Book Review: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

This book review was originally published in the April 9, 1979 issue of Time Magazine, which can be viewed online here

Rough Riding from Black Care


Coward, McCann & Geoghegan;886 pages; $15.95

For almost half a century, the face on Mount Rushmore has been perceived as a full-scale model. Textbooks are unable to contain the man who was a civil war unto himself: Eastern aristocrat and Western cowpuncher, intellectual and pugilist, reformer and clubhouse Republican, imperialist and trustbuster, warrior and peacemaker.

Theodore Roosevelt is one of those figures who cannot be fully calibrated without the distance of history and the views of an outsider. This towering biography is the first to answer both requisites. Edmund Morris is a journalist who was raised in Kenya; his portrait of a man and an epoch is written without prejudice or awe. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt takes its subject up to the presidency; a second volume will follow. Morris has set himself a tough act, for Volume I does more than evoke the irrepressible Rough Rider. The author has also summoned a vanished era when the U.S. was a boisterous, Godfearing, patriotic country whose leaders were a full-length reflection of their constituency.

Orchestrating his material with a certainty and lightness of touch, Morris shuns facile psychohistory and lets Roosevelt’s life build its own edifice. Contemporaries who tried to describe Teddy liked superhuman analogies: “He really believes he is the American flag,” said one. Yet the man was something less, and, finally, something more.

To his patrician family, Teddy was hardly a candidate for prominence or longevity. He spent much of his childhood as an asthmatic gasping for breath; an aunt compared the boy to a “pale azalea.” Then one day when Teddy was eleven, his domineering father told him: “You have the mind but you have not the body.” With the toothy snarl that was to become famous, the son replied: “I’ll make my body.” That he did for the rest of his life, absorbing punishment as a boxer, hunter, mountain climber and rancher. In Roosevelt’s last year at Harvard, a physician warned him that he had overtaxed his heart and must lead a more sedentary life. Vowed Teddy: “Doctor, I’m going to do all the things you tell me not to do. If I’ve got to live the sort of life you have described, I don’t care how short it is.”

At 18, he published his first book, a landmark study of birds; at 22, he climbed the Matterhorn and shocked society by joining a New York City political club dominated by working-class Irishmen. The ward heelers did not know what to make of this nattily dressed dude with a high-pitched twang and, as a reporter noted, a “wealth of mouth.” For Teddy, it was just another challenge: he wanted to find out “whether I really was too weak to hold my own in the rough and tumble.” Elected to the state assembly, he joined the good-government movement and started assailing the “bosses.” He had what Morris describes as a “genius for moral warfare.” The ebullient personality — “the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral” — overwhelmed people; it took them years to get over a fleeting encounter with him. Men of colder blood “grew dependent as lizards upon his warmth.”

The West provided a new outlet for Roosevelt’s prodigious energies, as well as solace for the deaths of his mother and first wife on the same day. “Black care,” wrote Roosevelt, “rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.” He rode hard, surpassing the doughty ranch hands whose ridicule turned to reverence. No body snickered when Teddy read Matthew Arnold on the trail of an outlaw gang.

That Roosevelt would become President was evident even to his growing list of enemies; after all, Teddy was Governor of New York at the age of 40. Yet nothing came easily to the man who thought “Bully!” was a rallying cry, not an accusation. He fought for every office: erstwhile superiors feared that they would soon be at his mercy. They were right to tremble; even as a young assistant secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt managed to alter foreign policy. Almost singlehanded he turned the U.S. from isolation to expansion. He was determined to free Cuba from Spain, annex Hawaii and, with luck, drive the British out of Canada.

When war broke out after the sinking of the Maine, Roosevelt demanded a commission, explaining that he could not urge others to go to war unless he himself was willing to fight. Helpless without his glasses but ever anxious to assert his manhood, he headed the victorious Rough Riders, a ragtag group of Ivy Leaguers and hard-bitten frontiersmen out to “drive the Spaniard from the New World.” Teddy came home as the most popular man in America and a cinch for the Republican ticket in 1900. Elected Vice President, he fretted about how he would keep busy. Six months after he took office, his worries on that score were over.

William McKinley was assassinated, and at 42 Roosevelt became the youngest President in history. Yet to most voters it seemed as though he had been around forever. This brilliant chronicle shows why: for them, he was not the American flag; he was America.

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