The President Who Learned to Walk Softly ; the Second Volume of Edmund Morris's Study of Theodore Roosevelt

Article excerpt

Theodore Roosevelt is a biographer's dream, an epic character not out of place in an adventure novel. Edmund Morris captures perfectly the frenetic atmosphere that surrounded a president of boundless energy, imagination, and ambition. Though minutely detailed, this account of Roosevelt's 7-1/2 years in the White House remains lively throughout.

That said, Morris's first volume, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" (1979), must have been a great deal more fun to write. His early years were full of swashbuckling adventure; Roosevelt scored points with his fists and with his brain.

But the presidency constrained Teddy. Protocol and propriety encouraged an understanding of limits, even though he did not always respect them. It smoothed his rough edges, taught him subtlety. Gone was the Rough Rider, replaced by a leader who learned to walk softly and carry a big stick.

Roosevelt was a man who straddled two distinct ages of America. He carried within him the limitless ardor of the 19th-century pioneer, but he understood and encapsulated the emergence of the United States as a great modern power. He was America - brash, naive, clumsy, powerful, occasionally dangerous, but fundamentally well-meaning.

Roosevelt's deep intelligence and raw power seem attractive today, when politicians are often bland, one-dimensional creations of PR professionals. Roosevelt wrote his own speeches and said what he wanted. But he lived in a time suited to his free-wheeling instincts. He stole Panama from Columbia, yet most world leaders applauded. He spoke of the inferiorities of African Americans, yet he invited Booker T. Washington to the White House - the first black man to enjoy such a privilege.

If he provides lessons for the present, it is difficult to understand what they might be, because it is hard to imagine Roosevelt surviving in the immensely more complicated politics of today.

It is nevertheless impossible to read this book without thinking of recent events. Of the anarchist who shot William McKinley, Roosevelt warned: "The wind is sowed by the men who preach such doctrines, and they cannot escape their responsibility for the whirlwind that is reaped." "As civilization grows," he wrote, "warfare becomes less and less the normal condition of human relations."

But he understood that conflict would not disappear. …