Theodore Roosevelt by Lewis L. Gould, Oxford University Press.
In an age of the kitchen-sink-and-all cinderblock biography, the art of the short potted life story was for some years neglected. Then Penguin began to put out the Brief Lives series and rekindled the format. A good thing, really. Life is short.
At 78 pages of text, Gould’s Theodore Roosevelt runs the risk of being a little too brief, not quite Wikipedia fodder, but still, pushing the limits. Bit of a tour de force, considering all that the author has to include- Roosevelt forebears, childhood, schooling, stints as New York State Assemblyman, Governor of New York, Vice President, deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory, Police Commissioner of New York City, U.S. Civil Service Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Lieutenant Colonel United States Army, Vice President, president, and post-president. Each one is enough for a book, and in some cases have gotten them.
Happily, Gould has pulled it off a little masterpiece. He’s had five decades to let the material steep, and the distillation here is remarkable. Requisite high-points are pointed out, their significance to the subject himself or to history at large are underscored, and thought provoking observation are made.
Gould has no problem with pointing out the subject’s dark spots (e.g. race), sometimes forthrightly, other times with the odd little razor cuts that you could miss if you’re in a hurry:
In writing to his sister from college, he notes: “I stand 19th in the class, which began with 230 fellows. There is only one gentleman stands ahead of me” (In checking the class records for 1880, I notice two relatives of mine. I’m pretty sure neither was the “gentleman” he was referring to.)
Good Things about Roosevelt: Panama Canal (though the skullduggery of getting there was arrogant in the extreme); Wild Lands Conservation; Peace between Russia and Japan; Pure Food and Drug Act.
Less Good Things: contempt for lesser breeds; fiddling with other countries’ business; an over-enthusiasm for war; an inability not to leave things alone.
Clearly there’s plenty on the Roosevelt buffet table for all tastes- neo-Imperialists, conservationists, progressives, naturalists, writerly types, policy wonks, war buffs, boy’s own adventurists, self-improvement types. He’s almost a parody of each of these, in part because of his, let’s face it, ridiculous appearance and overbearing behavior. (The Rough Riders? What on earth was that all about? Imagine say, Bill Clinton calling for a regiment of volunteers to go on a half-baked shoot-em-up in Afghanistan. Doesn’t bear thinking on.)
Then there is the insistence that no matter what the situation, things can and must be done. No hands-off Coolidge he, which depending on disposition makes him either an inspirational hero or a meddlesome fool. No question that subsequent presidents have been at times overly attracted by the the bully pulpit and power of global stage management TR brought to the White House, and not always to the best of ends. Power corrupting and all that.
The book is suitable for argumentative high school students and even undergraduates, something to get the seminar ball rolling. Plenty of works out there for those who get the the TR bug. This will serve to see if you’re one of them, and even if not, provides the basic grounding in TR that, really, every American should have.
Or indeed, anyone who wants to understand what was up in America in the last century, to get a grasp on her crazy making contradictions. TR set the course for much of the good, the bad, and the ugly in the twentieth century. This book is a good place to get an idea how the American Century all began.
Get it. Read it. Think about it.
For further reading (those cinder-blocks again) see:
Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey
The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America