|"There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to 'mean' horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid."—T.R., An Autobiography, 1913|
This interview was so fascinating to me in regard to the writing of all three biographies that I've excerpted portions of it below.
|Roosevelt stumping, 1910|
EDMUND MORRIS: Yes, it was a mood of complete despair. I’d been trying for months to get the book started. I knew in my head that I was going to start with New Year’s Day of 1907 because I’d found out quite by accident, browsing the Guinness Book of World Records that on January the 1st, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt shook more hands than any other person in history. And I thought I could see the book growing out of that reception, when he received the American people.
LAMB: As you look back on your process of getting to know Theodore Roosevelt, how did you do it? Where did you go? Where did you start to see what he was all about?
MORRIS: I began to get a physical feel for him, which is important for a biographer; one must have the ability to imagine this person in the room or at – within visible distance. One must have a palpable feeling for the subject or it’s impossible to write about them. I began to get that feeling after about two years of research; after I’d been out to the Badlands of Dakota where he was a young ranchman in the 1880s, after I’d been out to Sagamore Hill and I’d held in my hand this gold lock of hair from the head of his dead young wife, Alice Lee, after I’d read his diaries written at Harvard and had turned over the pages that his hand had turned over.
I remember coming across one page describing his honeymoon night with this beautiful Alice Lee and I was naturally interested to see what he wrote about that night. In his handwriting, he said our sacred happiness cannot be written about and I had the distinct feeling that I, posterity, future biographer, was being addressed by him. This is private; stay out of my life. So that’s when the consciousness of him began.
LAMB: How have you changed your mind about Theodore Roosevelt in the last 30-plus years?
MORRIS: I’ve been increasingly impressed by the quality of his intellect. It was always obvious to me, right from the start, he was a superbly bright man, but I thought his smarts were primarily political. And indeed they were through most of his middle years, but after he left the White House in March of 1909 and began a life of journalism and book-writing, the quality of his mind deepened and broadened to an astonishing degree.
Some of the essays that he wrote about the conflict between science and religion and imagery in medieval literature and subjects like that and it the year 1911, when he was completely out of political power. These essays are truly impressive. They reflect reading in three languages; English, German and French, some Italian too, enormous Catholic intelligence and erudition. And to think that this man was also a superbly successful President of the United States is to realize that he was – he was a, as somebody once said, a polygon; a man of many, many dimensions.
LAMB: Given what’s going on in the country right now in the United States, what can we learn from this final book about what happens in a country where people are unhappy or, in his case, he was the third party candidate? What can we learn about third parties and when did he run as a third party candidate and why?
MORRIS: He ran as a third party candidate in 1912, but exactly a century ago, in 1910, shortly after he’d come back to the country after having been a year away, T.R. became the spokesman, the oracle of this new force arising in America called progressivism. It was a largely middle class movement whose common denominator, apart from passion, was a mounting dissatisfaction with government and federal government, a feeling of exclusion from the tight relationship between Congress and corporations and capitalistic privilege.
So this white middle class passionate movement developed in the later years of T.R.’s presidency, largely inspired by his own gradual swing to the left. And it more or less asked him; drafted him back into politics as its spokesman in the summer of 1910. So the midterm elections that subsequently took place exactly 100 years ago marked the emergence of this new progressive party. It wasn’t quite a party yet; it didn’t have a capital P, but it was a formidable movement, which in two short years after that election mutated into a real party, the third party, the Progressive Bull Moose Party of 1912 and fought the most successful third party candidacy in our history.
LAMB: Why did he not run in 1908?
MORRIS: Well at the end of his very successful presidency, he was full of smarts and young. He was not yet 50. But he sort of knew, in his heart of hearts, that if he had another term, which he could have had on a silver platter; if he served another four years he would begin to be corrupt, begin to be too self-righteous, too domineering. It was never a question of financial or political corruption with T.R., but he sensed he’d had too much power too long and he deeply believed that an American President should serve only a finite time and follow the example of George Washington and retire after two terms....
MORRIS: He was one of the funniest men who ever lived. His humor was like Mark Twain’s. It came pouring out all the time. And unfortunately, transcriptions of these speeches tend to be from the actual typed script that he would hand out to reporters, so his improvisations, his witticisms, the jokes he would tell are not there in the transcripts. But there is – there is so much testimony from people who knew him that he was hilariously funny.
And when he wanted to be funny on paper, as in the long letters he wrote describing his grand tour of Europe in 1909 and his participation in King Edward the VII’s funeral; these letters are so funny that they could have been written by Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. They have in fact been published as a book, ”Cowboys and Kings.” So one of the delights about working on him all these years has been to write about somebody who was so funny.
In conjunction with the Ken Burns PBS film The Roosevelts, An Intimate History, we are running a new "Forum" filled with books and DVDs relating to the personal lives and public careers of Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Check back often for new features.