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Biographer to discuss Teddy Roosevelt's big-stick life

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Edmund Morris pauses when posed the question, then does the math. How many years did he spend researching and writing his acclaimed trilogy on Teddy Roosevelt's outsize life?

"It's a 35-year span, but 16 years of those were on other books," he says via telephone from his New York City apartment.

The other books were his controversial biography of Ronald Reagan, "Dutch," which took 14 years. Then, a modest two years taken up with the short bio "Beethoven: The Universal Composer" for the Eminent Lives series.

So, the answer is 19. Which raises another question: What was it about the life of Roosevelt that was worth two decades of the British-born biographer's own creative life?

"He once said, 'I've enjoyed life as much as any other nine men I know,'" Morris responded. "He, in effect, lived nine lives, and that's why it was so much fun writing about him, because of the variety of those nine lives."

"The Nine Lives of Theodore Roosevelt" is the title of the talk Morris will give when he delivers the annual McCreight Lecture in the Humanities at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25 in the Culture Center Theater. Admission is free to the West Virginia Humanities Council event.

Reinventing himself

The multitudinous lives of America's 26th president are told in "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" (1980) -- which won Morris a Pulitzer Prize and is considered one of the finest biographies ever written -- the bestseller "Theodore Rex" (2001) and finally "Colonel Roosevelt" (2010).

It's hard to briefly summarize all TR (as Roosevelt was nicknamed) did with his life in the 60 years from his birth in 1858 to dying in his sleep of heart failure in 1919.

A sickly child, he reinvented himself as a vigorous governor of New York, a New York City police commissioner, an assistant secretary of the Navy, a colonel in the Rough Riders, a rancher in the Badlands and sheriff's deputy in the Dakota Territory, a founder of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a Nobel Prize winner, a vice president, and then a reform-minded president of the United States who almost single-handedly created the modern conservation movement.

Given all that, what did Morris learn during his long research on Roosevelt that surprised him?

"What surprised me -- how funny he was, number one," he said. "He had this delicious, lifelong sense of humor. And secondly, what I discovered in the last volume was how literary he was."

Roosevelt authored about 40 books and wrote something like 150,000 letters, which recalls another notable world figure whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries -- Winston Churchill.

"Roosevelt and Churchill are a very good comparison in being men of action, politicians and statesmen, and men of letters," said Morris.

So, what is a caricature of TR's persona held by the public that Morris found not to be the case?

That would be Roosevelt as wild-eyed leader of the flag-waving Rough Riders in the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, ready to roar up hills in the Spanish-American War. "The caricature of the flamboyant Rough Rider was the general impression when he accidentally became president," Morris said.

Youngest president

Roosevelt -- famous for the line "Speak softly and carry a big stick" -- very quickly proved himself to be a statesman and strong executive president, said Morris. "He was actually an extremely subtle and sophisticated diplomat who won the Nobel Peace Prize -- and a political intelligence of the first order."

Upon the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, Vice President Roosevelt became America's youngest president when he was sworn in at age 42. (By comparison, John F. Kennedy was 43 when he took office.)

Perhaps more revealing than the "big stick" line might be Roosevelt's description of his foreign policy as "the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis."

"Decisive action" also describes how rapidly Roosevelt took on Wall Street, which if anything wielded as much, if not more, clout in TR's day than it does today.

"Within months of being president, he launched a massive antitrust suit against the second-biggest corporate conglomeration in the country," said Morris. That corporation was the Northern Securities Co. and "anything that was bigger than that was Standard Oil."

Two years later, the suit was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Roosevelt had secured a victory and earned a foe. "From that moment on, Wall Street was united against him," Morris said.

Troubling parallels

TR might find some troubling parallels with today's current political scene and his own time were he to serve as president today.

"The two things that he would fear most are the threat to the environment that current pro-corporate political conservatives espouse. Secondly, the anti-democratic nature of unrestrained corporate power," Morris said.

In 1912, as in 2012, what he would find relevant between the two eras, said the biographer, "is the power of Wall Street to influence politics. The excessive domination by unregulated corporations on the American scene.

"His big philosophy was regulation. In that sense, he would be more of a Democrat today than he would be a Republican."

And Roosevelt would no doubt be troubled by corporate influence on both sides of the aisle, said Morris.

"He would note how many bankers there are surrounding Obama, and he would note how overwhelmingly influential corporate money is in both campaigns. And that would freeze his blood. He was always leery of unrestrained corporate power."

As for a prime example of a legacy of Roosevelt's time in the White House, Morris quickly lands on one word.

"Without question, conservation. He was the president who put conservation into the social agenda. He popularized it and made it a worldwide movement. Before him, just a few scientists and intellectuals were on to the subject, but TR personified and popularized it. He created a huge swath of protected wilderness in the United States -- national parks, national monuments, national refuges."

TR's 'bloodlust'

Having followed TR throughout his long, eventful career, was there anything about his character or life story that troubled Morris?

"I've never been able to come to terms with his bloodlust, his love of killing animals, which was lifelong," he said.

Roosevelt was no average hunter plunking a deer now and then. Consider the African hunting expedition and Smithsonian specimen-collection trip Roosevelt took with his son Kermit in 1909, along with a crew of nearly 250 porters and guides. They slew 512 beasts, including 17 lions, 11 elephants and 20 rhinoceroses.

"I've never been able to understand it because he passionately loved animals and all forms of life and was in fact a lifelong natural historian whose love of nature was palpable," Morris said. "So, how he could kill with such pleasure I've never been able to figure out."

Yet after all is said and done, few figures like TR have stalked the world stage, he said.

"There have been powerful statesmen since TR, of course, but none of them in any country I am aware of had his kind of cosmopolitan sophistication. Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Truman, LBJ -- all these strong presidents, all the strong prime ministers in Britain, have all been politicians and not particularly cultured outside politics," he said.

TR did his homework and then some. "Because he was so erudite, and read a book a day in many languages, he understood foreign cultures as no subsequent American president has done," Morris said.

That's an exaggeration, right?

"Not exaggerating, it's a well-known fact," responded Morris. "On average, he read a book a day. He was a speed-reader and mentally photographed every book he read. He was quite capable of declaiming stuff he'd read 25 years later."

This ability proved useful in lands other than America, he added. So, when he went to the Middle East, he could talk about Arab literature and Islam, and when he went to Germany, he could recite the Germanic epic poem "The Nibelungenlied," Morris said. "In other words, he understood foreign cultures, and that's what made him such an effective diplomat."

After all these years with TR living inside his head, does Morris miss him now that the trilogy is complete?

"No," he said with a laugh. "I find it almost hard to talk about him these days, in the sense that I've really said goodbye to him. I've killed him off and buried him."

As for what comes next, biography-wise?

"Now, I'm much more interested in Thomas Edison," said Morris.

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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