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7 october 2008
It's hard to write anything original about Theodore Roosevelt. To his credit, Louis Auchincloss, in the Times Books American Presidents series, doesn't really try. He admits the problem of Roosevelt's magnitude in American history and historiography – not to mention Mount Rushmore – and goes on, in a brief 136 pages, to deliver just some impressions of what TR was like personally. Auchincloss assumes that the reader is familiar with TR's accomplishments before, during, and after his Presidency. A distinguished chronicler of that age, Auchincloss fits TR easily into his context, and shows how the 26th President shaped his era, often by the aggressive contrasts he presented to everyone around him.
It's bold and romantic stuff from an age that seems impossibly bygone, with emperors and prime ministers carving up the globe like a big game of Risk, shiny battleships flaunting their colors in exotic ports, and an aristocracy of taste and energy effusing from Roosevelt's White House. Auchincloss paints TR as his familiar hyperdrive personality, but also reveals in him a fairly large incapacity for actual joy, despite his well-publicized gusto. Auchincloss traces much of TR's self- and other-destructiveness to his shame over his father TR Sr.'s draft-dodging during the Civil War. No Roosevelt was going to make that mistake again if TR could help it. He nagged at his cousin Franklin to emulate his own Rough Rider exploits by leaving the Navy Department for a WWI battlefield; FDR had the good sense to stay behind a desk and save himself for command in the next war. Eighty years after his grandfather hired a substitute to take his place in the Union ranks, an aging Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. hit the beach on D-Day, dying of a heart attack not long after, in part to placate his long-dead father. Expiation, for Roosevelts, knew no statute of limitations.
There is no new research here and little new in the way of anecdote. Auchincloss sometimes quotes at length from Edmund Morris's classic studies, and devotes one chapter just to gathering representative quotations from TR himself. But he captures a sense of the period, in miniature, and helps draw keen contrasts to the surrounding Presidents: the cautious McKinley, the scholarly Taft, the querulous Wilson (who set off an even greater querulousness in TR himself). It's a minor book on a major President, but well worth the read.
Auchincloss, Louis. Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Times Books, 2002.
UPDATE 10.20.08: I haven't done a full review of the late Roy Jenkins's volume Franklin D. Roosevelt (NY: Times Books, 2003). Jenkins's book is breezy and digressive, often wandering off onto discussions of everybody but FDR. But as I've said with reference to Auchincloss on TR, it's hard to write about an ultra-famous President within the confines of this kind of series volume; the stronger entries tend to be on the more forgotten figures. And Jenkins's FDR book was also his last, and was actually unfinished; he had done much more distinguished work before.