This is the second volume of Edmund Morris’ three-part Theodore Roosevelt biography. The first volume, reviewed here a few weeks ago, is generally regarded as the best. The other two books are, in fact, just as brilliantly researched and well-written, but the first volume has the inherent advantage of introducing TR; his delightful and extraordinary quirks of character are well-known to the reader by the time he reaches the second book. The first volume also covers the most ground, chronologically, and has better pacing as a result.
This volume is the story of the presidency. And we note here, coupled with all those admirable features so much in evidence at the Navy Department or charging up San Juan Hill, some more distressing tendencies. Roosevelt continually strengthened the power of the executive against the legislative and, in his final message to Congress, made the case for largely dispensing with congressional interference in the business of government. He argued that it was easier to hold power to account if all the power were centralized in one man’s hands. He, of course, was the only man up to the task.
TR made tremendous and dubiously constitutional expansions in the reach and scope of government. These were sometimes beneficent – as in the case of his imposing health standards on the meatpacking industry. But he was particularly likely to overstep the mark in his dealings with Wall Street, whose members he tarred more than once as “the wealthy criminal class.” Though he admitted he had no interest in or particular understanding of business, he regarded it as his duty to meddle. The aptly named “Roosevelt Panic of 1907” happened while he was off looking for bears to shoot, and the Roosevelt Economy was only rescued by the timely action of the Wall Street men he so disdained: John D Rockerfeller lead the charge by pledging (“incredibly,” to quote Morris) one half of all his securities towards propping up the sagging stock market.
One of the most tragic precedents was the establishment of the Interstate Commerce Commission and the premise that government has the right to tell a private railroad owner – who had built a railway with his own money and brought transportation to a remote area for the first time – how much he could charge for his tickets and when his trains should run.
These substantial faults are mitigated by a foreign policy that combined tremendous strength with almost unbelievable diplomatic tact. Roosevelt deserves credit for ending the Russo-Japanese War, diffusing Franco-German tensions in northern Africa, and for establishing a healthy balance of power in the Pacific with his Great White Fleet and – of course – the Panama Canal. The presidency was ascendant with Roosevelt, but so was the United States. And we have him to thank, as largely as any president since Lincoln (who laid the moral foundations) for the United States as the Greatest Nation on Earth.
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10
Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris. Random House, 2001. 772 pages.