Louis Auchincloss, Theodore Roosevelt (Times Books 2001)
Louis Auchincloss's Theodore Roosevelt is a great little biography. In a short, well-written, eminently digestible work, Auchincloss manages to encapsulate the sprawling life and career of the man who may be our least manageable President. It is the perfect antidote to the brick-size tomes that have become the standard fare in modern political biography.
A Pleasure to Read
Most importantly, this biography is just fun to read. Auchincloss has done his historical research on TR, but he is a novelist by trade and it shows in the quality of the writing. I read it twice, and I enjoyed it both times.
Unlike the usual ivory-tower historian, Auchincloss has a command of psychological nuance that lends insight and provides an overarching sense of continuity to his text. Some of this is surely artificial (what life really has any overarching continuity?), but it makes for a good read and it certainly makes the various "plot points" of TR's life easier to connect for readers unfamiliar with the details of turn-of-the-century American history.
Panoramic and Short
Theodore Roosevelt is the first in a series of "essay-length meditations" on American Presidents, edited by the well-known Presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. The stated goal of the series is to provide the "grand panorama" of Presidential history, in "volumes compact enough for the busy reader."
TR is without a doubt a challenging subject for such a project, since little about him was "compact." He did so much, said so much, wrote so much, and was involved in so many of his era's significant political events that the process of reducing his career to a hundred pages must have been a harrowing one indeed.
Auchincloss is up to the challenge, however, and his book is both panoramic and short. Most of the major episodes of interest in TR's life (and there are many) are covered, each with about the same level of detail: not too little, not too much; just about right for an "essay-length meditation."
I did not always agree with Auchincloss's assessments (sometimes I disagreed quite violently). For instance, he describes TR as detesting bullies, yet it is hard not to see TR himself as a bully, both in his personal life and in affairs of state. Auchincloss describes TR as having a "greatness of heart," yet TR's letters and conversation are filled with small, petty personal attacks on his political enemies - and not a few of his political allies as well.
Polishing TR's Image
By its nature, TR's restless life does not lend itself to easy or simple characterization, and his reputation has waxed and waned over the years with changing political tastes. Our view of TR has ranged along the spectrum from rugged individualist to progressive administrator to embryonic conservationist to bloodthirsty imperialist - and has sometimes combined all of these perspectives at once.
Everybody has an opinion about TR, and Auchincloss is no exception. He candidly admits that he likes TR, warts and all, but, with one exception - TR's racism, discussed below - Auchincloss does not sugarcoat his subject's career.
Indeed, Auchincloss opens his book with a series of TR quotations - about war, relations between the sexes, and other subjects - that seem deliberately designed to challenge the modern reader's sensibilities. It is an audacious way to begin a biography that ultimately seeks to persuade us of the virtue of its central figure.
In support of his subject, Auchincloss gets in more than a few jabs at some of the most popular prevailing views of TR. He points out, for example, that the supposedly warmongering Roosevelt mediated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, won a Nobel Peace Prize, and staved off World War I (although only briefly).
Somewhat ironically, Auchincloss blames TR's own prolific writing and speaking as a political figure for much of our modern negative views of the man. Essentially, he argues that if one writes thousands of letters and gives hundreds of speeches, one is bound to say some inconsistent things and utter at least a few words one doesn't really mean. If you ignore the hyperbole, Auchincloss argues, TR's actions fundamentally demonstrate a "greatness of heart" that merits him a "rank among our great Presidents."
This is an interesting thesis - both about TR in particular, and about how we view our Presidents generally. There is something a little awkward about overlooking the words of an American President, since words are among the chief tools by which an American President does his job. This is particularly true in the case of the American President who gave us the phrase "bully pulpit" in the first place.
Cutting TR Too Much Slack on Racism
Racist beliefs and comments are one of TR's ugliest legacies, and so it is somewhat surprising to see Auchincloss skipping lightly over racial issues with a few brief and neutral comments about TR's alleged distaste for overt bigotry in the American South and in California.
TR is too voluble to be controlled entirely, however, and glimpses of his racial theories pop up throughout the book. In a quote from The Winning of the West, for example, TR lauds the spreading "sway of the kings of Teutonic and Scandinavian blood" over various subordinate races.
It is frequently observed, in defense of TR, that his "racism" was not bigoted in favor of whites. He admired the forcefulness and martial vigor of the Japanese people, and was willing to consider their inclusion in the catalogue of "masterful races." I suppose it is better to be an equal opportunity racist than a bigoted one, but one suspects that the nations subjugated by "master races" during the Twentieth Century probably didn't draw much comfort from that distinction.