A Great Biography for a Great Life

Review of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

By KENDRICK KUO

Teddy Roosevelt has been in the news recently. Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed discussing the persistent failure of Teddy to win the Nationals’ presidents race that occurs every baseball game. There was a public outcry. Even Edmund Morris contributed to that article. And to the joy of all Nats fans, Teddy finally won on October 3rd!

The definitive biography of Theodore Roosevelt is a trilogy penned by the aforementioned Edmund Morris. Beginning with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the second volume is titled Theodore Rex and concludes with Colonel Roosevelt. I picked up the first book on recommendation by Paul Miller (a contributed to Schaeffer’s Ghost), who, if memory serves me well, praised it as the best biography ever written.

THE RISE OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt won the Pulitzer Prize, and this is much deserved. After finishing it, I definitely place it up there with others in the pantheon of American history books that are written with such prose that welcome the lay reader, but also so thoroughly researched to be authoritative in the academy. It is enthroned among the likes of Team of Rivals (Goodwin), The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Caro), and Alexander Hamilton (Chernow).

The first volume is large, coming in around 770 pages, and covers Teddy’s life from birth to the cusp of his presidency. We follow his feverish ascent from amateur naturalist, to Harvard student, to Assemblyman, to rancher in North Dakota, to Civil Service Commissioner, to New York City Commissioner, to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, to leader of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, to Governor of New York, to Vice President. And in the final pages, President McKinley is assassinated.

The sheer speed of his rise is amazing. Within forty years, he’s lived enough life to fill several lifetimes. Being a Renaissance man, he was accomplished as an author. His two most lasting works were The Naval War of 1812, which became a standard text in the Naval War College, and The Winning of the West, which was never finished, but spanned a number of volumes. He was athletic, yet he had the sharp mind of an academic. He was successful in his career, yet remained committed to his wife and sustained deep romance throughout both his marriages (his first wife having died tragically in childbirth).

But what stands out most is his character. Morris paints a figure who is both an aristocrat and a populist, and, more importantly, both an idealist and a pragmatist. Teddy’s life is marked by a strong ethical streak that battled corporate greed and political corruption, fighting Tammany Hall and machine politics. The reader is thrilled by the fact that Teddy actually wins (most) of his battles, while nowadays we are jaded by the empty promises of politicians on our TV screens. We assume that the idealists are weeded out, and only those beholden to special interests make it to the top.

Even as someone who knew nothing about Teddy Roosevelt, other than Roosevelt Island on the Potomac, I knew he was a man’s man from a bygone era when corruption was systematically fought with bare knuckles and in newspaper headlines. But today our politicians seldom inspire.

In reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, it was like reading the story of a knight in shining armor, defending the princesses and the helpless from the greedy dragons. Teddy impresses us because we desire leadership that points to lofty aims and charts a pragmatic path to get there. This yearning is to be expected.

Being led is part of our make-up. We’re designed by God to look for good shepherds. Many have stopped looking because they’ve seen authority poorly exercised, but when there is good leadership, people thrive. As Christians, we must refuse to allow poor leadership in politics (on both sides of the aisle) to infect our understanding of good authority because too much cynicism is bad citizenship.  But the danger is not just political:  it is also spiritual.  The leader par excellence is Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  To follow him is to accept his authority.  It may be difficult to do so in an age that reflexively resists authority– which is why stories like Roosevelt’s are so important, because they can help us recover a sense what good leadership should look like.


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