TOM PUTNAM: Good afternoon. I‘m Tom Putnam, director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and on behalf of Tom McNaught, Executive Director of the Kennedy Library Foundation and all of my Library and Foundation colleagues, I thank you for joining us today. Let me begin by acknowledging the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums, including lead sponsor Bank of America, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, Raytheon, The Boston Foundation and our media partners, The Boston Globe, WBUR and NECN.
There are a number of reasons why it is fitting for us to host this presentation. As a presidential library, we are honored to commemorate and pay tribute to the life of our 26th president. Yet, as we know by reading Edmund Morris, Theodore Roosevelt was so much more than just our nation‘s highest office holder. Roosevelt‘s life as an author, safari hunter, Cuban Rough Rider also parallels in curious ways another man we honor in this institution, Ernest Hemingway, whose papers are among this library‘s treasures.
A few years ago at a forum on A Moveable Feast the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik commented on what he perceived as, quote, ―An odd symmetry between John F. Kennedy and Hemmingway in the sense that they were both men of very complicated accomplishments, both men about whom it is possible to have ambivalent feelings who, nonetheless,‖ Mr. Gopnik concluded, ―continued to radiate, perhaps because of some essential gallantry in their lives, an aura of heroism that seems undiminished 50 years on.‖ The same could be said for Theodore Roosevelt, though over 100 years have passed since the time period that we will hear discussed today.
Another type of pairing that is apropos to today‘s gathering is that of biographer and subject, a type of marriage, if you will between the likes of David McCullough and John Adams, Arthur Schlesinger and Andrew Jackson, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Carroll and Lyndon Johnson, all of whom I note won the Pulitzer Prize, as did Edmund
Morris and his larger than life subject and tacit partner in this endeavor, Theodore Roosevelt, who once remarked, not so tacitly, ―I have enjoyed life as much as any nine men I know.‖
To chronicle the nine lives of Teddy Roosevelt has been the task of Edmund Morris these past 30 years, culminating in three mesmerizing books, containing over one million words and 2,500 pages. The first, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, not only earned him a Pulitzer but also the National Book Award. The second, Theodore Rex, won The Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, and the final volume, Colonel Roosevelt, tells the story of TR‘s extraordinary post presidency. Jimmy Carter is not the only president to excel in that art.
Woodrow Wilson whose life was also greatly affected by TR‘s post presidency, once noted, ―You can‘t resist the man. He is a great, big boy. There is a sweetness about him that is very compelling.‖ This is the character that we meet and are charmed by Mr. Morris‘ book and whose despair, especially at the end of his life, we feel as our own.
Our moderator this afternoon is Mark Feeney, also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for his featured writing in The Boston Globe where he has worked since 1979 in a variety of roles from arts writer to book review editor. Mr. Feeney is an author himself of Nixon at the Movies, a book about belief.
There is, as I have alluded, great sadness at the end of this volume. Mr. Morris speculates that in more ways than one, it could be said that Teddy Roosevelt died of a broken heart. And for those of us who have been transfixed by these three volumes, we, too, experience a sense of loss as we reach the end of the road of this masterful literary journey.
Please join me in welcoming back to the Kennedy Library Mark Feeney and Edmund Morris. [Applause]
MARK FEENEY: Thank you. Thank you very much. Edmund and I will be talking for about an hour. And for about a half an hour there will be time for questions from those of you in the audience. You will notice there is a microphone there. This event is being recorded, a microphone there as well. So if you have a question in about an hour, please come to the microphone and you will be recognized and you can ask your question. But in the meantime, I‘m your surrogate.
As I‘m sure everyone here knows, the youngest man ever to serve a president was Theodore Roosevelt and the youngest man ever elected as president was John F. Kennedy. And we are here at the Kennedy Library. Might you talk about TR and JFK, the relationship between them, one‘s view of the other-- we don‘t know what TR thought of JFK-- and the affinity between them. Tom mentioned an affinity between Hemingway and TR. What about TR and JFK?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, while I try to think of an answer to that, I will just welcome you all here and—[Laughter] all you football haters of Boston. And it is nice, too, to see so many Republicans who couldn‘t manage to get tickets on the plan to Los Angeles for centennial celebration today. Let that be a lesson to you to get your tickets early if you want to go to the unveiling on Mt. Rushmore. [Laughter]
JFK and TR—well, apart from youth, they had this indefinable quality of personal luster. In JFK‘s case, I don‘t really have to go on about it so much. But he discharged a luster, which famously made the Nixon in debate look pallid and awkward. Kennedy had an effulgence about him, which I as a nightclub photographer in Durban, South Africa in 1962-63, could feel. When I came home from a gig one night, from the beach clubs of Durban and I turned on South African Radio, it was playing this dirge-like classical music. I couldn‘t understand why they were playing Beethoven in one o‘clock in the morning.
