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11.19.10

Edmund Morris Interviewed on Colonel Roosevelt

The final volume of Edmund Morris' trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt is out next week. He spoke to Sandra McElwaine about what the great man would make of America today.

Edmund Morris began his lengthy journey with Theodore Roosevelt more than 30 years ago in the dusty attic and barns of the president's home, Sagamore Hill, on the north shore of New York's Long Island. Ferreting through masses of crumpled and tattered pieces of paper stashed in straw picnic baskets and bulky steamer trunks, he and his wife Sylvia, a noted fellow biographer, unearthed a treasure trove of long hidden and unknown photos and documents. Many of these formed the basis of his first book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1980, and helped to sustain him through two more biographies, Theodore Rex, and the concluding volume of the trilogy Colonel Roosevelt, all of which chronicle, in amazing detail, the extraordinary life of TR.

He spent months sifting through and cataloging this unexpected cache. "I love reading old letters and newspapers and losing myself in speckled photographs," explains Morris. "TR is a biographer's dream because, with his observant eye and ear and prodigious memory, he recorded so many details of where he went, what he did, and what he said and thought."

One of his discoveries was a description of the 26th president by a young boy, which Morris planned to use as the close for his first volume. It didn't work out, so he guarded the quote for three decades. Finally, in Colonel Roosevelt, due out next week, he found the right spot. "He was the fulfiller of good intentions," wrote the schoolboy in 1922. These carefully hoarded words conclude the stunning trilogy.

A native of Kenya, the soft-spoken historian and accomplished pianist, who has also authored the controversial Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan and a brief biography of Beethoven, The Universal Composer, was a freelancer in New York in the 1970s trying to pen a get-rich-quick screenplay when he heard Richard Nixon quote moving lines from Roosevelt during his White House resignation speech. Intrigued, he began to research and discovered "that TR may have been the most interesting man who ever lived. Certainly the most interesting to have become president." The result: a script entitled "The Dude From New York" about TR's youthful adventures in the Badlands of North Dakota  which after many rewrites, evolved into the hefty, award-winning, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. His advance? $7,500, which the publisher doled out in yearly installments over the four years it took to write (The original was available until recently. But Rise has now been lined up by the director Taylor Hackford ( Officer and a Gentleman, Ray) to shoot, possibly as a miniseries on HBO with Tom Hanks serving as a producer.)

“You can’t resist the man. I can easily understand why his followers follow him.”

The almost 600-pages of Colonel Roosevelt—the title TR chose upon leaving office—portray the master of the bully pulpit during his triumphant post-presidential years. Perhaps the most varied of any president until Bill Clinton. Morris' depiction of his myriad interests, political machinations, and happy family life, along with his bloody year-long great safari in East Africa, and his perilous venture down Brazil's unchartered River of Doubt, is so detailed and vivid that the audacious and irrepressible statesman seems frequently to leave the page and become part of the reader's psyche.

As his opponent President Woodrow Wilson once observed: "He is a great big boy. There is a sweetness about him that is very compelling. You can't resist the man. I can easily understand why his followers follow him."

His popularity intensified out of office. When he toured Europe, he was so overwhelmed by invitations from crowned heads that he was forced to retreat into hideaways, even lavatories to find privacy, time to read and write. "If I met another king, I should bite him," he grumbled.

After establishing the renegade Bull Moose Party in 1912, he out-polled the incumbent President William Howard Taft, even though he lost in the general election. (Had he won, Morris speculates, his international clout was such he might have been able to prevent World War1.) And if he had not died in 1919 at 60, he was quite possibly on track for a third term in the White House and would have pursued his goals of what he considered a "square deal"—a compassionate society combined with a potent military force.

The puzzling aspect of Roosevelt's character is his love of war and heroes and continual lust for battle, despite the fact he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, served two completely peaceable terms in the White House and brokered the Russo-Japanese Peace Treaty of 1905. Yet somewhere deep inside lurked the determined young Rough Rider who famously charged up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. "There is no doubt that TR considered that 'crowded hour of glorious fame' as he called it, to be the high point of his life," states Morris, who goes on to say he also displayed a "creepy desire to fight and die gloriously during World War 1. Even more creepily, when President Wilson denied his request for a command on the Western Front, he consoled himself with the probability that one or maybe all of his four sons would die heroically in his stead."

His tragic wish was granted when the youngest and brightest, Quentin, a fighter pilot, was shot down over France, and the final chapter of the book movingly shows how the stark reality of his death destroyed TR's romantic notions of heroism in battle and the majesty of war. "So much so," says Morris, "that he himself died less than six months later of what might justifiably be called a broken heart."

In the current contentious society and nasty political milieu, Morris believes TR's focus would be on "simple and fundamental things. The environment is vulnerable, finite, and must at all costs be protected. Those who are born privileged, or who attain great wealth, must compensate for their good fortune by public service. If great corporations are not regulated by the federal government, they will turn venal. In foreign relations, goodwill is worthless unless it is backed by a strong defense. Vulgarity is a sin. Manners maketh man."

So what would the intrepid TR tell us today? "That life is short," he responds, "and should be crammed with experience."

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ASandra McElwaine is a Washington Correspondent for The Daily Beast. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She has also written for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.