An author’s first reaction to the news that the president of the United States is reading one of his books is, naturally enough, admiration for the man’s superb taste in prose. Then come qualms. What if he gets bored and badmouths it on Jay Leno? What if he is seen using the paperback edition to swat horseflies at Camp David?
“I’m reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt right now,” Obama said yesterday in Pennsylvania. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed tout de tweet that it’s my The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Well, that’s nice, but the president can’t have gotten very far into it, because right there in the prologue it says how TR detested being called “Teddy.” Maybe a blob of cigarette ash obscured that particular sentence.
What is dateless and of particular relevance to Obama is TR’s karate-chop style. He chose the issue, chose the moment, then struck with all his might.
Apparently, the 44th president admires the 26th because TR was an early apostle of health-care reform—not to mention draconian regulation of banks and interstate corporations, inheritance taxes, and protection of the environment by executive order. These things are a matter of record, although TR’s progressivism was actually much more radical after he left the presidency in 1909. He didn’t call for national health insurance until he ran for a third White House term in the famous Bull Moose campaign of 1912. His platform was so radical that many of its proposals were not enacted until the New Deal administration of his fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And even FDR couldn’t push the medical plank through, for fear of endangering Social Security.
• John Avlon: The GOP’s War on Teddy Roosevelt Appreciative as I am of Obama’s literary business (assuming he hasn’t thriftily borrowed that copy of Rise I donated to the White House library back in ’81), I’ve noticed over the years that president after modern president has sought to channel TR, in one way or another. His energy was so seismic, his charm so great, his intellect so sharp, and his political skill so unerring, that none of his successors (except, perhaps, FDR and the affably ruthless Ronald Reagan) have come near to matching him in overall effectiveness.
Richard Nixon quoted TR’s “Man in the Arena” speech (“credit belongs to the man ... whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood”) with such frequency as to arouse suspicions of masochism. Gerald Ford liked to quote another of TR’s aphorisms: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” I can’t remember if Jimmy Carter ever invoked TR, but he sure agreed that the White House was “a bully pulpit.”
The first thing Ronald Reagan ever said to me, when I became his authorized biographer in 1985, was “I’m not going to ride up San Juan Hill for you.” Nevertheless, I noticed during his summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev that he had mastered TR’s “velvet on iron” diplomacy—the combination of gentlemanliness and force that always wins out over bluster.
George H.W. Bush thought enough of TR to ask David McCullough (another Roosevelt biographer) to come to the White House and lecture on him. In 1994, Bill Clinton went through a tree-hugging “Teddy” phase so ardent it was a wonder he didn’t start wearing pince-nez. Then there was “W,” who worshipfully admitted that he modeled himself on the Rough Rider. Whenever he did that, it reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon of a professorial type saying to a much younger man, “Just because I was your favorite teacher doesn’t make you my favorite student.”
I’m flattered that Obama is reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, instead of those fascinating 15,000-page bills Congress keeps sending him. But I’d respectfully suggest that he will learn more about the Rooseveltian executive style in the book’s sequel, Theodore Rex. Perhaps just the opening chapters, Mr. President, describing TR’s first year (1901-1902) in office? They show how, in swift but carefully timed succession, TR—a consummate manipulator of the press—dramatized and identified himself with the major issues of his day: racial prejudice, antitrust power, reclamation policy, Supreme Court reactionism, labor/management strife, and so on. Some of the details are dated now, but what is dateless and of particular relevance to Obama is TR’s karate-chop style. He chose the issue, chose the moment, then struck with all his might. Having struck, he went on to other things, leaving the legislative and the judiciary and a wildly excited press to debate, and maybe push through, the reforms he sought.
Sometimes TR had to settle for less, or even abandon a cause he passionately espoused. But blow after blow established him in the public mind as a man of decisive courage, and the moral superior of those who liked to talk rather than act.
He was rewarded with a huge popular mandate in 1904, and if he hadn’t voluntarily stepped down in 1908, at the early age of 50, he might have stayed president until the Jazz Age. In which case, national health insurance would now be one of the most venerable pillars of the progressive state.
Edmund Morris is the author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Beethoven. This fall he will publish the third volume of his Roosevelt trilogy.