And after a half an hour of this solemn music a voice said, ―We are mourning today the death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy whose life was tragically short.‖ And at that remote part of the world I felt completely devastated. I felt something vital had been expunged. So Kennedy‘s luster, which is the only word I could think of, was felt around the world. And TR‘s electricity, to use a word that is more frequently used about him—over and over again in descriptions of TR, you hear this word electricity, radioactivity. Sometimes he is compared to a steam engine. There is this discharge of force.
So they both had that. And this quality of motivating people, of warming them with your luster, energizing them with your steam power and your electricity, is something, which is bred in the berm burn(?) and is born and which can translate into real political power. They were both supernaturally smart, which is self-evident, and they both had humor, delicious humor. And just these three qualities I‘ve listed, I‘m sure there are more, are enough to make any man a formidable candidate for political office.
MARK FEENEY: Another way in which Kennedy and Roosevelt differed was that Kennedy never faced the challenge of a post presidency. And that, of course, TR‘s post presidency is what Colonel Roosevelt is about. That idea-- they probably never even used that word back then. Of course, we are much aware of it now with places such as this, presidential libraries and so forth.
Might you care to talk a little bit about the idea of a post presidency and seeing it through the lens of TR‘s unique and quite turbulent experience as a post president, who wanted to be president again.
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, the youth was still there, of course. He was only 50 when he left the White House, and still full of vigor and still palpably enjoying power. He gave up power in 1908 when a third term was handed to him on a silver platter by the Republican Party. But he turned down that opportunity because, I think, for genuinely noble reasons. He felt that if he had another term, enjoying power as much as he did and executing the Office as vigorously as he did, I think in his moral heart he sensed that he might become overweeningly authoritarian, self- righteous and veer towards corruption.
He pushed away the silver platter. He went off to Africa for year to give President Taft, his handpicked successor a chance to build a presidential profile for himself. And it was really only when he came back from Africa, after a year away, in the spring of 1910, that he realized what an enormous demand there was in the United States, particularly among Republican progressives for him to come back and assume leadership of their movement.
So with all his youth, with all his desire for power, which had returned already, he really did want to be president again. He found it more or less impossible to resist the invitations of the Progressives to run in 1912. And the story of his defeat is a story we can go into if we want. But he made of his post presidency a series of adventures that make the, from my point of view, made the third volume more interesting to write than that other two. Because not only did he run again for the presidency, he became an explorer, he went to South America and explored a river longer than the Rhine, a completely unknown river.
He wrote many books. He became president of the America Historical Association. Then he became a great evangelist for American participation in World War I and lived a magnificent final decade.
MARK FEENEY: Well, you call it magnificent but it was full of disappointments at the same time, wasn‘t it?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, it was magnificent tragedy, if you like. Tragedy has to be magnificent. Otherwise it is just pathos. [Laughter] He was brought down by his greatest faults. And his death was tragically magnificent. From the narrative point of view you could say that over the whole arc of his life, there was—it had the shape of a Greek tragedy, of a man who made himself great, who reached enormous power- the great climax of the presidency. Then, having left the presidency, committed the act of hubris by running again in 1912.
At the climax of that campaign, he gets smacked in the chest by a bullet. The story I could very briefly give you, to show you what high drama it was, a story, by the way, which is uncannily similar to the story of the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in March of 1981. Here was TR coming out of his hotel room on the October 14, 1912, stepping into the limousine that was waiting for him, that was taking him to his speaking engagement that night, eight o‘clock in the evening. And a crowd collected around the limousine to welcome him.
As he climbed into the car, just like Reagan, as he approached his limo, the crowd cheered. He waved, as Reagan had, and in both cases, a short, blond, dull-eyed man stepped forward and shot TR point blank in the chest. The bullet went through his overcoat, his jacket, his waistcoat, into his waistcoat pocket, smacked into his steel rimmed spectacle case—then went through his 50- page speech, which was double folded. So it was 100 pages of thick paper, and on through his shirt and hit a rib, on a trajectory, which if it had continued, would have gone right into his heart and he would have been dead before he sat down.
