Monday, April 30, 2012

Reads for Fun: Edmund Morris' "Theodore Rex"

I picked this one up at a used bookstore, unaware that it was Vol. 2 of a series; Theodore Rex (and no, don't say a word about that Whoopi Goldberg movie of the same title) only covers TR's presidential years. Still, those years were interesting enough. I knew TR was a colorful and eclectic figure, but Morris really fleshed out that impression in a detailed and enjoyable way. 

The youngest person ever made president (though not elected, as Kennedy was), Morris follows TR from just before his swearing in after the assassination of McKinley to just after he departs the White House leaving Taft in charge. In between we get a portrait of a man unable to sit still for long (something I relate to!) -- always moving, always wanting to push forward and be involved, and always looking out for what he perceived to be the greatest possible good. 

There are so many vignettes here I hadn't heard before -- TR's nearly fatal carriage accident shortly after McKinley's death; his deft arbitration of a labor dispute involving coal miners; his interactions with crises in Venezuela, with Germany and Japan; his strong conservation streak; his frequent self-challenges to his physical prowess (e.g., hunting, climbing, even tennis); his efforts with respect to public health, and his dealings to secure the Panama Canal. This latter involvement was one of the few things with which I had some familiarity already: Few may know today that the canal was almost dug through Nicaragua, which in itself could have made for an interesting counterfactual history in the Turtledove vein. 

The view of TR's family was of interest as well – lots of children (one by a prior marriage that apparently failed, though this vol. 2 doesn't explain much about it), and a healthy marriage with strong egalitarian overtones. I also noticed for the first time that TR bears a striking resemblance to Jamie from Mythbusters. Which raised another point of interest: TR was apparently camera-shy. There are very few good pictures of him in a good mood, because apparently once he saw a camera trained on him, he stiffened up. In line with this, some of the pictures in this book were clearly taken without TR's knowledge (giving either a side or even back view, or with him concentrating on something else). 

Perhaps most striking to modern readers will be TR's extended summer vacations, for months at a time -- which would today be a sign of a President in need of a new job, but in his time was simply normal politics, as the whole of Washington essentially shut down for the summer. (Yes, I can just imagine some modern "fundy atheist" calling him lazy because they lacked this context.) 
Eventually I'll have to find Vol. 1 of this set, and any more than come after it (if they have yet). For now it was a good read about someone who might well be rightly described, as others have said, as the most interesting man ever to be America's President.

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