2002, Books, Non-Fiction

Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (2002, Kathleen Dalton)

At long last, I have finished this mammoth, exhaustive one-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Given the depth of this one, I have to wonder about the detail of multi-volume biographies. Anyway, why would I read such a thing? Well, I read this because TR is my dad’s favourite president. I had mixed feelings about him and this biography has not helped me get rid of those mixed feelings.

So, this is an extremely detailed biography of Roosevelt. The level of detail is rather incredible and it’s clearly a monumental undertaking. Each paragraph seemingly contains at least one fact, and often many more, and they’re all methodically sourced. As scholarship, it’s clearly an accomplishment. And if earlier biographies of Roosevelt missed parts of his life or misrepresented him in some way, then I guess this very well researched book is a welcome and necessary correction.

But I am just a guy who read this because his father likes TR, I am not a Roosevelt scholar nor am I a fan or someone who has read other books about him. For the layperson like me, it’s hard to see the appeal. Because, though this book is obsessively documented, it is also mostly just “And then this happened, and then this happened” for over 500 pages. Dalton occasionally allows herself to reflect on his legacy, but only does that occasionally, and it’s usually within the context of how we understand TR, or how TR’s post-presidential radicalism was influential on FDR. There is very little analysis and when there is criticism, it is very muted. For example, one day TR got romantically or sexually frustrated and shot a dog! In the pre-Trump 21st century, this fact would have kept him from ever winning political office in the United States, and yet Dalton just drops it in there as if it’s just something that happened, and doesn’t deserve much thought. When evaluating the faults of his Presidency, there is a brief 2-page summary of things he could have handled (much!) better. Again, this book is over 500 pages long.

I am left feeling I know everything there is to know about TR’s day-to-day life but with tons of questions about whether or not he was actually someone to be admired. I guess biography, in the pure sense, is supposed to give you the life story and allow you, the reader, to make your own conclusions, but I guess I’d rather read a book more concerned with TR’s place in history. It’s admirable that he is probably the most well-read president in US history. It’s admirable that he changed his mind on many issues and became more radical as he aged, rather than what happens to many (most?) people. Some of the things he did as a politician – such as reforming the NYPD – appear to have been very good. On the other hand, he was extremely impulsive, quick to anger, an imperialist and nationalist, responsible (at least in part) for many deaths in the Philippines and an absolute blowhard. Had I been alive during WWI, I probably would have hated his guts. (His obsession with war got one of his children killed, too.) I understand that, among US presidents, he’s probably one of the better ones, at least since the American empire came into existence (partially under his watch!) but he still was a very flawed man whose words were regularly far more high-minded than his actions.

Of course, all humans are complicated and contradictory. But if TR is your ideal president, it’s worth thinking about whether or not there should be a presidency – if having one person in charge of a country (especially a large one) is actually sensible at all. Because if perhaps the most well-read and intellectually curious president in US history can be this flawed a person, perhaps there is no hope for any president to be “good” in the moral sense.

I think this book is for people who’ve read shorter biographies of TR and want to know more. It is not for anyone just wanting a summary or knowledge about his place in US history.


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