And TR being TR, consummate showman, insisted on being taken to the Milwaukee Auditorium to deliver his speech, even though he felt blood spreading across his shirt. And when he got there one of his guys went out on the stage and said, ―Ladies and gentlemen, Colonel Roosevelt has been shot and he does want to address you tonight,‖ which got their attention. And out TR came and said, ―It takes more than that to kill a bull moose.‖ [Laughter]
There is a photograph in my book of the perforated speech, which is now in the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace. Of course, he survived and went on to these other great things. But I just cite that particular example as the moment when everything began to go wrong. The act of hubris had occurred, the decision to run again. The catastrophe happened. From that moment, even though he went on to great things, life was a pretty steady, inexorable decline to his death at age 60 in 1919.
MARK FEENEY: And if I read you right, you would argue that had he not run in 1912 and waited until 916, he would have easily beaten Wilson. Is that correct?
EDMUND MORRIS: I don‘t—Wilson--?
MARK FEENEY: If Roosevelt had not run in 1912 and then run in 1916 instead, rather than Charles Evans Hughes, he would have beaten Wilson.
EDMUND MORRIS: Yes. I think that is a pretty safe speculation. Because as you know, Charles Evans Hughes was the nominee that year. And Wilson defeated him by such a narrow margin that at first, it was a Truman versus, who was the guy?
MARK FEENEY: Dewey.
EDMUND MORRIS: Tru-ey versus Dewey situation. When Charles Evans Hughes was, in fact, announced by the New York Times until they suddenly decided that California contributed enough votes and Wilson, in fact, had been re-elected. So it stands to reason that if TR had campaigning that year on the GOP ticket instead of the lackluster Charles Evans Hughes, he would have won. It is also beyond question that if he had survived through 1919 and been re- nominated in 1920, which unquestionably he was going to be, he was going to be the Republican nominee in 1920, he would have won in 1920, because there was such a Republican landslide that year even Warren Harding was elected.
MARK FEENEY: You mentioned earlier comparing the assassination attempt on Reagan with the assassination attempt on Roosevelt. As Reagan‘s official biographer, you had an extraordinary access to him and to the White House. This was after you had published your first volume but before you wrote your second and third Roosevelt volumes. How did that access change and form your view of the presidency? Do you think that it added something to your writing about Roosevelt as it obviously did to your writing about Reagan?
EDMUND MORRIS: Yes. It added a lot, because I began Theodore Rex almost immediately after finishing my first book. I began it, in fact, the year Reagan was elected president. And I was having a lot of difficulty understanding the way the White House worked simply because I am not, by nature, a political scientist and I really didn‘t know too much about hard, operational, Washington politics. So I was making heavy weather of that book.
And then Reagan was elected and I had the opportunity to become his biographer, which at first I resisted because TR seemed to me in 1981-82, even in 1983, TR seemed to me so much more fascinating and important than Reagan that it was just no contest between the two. But, by 1983, Reagan‘s presidency was achieving gravitas. It did receive critical mass. That year was the great confrontation of the Soviet Union, of the Evil Empire and the SDI and the Korean airliner was shot down, and we were emplacing missiles in Europe and it was the climax of the economic crisis, which Reagan transcended.
So I began to realize that this president was a substantial president and his presidency is also extremely dramatic. And maybe I was an idiot not to take the opportunity to write about him. So I did. I became his biographer and, in the process began to learn, by being there in the White House, how the White House worked. The elements of the presidency do not change year by year and century by century. The elements are always the same.
Even so, sitting in the White House at meetings, which sometimes became very boring, I found myself still hankering to go back to TR. Enough of Theodore Rex was written that I was still in my head thinking of paragraphs. And in one meeting I doodled a few paragraphs on a yellow legal pad, which I forgot about at the end of the meeting. It was in the Roosevelt room, ironically. And at the end of the meeting I was walking down the corridor to the Oval Office, I think I had an interview scheduled with the President, and one of the White House secretaries came running after me saying, ―Mr. Morris. Mr. Morris. You forgot your notes.‖
I said, ―Oh, thank you.‖ She said, ―Sir, you ought to be more careful about national security.‖ I said, ―Why?‖ She said, ―Well, it says here the President is plotting a revolution in Panama.‖ [Laughter] So I realized then that no biographer can serve two masters and I put TR aside. But when I went back to Theodore Rex after publishing Dutch, I understood much better how the White House works
MARK FEENEY: What‘s the single, biggest misconception about Theodore Roosevelt? He has such a strong image in the public mind but what does the public not get about it?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, I think the single, biggest misconception was that he was cowboy, a Rough Rider, a bragging bully, an unsubtle person. TR was as unsubtle as a Siamese cat. He was man of extreme intellectual sophistication. He was erudite. He read, as is famously known, on average, a book a day. He read in French and German and Italian as well as in English. He was a bona fide intellectual whose forty books cover military history, biography, memoir, wild life writing, political analysis, all sorts of subjects.
