The end of American innocence is not an innocent notion. It suggests a nation permanently swaddled in amiable memories of the past. Each time America experiences a crisis, whether World War I, Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Watergate or Sept. 11, it is said to have been jolted into the roiling present. But this is quite wrong. The striking thing is not how pacific but how volatile the U.S. has been. Domestically, the country's past could be described as a series of economic booms and busts with successive waves of immigration ensuring ethnic and class conflict.
Nor has the U.S. been a shrinking violet abroad. From the outset, the United States relentlessly expanded, whether it was during the Mexican War or the conquest of Indian territories. The North's victory in the Civil War prompted Herman Melville to write in his "Battle Pieces" that the U.S. now wore empire on its brow. A new superpower had emerged from the conflict intent on increasing its power and influence abroad. Indeed, the turn of the century was the hinge of fate for the United States. No one did more to turn the republic into an empire than Theodore Roosevelt.
Edmund Morris and Louis Auchincloss provide a welcome opportunity to take a fresh look at Roosevelt. "Theodore Rex" (the name is Henry James') is the sequel to Morris' Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." (A third volume is planned.) No, Morris does not appear as a fictitious character, as in his biography of Ronald Reagan. Here, Morris draws on the documents at hand, although in his zeal to create vivid drama, he sometimes embellishes historical fact with his own fanciful visions. He minutely traces Roosevelt's two tumultuous terms as president, beginning with his unexpected ascension in 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley.
It's all there, more or less: Roosevelt's views on race, his famous dinner in the White House with Booker T. Washington, his trust-busting, his grab of the Panama Canal, his negotiation of the 1905 Russo-Japanese Peace Treaty and his buildup of the Navy come in for close scrutiny.
Alas, for all its comprehensiveness, Morris' book ends up being something of a cartoon. Each chapter is broken into short scenes; some sections are only two or three sentences long. Morris has created a film script, not a history. There is, for a start, the perfumed prose which draws attention to itself. Morris offers a Walt Disney view of the high and mighty; the rumbustious Roosevelt, the conniving Sen. Mark Hanna, the retrograde industrialists.
Despite its length, Morris' work is curiously perfunctory when it comes to describing the politics of the era. The problem may be revealed by a note at the book's outset: "Expectations or intimations of 'coming events' are those of the period. Historical hindsights are confined to the notes." But the job of the historian is not to suspend judgment completely but to weigh and assess. The suspicion arises that Morris indulges in no "hindsights" because he has none. As in his biography of Reagan, "Dutch," he is patently bored by politics. Instead, he indulges in hero worship.
Roosevelt deserves better treatment. Auchincloss provides it. In a little more than 150 pages, he brilliantly analyzes Roosevelt and his presidency. His book is filled with penetrating observations. A graceful writer, Auchincloss explains why Roosevelt became a progressive and sets him in the wider context of his time. It would be hard to think of a better introduction. H.W. Brands' "The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt" admirably supplements Auchincloss. The letters provide a vivid reminder of Roosevelt's forceful prose and the depth of his reading. For comprehending Roosevelt's volcanic and shrewd temperament, nothing can match reading his correspondence.
It would have been hard to think of a more unlikely future candidate for high office than the young "Teedie," as he was known. Bookish and sickly, he suffered repeated asthma attacks and devoted himself to studying natural history. But a talk with his father prompted him to undertake a strenuous course in calisthenics at age 12, from which he never deviated. The martial spirit seems to have been present from the outset; his great disappointment as a lad was that his father did not fight in the Civil War but paid someone to take his place. Auchincloss believes this left a lasting mark on Roosevelt. Ever after, he was determined to efface this stain on the family escutcheon: In Auchincloss' view, "Theodore Jr.'s throwing up of his assistant secretaryship of the navy in 1898 to become a Rough Rider when duty would have seemed to point to his staying at his post, his violent efforts as an ill and elderly man to get to the trenches of World War I, and his posting of his sons to battle all seem to stem from a barely rational compulsion."