Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Edmund Morris is one of America's best political biographers and journalists. He is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. He lives in New York and Washington, DC.

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Theodore Roosevelt... Harvard graduate, historian, New York state assemblyman; rancher, Civil Service Commissioner, New York City Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy; Commanding officer of the "Rough Riders;" war hero; Governor of New York; Vice President, and then President of the United States. All of these accomplishments by the time this extraordinary man reached 42 years of age. Theodore Roosevelt's historical achievements are indeed most impressive! In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," biographer Edmund Morris masterfully chronicles the life of this mercurial, complex, and paradoxical man who became the 26th President of the United States. Morris's brilliant narrative depicts Theodore Roosevelt as a man who towered over his world. Yet who would have guessed at future greatness for this, the oldest son of one of New York's wealthiest and most respected families? A sickly child, afflicted with constant bouts of asthma and chronic diarrhea, he is seen by his parents as a child "with the mind, but not the body..." for high achievement. But the young Roosevelt senses his own potential for greatness and resolves to strive mightily to achieve it... Throughout his life, TR is a man of many paradoxes. Largely self-educated, he eventually attends Harvard University, from which he graduates magna cum laude in 1880 with a Phi Beta Kappa key in one hand and a membership in Porcellain, Harvard's most prestigious social club, in the other. The son of a wealthy philanthropist, he eschews the traditional, genteel, upper-class lifestyle in favor of the rough-and-tumble of New York politics. A member of the Republican party, he champions progressive reform. By age 26, he has served two terms in the New York state assembly; has earned the begrudging respect of his colleagues; and has authored several significant pieces of reform legislation. After the death of his first wife, Alice Lee Hathaway Roosevelt, and his mother, Mittie (both women die on the same day, in the same house) TR flees New York, heading to the harsh, uncompromising Dakota Badlands to earn his living as a cattle rancher and writer of history books. Here, in this barren country, a startling transformation takes place. The thin, sickly youth of sallow skin and frail constitution becomes the muscular, tanned, robustly healthy man known to history. "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" vividly demonstrates how this intensely energetic politician used his forceful personality in the cause of badly needed reform at all levels of American government. As Morris points out, Roosevelt puts his personal stamp on nearly everything he undertakes. As Civil Service Commissioner during the Harrison administration, he publicly - some say bumptiously - investigates claims of graft and corruption within the Civil Service. He alienates many colleagues, but achieves lasting results. During his tenure, the Civil Service expands dramatically, despite fierce political opposition. The same holds true for TR's tenures as president of the New York City Police Commission (1895-97) and Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1897-98.) In 1898 a series of unexpected events propels TR to national prominence. When war breaks out between the United States and Spain, TR asks for and receives commission in the New York National Guard. Soon he has assembled a tough group of cavalrymen called the "Rough Riders" - friends from his days at Harvard and in the old west. On July 1, 1898, TR and his grizzled band of soldiers will enter the pantheon of American heroes at a place in Cuba called San Juan Hill... After the Spanish-American War, TR returns to New York and runs for Governor. After a tough, closely fought campaign that features former "Rough Riders" endorsing their candidate, TR is elected by a razor-thin margin of 18,000 votes out of nearly 1.1. million votes cast. TR will only spend a year in the governor's mansion, though. By 1900, New York's "old pols" have had enough of Roosevelt's attempts to force progressive reforms through a recalcitrant, conservative New York legislature. Considering TR "too dangerous" to keep on as governor, they make an arrangement to get Roosevelt on the national ticket. McKinley agrees, and an Roosevelt enthusiastically becomes McKinley's running mate. In November 1900, McKinley easily wins re-election and Theodore Roosevelt becomes Vice President of the United States. Ten months later, on September 6, 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President William McKinley is gunned down by a young anarchist... Not since I read William Manchester's two-volume "The Last Lion" biography of Winston Churchill have I read a book that's as good as "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." Make no mistake: this book is as good as biography gets! Here is the powerfully eloquent story of one of the most gifted and controversial men of the twentieth century, and perhaps even of all time. "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" reads almost like a novel. I haven't found a single part of this book that I would classify as "dry" or boring. In fact I found it pretty hard to put down once I started reading it. Part of the reason for that, I suppose, is because TR's life was so darned fascinating to begin with; but give Edmund Morris his due. He has told the story of Theodore Roosevelt with tremendous style and panache. "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" is a fair and balanced biography, although Edmund Morris displays an obvious affection for his subject. Morris combines an intellectually stimulating and literate historical narrative with brilliantly insightful historical analysis. Roosevelt's less attractive qualities - his impulsiveness, his emotionalism, and his attempts at self glorification among others - all receive full coverage in this masterful book. Edmund Morris has written an extremely readable, highly entertaining, and factually sound biography. In "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," he completely captures the essence of this towering early twentieth century figure, making him totally relevant to today's readers. "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" is a biography that's indeed very well worth reading!

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