The renowned, larger-than-life politician comes in for respectful but critical treatment at the hands of debut biographer Dalton (History/Phillips Academy, Andover).
Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t exactly a self-made man—he came from wealth and what passed for aristocracy in mid-19th-century New York—but he did labor endlessly to improve in every conceivable way not only himself but also the record he would leave to history. One result of those efforts, Dalton observes, was his steady emergence as a cultural icon; he won hands-down, for instance, a contemporary magazine’s poll of its readers to determine who was “the greatest man in the United States.” Another result was a tangled, partial historical record through which his biographer bravely carves a path, tossing aside the merely worshipful on one hand and the merely damning on the other. Sorting fact from myth, she delivers a portrait that questions some of Roosevelt’s stands (his glorification of war and early lack of interest in women’s rights) even as it yields an admiring assessment of his accomplishments. The author turns up material that has not been widely discussed outside professional historical literature, including Roosevelt’s dispatches from Cuba during the Spanish-American War, in which he called his commanding general an “unwieldy swine” and railed that “the President [McKinley] & Secretary [of War] are causing dreadful loss of life.” Interestingly, she also charts Roosevelt’s evolution from callow racist to human-rights champion, and from a privileged caricature out of the Gilded Age to a trust-busting crusader who urged that the US would remain forever backward unless it equalized wealth and curbed the power of corporations. These transitions make him very much a man for our time, one whom aspiring politicians would do well to study.
Cast slightly in the shadow by the recent works of better-known biographers (Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex and Louis Auchincloss’s Theodore Roosevelt, both 2001), this nonetheless ranks high among the available portraits of the rough-riding president.