Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"lion in the white house: a life of theodore roosevelt" book review

aida donald's short biography, "a lion in the white house: a life of theodore roosevelt," is a great introduction to the man, his incredible life, and fascinating times. first, i should mention that teddy roosevelt is my favorite president. second, over the years i've read many books about him and, just this summer, even went to see my first one-man play about him, "bully pulpit." with that as a background, it's not surprising that donald's slim biography covered basically familiar material for me - i thought of it as a teddy refresher.

while donald researched and wrote the book from previously published material (no original research) - primarily his published letters and written works, i found her stripped down portrait of the roosevelt saga a solid, worth-while retelling of his life and accomplishments. for someone new to the man, she did a great job covering all the major points - starting with his childhood, the brief first marriage and child, the apprenticeship he served in the nys legislature, his escape to the badlands of the west to grieve, his return and remarriage to his childhood sweetheart, his emergence as a writer, and brief stint as nyc police commissioner.

all of which served as stepping stones to his eventual appointment as assistant naval secretary under president mckinley. during roosevelt's service as assistant secretary the spanish-american war broke out. roosevelt resigned his position, took a military commission, raised a regiment of volunteers, and then led his "rough riders" into battle. his military valor not only earned him a congressional medal of honor, but eventually led to his election as governor of new york state upon his return home. so independent was he, that the political bosses decided to "promote" him to vice president - and out of new york - when it came time for him to seek re-election as governor.

following mckinley's assassination, roosevelt became the youngest person to be sworn in as president - at the age of 42. the rest is, as they say, history. his accomplishments as president included "trust-busting," land conservation, a naval build-up, diplomacy (which earned him the nobel prize for his efforts to resolve the russian-japanese war), and he set in motion the creation of the panama canal. having served the remaining 3 years of mckinnely's term and the 4 of his elected office, he declined to seek reelection. instead, he helped elect his hand-picked successor, william taft, and then went on an african safari!

upon his triumphant return home roosevelt was lionized by the public. disillusioned by taft, roosevelt sought, and lost, the nomination for president in 1912. believing it was stolen from him because of political deals, he did the unthinkable and abandoned the republican party in favor of the progessive ("bull-moose") third party. that quixotic run paved the way for the democrats to retake the white house. after the election, roosevelt again left the country for a safari - this time he explored the uncharted "river of doubt" in south america.

where donald's book comes up short (albeit it is a "short biography") is the meager treatment of roosevelt's post-presidency, post-third party, activities. she covers off almost 10 years of material in a single all-inclusive chapter. it's almost as if she was in a rush to finish the story. she covered roosevelt and the first world war - including the service of his three sons, and the death of his youngest, quentin - in just a few paragraphs. that rush to get it done was noticeable letdown. but as a roosevelt primer (or refresher), the book is well-worth the read.

for serious fans of teddy roosevelt, however, invest the time to digest edmund morris' monumental first two volumes of his expected trilogy on roosevelt ("the rise of theodore roosevelt" and "theodore rex"). for fans of roosevelt the family man, try "the lion's pride: theodore roosevelt and his family in peace and war," by edward renehan. finally, for lovers of true adventure, consider "river of doubt: theodore roosevelt's darkest journey," by candice millard. it's a spellbinding look at roosevelt's last major adventure.

1 comment:

Bert said...

Great review, I might just buy the book. My knowledge of Roosevelt is limited by the fact that I have only read Edmund Morris' first two books, so I have no knowledge of what happened in his life post-presidency. Seems like this book doesn't spend much time on that phase of his life. Hopefully Morris' third book to complete the trilogy will be out soon...