Wednesday, August 21, 2013

From Roosevelt to Roosevelt

Jonathan Rees

As a good liberal, I’ve always claimed that my favorite President ever is/was Franklin D. Roosevelt.  After all, his legacy STILL defines what liberalism means and what government does down to this day.  However, as I’ve gotten older, my opinion of Franklin Roosevelt has grown steadily worse.  First, there’s how he treated Eleanor.  Second, there’s the fact that the New Deal didn’t go further.  Lastly, like making batches of wine, some bits of the New Deal have aged better than others.

As a historian, I’ve been drawn to an entirely different, somewhat less liberal President—Franklin Roosevelt’s distant relation, Theodore.  Sure, there’s the whole warmonger thing.  That’s not too appealing.  And as a liberal, Teddy’s presidency was not nearly as charged as his unsuccessful campaign’s platform in 1912.  But as a personality, Teddy Roosevelt has every other President beaten hands down (with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, but I’d still give the nod to Teddy there by a smidge).

Let’s look at the biographies.  When I read biographies, the part I usually hate comes right the beginning.  How many historical figures are more interesting in their youth than they are when they’re adults?  If you’ve ever read David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback you’ll know he stopped that book in Roosevelt’s early twenties and it still made me cry.  (I’m not telling why if you don’t already know.  You should read the book.)  I’m not a huge fan of Edmund Morris’ three-part TR biography, but unlike say Robert Caro’s series on Lyndon Johnson, where the research is the best trait it’s Morris’ subject that makes all three of those books worth reading.

Now, there’s even a subgenre of books that cover only short periods of Teddy’s life.  Candace Millard’s River of Doubt is one of the best books that I’ve ever read, and it only spans a very short period of the man’s life AFTER he left office as President, namely his trip to Brazil.  Other than John Quincy Adams, which President deserves a book-length treatment for any part of his post-presidential career?  A few months ago, I read Richard Zacks’ Island of Vice.  The book only covers TR’s two years as New York City’s Police Commissioner, but it’s absolutely superb—not just because of the
Robin Williams as TR in Night at the Museum (2006)
vice, but because the prude who wanted to stop it was just so darned interesting.  I hope nobody does the inevitable “TR in the Badlands” book before I can get around to it, because I want a good excuse to visit Harvard and rummage through his papers someday.  They must be marvelous to read.

While I think I’m still closer to FDR politically, Theodore Roosevelt would definitely now be my answer to the old chestnut, “Which historical figure would you like to eat dinner with if you had the chance?”  Barring that, he’s also the President whose biography I’d most like to see come to the screen.  Even now, I’d pick Robin Williams in “Night at the Museum” over Bill Murray in “Hyde Park on Hudson” any day of the week.  Williams can be serious and funny at the same time, while Murray just looks uncomfortable.

1 comment:

Foxessa said...

Mornings on Horseback's earliest chapters detailing TR's Georgia mother's family and their activities on behalf of the CSA are revelatory.

TR invokes the glory and delight of the old southern slave owning planter as the only condition that can vie with that of the western stockman, in one of his Badlands books.