He had a range of acquaintance around the world unmatched by any other president I can think of. He had Japanese friends, French aristocrats, Brazilian Army officers, English toffs, royalty. He knew everybody, corresponded with everybody. And this gave him an extremely deep and rich appreciation of foreign cultures. To give you just one example of how this mental fertilization affected his behavior—when he got to Cairo, in the spring of 1910 and having spent that year in Africa as ex-president, he wanted to go to the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, which is the oldest university in the world.
And when he arrived there the mullahs were sitting around teaching mudras to the students, sitting cross legged on the floor. TR asked to be shown a copy, a scroll of the Medieval travels of Ibn Batuta, the great Arabian, Araba traveler. And you can imagine the delight of the mullahs to be asked a question of this kind. They rushed off to their library to get this medieval scroll while TR explained to the other mullahs that, of course, he had not read it in Arabic, he said, ―But I did read it in French many years ago. I remember it very well,‖ and began to recite chunks from it.
So when he left that university with this dazzled mullahs, salamming as he left, he carried under his arm a copy of the Koran. Now, what other American president could carry off a feat of such intellectual grace and sensitivity as that?
MARK FEENEY: The question answers itself. [Laughter] You mention his forty books. It is easier or harder writing about a fellow writer?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, I must say, for me it made it easier because I am, by nature, literary, which is to say, I am much more literary than I am political. Most books about presidents are written by politically interested individuals whose primary interest is politics. But for Theodore Roosevelt, throughout his life, I‘ve identified with his literary side as much as, if not more so, than his political side. And for that reason it has made it possible for me to deal with periods of his life, which were densely political such as 1912, which was nothing but politics from beginning to end. The knowledge that he was going to go on to more books and more letters and more essays made it easier for me to keep the narrative going.
MARK FEENEY: If somebody in the audience wanted to acquaint themselves with Roosevelt as a writer, is there one book or essay that you would recommend as a place to start?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, there is a little book published in the 1950‘s by Harvard University Press called Cowboys and Kings. And what it is, is simply an off-print of three of TR‘s greatest, longest letters. And these letters are so hilariously funny, are so rich in personal reminiscence and detail, are so fascinating to read, and discharge such personality that anybody reading this slim book, it is only about 150 pages long, cannot but feel at full force this power of personality that I described.
The first letter is a huge letter describing his famous, cross-country trip in the year 1903 as President of the United States, when he crossed to the Pacific coast for the first time. It‘s a series of anecdotes about all these little towns that he stopped at and how he was welcomed by the locals. And it is so delicious that you can understand how it came about that he wrote this letter. Because when he got back to Washington in the spring of 1903 he went to have dinner with John Hay, his Secretary of State.
And he began to tell all these stories about his famous trip across America, and John Hay, who, by the way, used to be Lincoln‘s private secretary, is then TR‘s Secretary of State, begged TR,
―Please, Mr. President, will you write down these reminiscence of yours. They are priceless. Will you write them down for me?‖ And TR eventually did produce this enormous letter, which he gave to John Hay. And that is the letter reproduced in this book, Cowboys and Kings.
And the other two letters are equally enormous letters describing his grand tour of Europe in 1910 and all the kings and emperors he stayed with, climaxing with the funeral of King Edward VII. It‘s a delicious little book. I hope it is going to be reprinted at some point.
MARK FEENEY: But it is, obviously, available in libraries.
EDMUND MORRIS: Yes.
MARK FEENEY: You have a wonderful phrase in Colonel Roosevelt for his personality, explosive effervescence. I would imagine that spending something in the vicinity of 35 in the company of such explosive effervescence might get a little tiring. Did you ever find yourself tiring of him? Did he ever wear you out?
EDMUND MORRIS: People did say that, that he was so explosively energetic that they just felt innervated by being close to him. I never did felt that myself. But I did feel at the end of each of these big books that his personality was so overwhelming that I needed to get away from him. I didn‘t want to fall into the Arthur Link‘s syndrome of becoming Mr. Woodrow Wilson. Arthur spent his entire life writing about Woodrow Wilson and producing these, I think 60 volumes of Wilson‘s presidential papers, to the extent he began to look like Woodrow Wilson. [Laughter]
So I got away from TR by writing about Reagan, which took me 15 years. When I went back to him, it was such a luxury of re-acquaintance that it made writing Theodore Rex a delight. But then, after finishing Theodore Rex I needed another break. And I wrote about Beethoven. And that year writing about Beethoven enabled me to go back to him a third time and complete this book.
