certainly Morris could have found English alternatives for his adjectives.

The one element of the Roosevelt presidency that was not closely examined was Roosevelt’s deployment of his “press secretary” George Cortelyou. This is remarkable since Morris was extensive in his analysis of Roosevelt’s manipulation of the media while serving as New York police commissioner in the first volume. While historian Margaret Leach correctly points out in her biography of McKinley, In the Days of McKinley, that it was McKinley who first employed the use of presidential aides to respond directly to the press, it is clear that Roosevelt was much more deft in his use of Cortelyou.

Also missing from Morris’ study of Roosevelt is the role Edith Roosevelt played. Morris provides ample narrative of Roosevelt’s interaction with his children and his children’s friends who tarried about the Executive Mansion on a daily basis. He also chronicles the restless life and ribald exploits of daughter Alice. But Edith is all but absent from Morris’ book.

It is true that women did not have the influence they have today, but certainly Edith must have had some affect on Roosevelt’s conduct of the office. Edith was no mouse and certainly asserted herself. We get nothing on that subject from Morris.

These are minor criticisms of an otherwise stellar biography of a larger than life historical figure.

Morris will take us through the tumultuous, unhappy final years of Teddy’s life in the third installment entitled, Colonel Roosevelt.

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