A compact biography of the genuine cowboy president.
Donald undertakes a daunting task: compressing the crowded life of Theodore Roosevelt into fewer than 300 pages, where any year—indeed, almost any episode (see Candice Millard’s thrilling The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, 2005)—merits book-length treatment. Donald offers glimpses of Roosevelt in his many guises: the sickly youth, the Harvard swell, the cowboy rancher, the frontier deputy sheriff, the amateur scientist, the historian and author, the avid hunter and explorer, the conservationist, the Rough Rider, the devoted family man. She pays a bit more attention to his deeds in public office, from his early days as an Albany legislator, to his term as civil-service commissioner under Presidents Harrison and Cleveland, to his stint as police commissioner of New York City. She turns a larger spotlight on Roosevelt the assistant secretary of the navy, the New York governor, the McKinley vice president and, of course, the inventor of the modern presidency. Donald duly notes Roosevelt’s magnificent public deeds—storming San Juan Hill, busting the trusts, launching the Great White Fleet, building the Panama Canal, waging the valiant Bull Moose campaign—and takes care also to mark his failures—his mishandling of the Brownsville, Texas, army affair and his failure to challenge the 1902 Chinese Exclusion Act. Indeed, no important aspect of the life goes unexplored, but the galloping pace leaves little time for the color this subject demands. Donald fares much better with her sensitive and informed discussion of Roosevelt’s political philosophy. She ably demonstrates how his life shaped his public policy, how he acted wisely and moderately on a reformist agenda and how Lincoln’s example informed his presidency, the high watermark of Republican progressivism. His increasingly “radical” positions—actually nothing more than an extension of his abiding belief in the efficacy of active government—finally alienated him from the Party he so briefly defined.
Although readers seeking rich detail, a portrait in full, will continue to consult Edmund Morris’s exquisite two-volume biography, Donald’s work serves as a fair introduction to Roosevelt’s life and a fine appreciation of his politics.