Thursday, September 11, 2014

Edmund Morris on the many sides of Teddy Roosevelt: blessed with a phenomenal memory, a voracious reader, and "one of the funniest men who ever lived."

He was an explorer, a hunter, a historian, a rancher, a soldier, New York City Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice President of the United States, and ultimately its President. When Theodore Roosevelt took office, Booker T. Washington was the first person he asked to come to Washington to consult with him. He created a national scandal by having a Black man to dinner in the White House, something that had never been done before. And as detailed in Edmund Morris's The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, it wasn't the first time T.R. bucked protocol. Morris's biography is the first in a trilogy that has been showered with awards (the others being Theodore Rex, which covers his presidential years; 1901 to 1909, and Colonel Roosevelt, which explores the final 10 years of T.R.’s life; 1909 to 1919).
"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
Edmund Morris was born in Nairobi, Kenya, but came to the the US in 1968, later becoming an American citizen. "Wanting to learn about my country of adoption, I couldn’t think of a better way to learn all about America, its character and its history and its essential principles than by studying the life of Theodore Roosevelt" he told host Brian Lamb on on C-Span's program Q&A. "There was a preliminary apprehension of him when I was a small boy in Kenya. At the age of ten, I looked in the civic history of Nairobi, which was published to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the city. And it had this historic photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt coming to Nairobi, Kenya in 1909 on his great safari for the Smithsonian. And I remember identifying, as a small boy, with that picture; the smile, the snarl, the spectacles. There was something about him that attracted me. And quarter of a century later, I ended up writing his biography."
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
BRIAN LAMB: I want to go back to the first words you wrote about Theodore Roosevelt in 1979 in your first of three books. And you started it off in a prologue, "New Year’s Day, 1907 at 11 o’clock precisely, the sound of trumpets echoes within the White House and floats through open windows out into the sunny morning." Do you remember what mood you were in when you had to write those first words?
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.
And for months I researched the day; discovering to my amazement, how dense and detailed newspaper records were in those days. People didn’t have television, so they needed details, visual detail and olfactory details, all sorts of atmospheric stuff. So I absorbed all this mass of material and then I had to sit down and write a prologue, in which the reader, as it were, meets the President, as though the reader’s in that line.

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. 


  1. I have heard of his name and seen him being potrayed by robin williams in a movie but reading all of this i can tell he was a great person and a good politician, something we dont see alot of nowadays.