Thursday, September 4, 2014

Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris

This week I've decided to continue with my reading of Morris's three-part series chronicling the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Rex focuses exclusively on Theodore Roosevelt's time as president from the death of William McKinley in September of 1901 to his succession by William Howard Taft in March of 1909. These seven and a half years are some of the most influential in creating the modern presidency and shifting the balance of power in Washington away from the legislative to the executive branch. Of course Roosevelt had plenty of challenges put forth by a sometimes obstinate Congress, but in many ways his sheer force of personality reshaped the presidency to the center of national politicial affairs. I will say that this particular book is a very good grounding in the basic history of Roosevelt's administration, but it is in no way exhaustive.

From a mechanical viewpoint I did have some serious concerns regarding the focus of attention in the book. My hardcover edition clocks in at five hundred and fifty-five pages, yet nearly two-thirds of the book is focused exclusively on his first administration. Roosevelt's second term, one which was certainly equally significant, is crammed into the last third of the book and feels definitely more rushed by comparison. I feel like there certainly was enough material to talk about his second term at length, especially the wide range of reform legislation including the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act, his negotiation of the peace settlement between Japan and Russia in 1905, and other economic, ecological, and diplomatic efforts.

Morris definitely seems to pick specific incidents of historic note in his biography that tell an interesting story and develop over time. Specifically anti-trust reform, economic policies, the Panama Canal, race relations, and diplomatic negotiations take up a significant portion of the text, often unfolding as a sort of narrative. However many stories abruptly disappear from the narrative, such as the Panama Canal. Once the treaty for construction of the canal has been approved by a freshly independent Panama, it fades entirely from the narrative. There is a brief mention of Roosevelt's visit to the construction site of the canal and his investigation of the poor conditions, but nothing is said about the actions (if any) taken by Roosevelt to improve the working conditions in Panama. Granted, the construction of such a massive structure is a heroic tale in and of itself, but for it to disappear so suddenly after considerable attention had been paid to it is certainly jarring to say the least.

I will say from a policy standpoint I have certainly become far more mixed on my opinions of Theodore Roosevelt. Although his federal regulation and reform of big business, as well as conservation efforts are definitely ground-breaking during their era and setting a tone for a whole new approach to government, his foreign and racial policy certainly leave a lot to be desired. Roosevelt begins his presidency as fairly progressive, inviting the great educator Booker T. Washington to a White House dinner. However there was an incredibly negative reaction, especially in the still racially segregated South, which caused Roosevelt to begin an almost frantic backpedaling on his policies. He certainly makes a few other forays to try and advance the cause of racial equality, but they are very few and very early on in his administration. By his second term he seems to have almost regressed when he dismisses an entire regiment of black troops for alleged wrongdoing, despite an incredible lack of any evidence that they were guilty of anything. Foreign policy wise, Roosevelt is a very typical late nineteenth, early twentieth century Imperialist, determined to expand American influence, both military, political, and economic across the globe but most especially in the Western Hemisphere. His statement that it is the duty of the United States to “spank” any misbehaving Latin American republics is discouraging to say the least. These shortcomings are understandable, considering the time period, but still frustrating to say the least.

I will also say that this book has continued making me interested in reading more about other historical figures. As the last book made me curious about Grover Cleveland and his policies, which seemed to be fairly reform minded, I was also made curious about William Howard Taft who very much did not wish to become president and was forced to do so by his wife, Helen. I'm also a little curious now about J.P. Morgan as well, who is described in this book as a brilliant economic mind bu also painfully shy and socially awkward. Of course this doesn't mean that J.P. Morgan wasn't an asshole, he certainly seems to have been one, but it definitely makes me interested in reading more.

Overall I think this book is pretty good, although it has some definite faults. The biggest of course is the lack of focus on Roosevelt's second term, which included the historic Treaty of Portsmouth and Pure Food and Drug Act, both of which were major achievements of his presidency and could be the center of their own monographs, if they haven't been already. As a basic grounding of Roosevelt's presidency and his policies, it's a fairly good book for just that. The lack of exhaustive detail is certainly disappointing and leaves me wondering about finding other books that are far more detail-oriented. I will hopefully be reading the final book in Morris's series, Colonel Roosevelt, provided, of course, that I can find a copy in the first place. Believe it or not, I can never see to find one whenever I go to Half Price Books. Oh well, back to good old science-fiction next week.

- Kalpar

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