MARK FEENEY: Well, I have to ask that most annoying question that is posed to someone who has completed a mighty task like this and that is, what‘s next?
EDMUND MORRIS: I really don‘t know. Frankly, I haven‘t decided but it is going to be something very different. I don‘t want to write about any more presidents. I wouldn‘t mind writing about another musician but books on composers don‘t sell all that well. [Laughter]
Beethoven did okay but, anyway, it will be something non-presidential and non-Republican and non-political.
MARK FEENEY: Reading Colonel Roosevelt I found myself wondering about the children. You make them become so vivid in the book. I wondered, did you ever meet Alice Roosevelt?
EDMUND MORRIS: I did, actually. I didn‘t interview her so much as my wife, who wrote a book about Edith Kermit Roosevelt, TR‘s wife, and her long life, which went on to 1948. And Edith, of course, was much closer to Alice. Well, Alice, at least could talk about Edith in much more detail than any of the other children, being a woman. So I sort of sat in the corner while Sylvia was interviewing her. And she was then very old. And what I did get was a sense of her, how can I put it, her humorous malevolence. [Laughter] She found suffering and awkward situations very funny.
While Sylvia was interviewing her Archie Roosevelt, our good friend Archibald Roosevelt, Jr. was taking the shuttle down from New York to Washington while the interview was proceeding. Somehow, Alice got a message during the course of the interview that Archie was having heart trouble on the plane and Alice actually cackled. [Laughter] She loved people in distress. [Laughter]
I also interviewed Archie Roosevelt and Ethel Derby and found neither of them particularly interesting because they both worshiped their father so much. It‘s always difficult interviewing children because the element of worship does tend to come in. The most rewarding interview and the most rewarding acquaintance, in fact, was with Archibald Roosevelt, Jr. because he didn‘t realize how much like TR he was.
MARK FEENEY: There is such an amazing cast of characters over the course of these books. Do you have any favorites among them?
EDMUND MORRIS: Favorite characters? Hmm. I‘ve always been very fond Elihu Root. He is a forgotten name now. But he was one of the few strong men about-- by the way, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a great Secretary of State. He was one of the few men around TR who was not over-awed by him. And he knew exactly how to treat TR with just the right amount of humorous, patronizing dispatch.
For example, when TR turned 43 in the White House, Elihu wrote him a note saying, ―All your friends are delighted to hear that you have turned 43 and we have great hopes for you when you grow up.‖ [Laughter] And on another occasion, somebody said to—TR apparently said to Root and to Henry Cabot Lodge, ―I was just at the White House talking to Woodrow Wilson and he wouldn‘t send me to Europe to fight in the war because he knew I‘d be killed in the war.‖ And Elihu said, ―Theodore, if you had managed to convince him of that, I‘m sure he would have sent you.‖ [Laughter]
MARK FEENEY: You mentioned Wilson. You are not much of a fan of Woodrow Wilson I would hazard to say.
EDMUND MORRIS: I admire Wilson simply because he was such a solitary manipulator of political Washington. One can‘t help admire him the same way one admires General de Gaulle, as an extremely, cerebral, frosty, megalomaniac. [Laughter] But I find him very narrow and crimped and Presbyterian and humorless. Although, apparently everybody who knew Wilson in his domestic environment found him a delightful man.
To compare him in 1912 with TR, Wilson had no foreign experience, no sensitivity to foreign cultures. All he was interested in was Congressional politics. He was a cerebral, rather dry academic, with a beautiful prose style, I‘ll grant him that, but a man of no charm, no sweetness.
MARK FEENEY: Let‘s turn the interview a bit to you from TR. Who are some of the biographers you think- or writers- who shaped your own writing style and did the most to influence you?
EDMUND MORRIS: Charles Dickens, Mark Twain. One of the reasons I live in America was I fell in love with Tom Sawyer at the age of 10 and identified with him so much that I wanted to come and live in America. And it is, of course, through Mark Twain‘s style that I got to love the American vernacular. And Dickens for humor and for narrative pace and for characterization. In my later years, Evelyn Waugh, who in my opinion is the greatest prose stylist in the 20th century. I delight in Evelyn Waugh‘s combination of extreme lucidity and extreme cruelty. His humor is splendidly cruel.
And the American equivalent was S. J. Perelman who was another superb stylist. His virtuosity in language just makes one, just gives one goose bumps. Le mot juste in every sentence, exact placement of the right word at the right point. P. G. Wodehouse I should have mentioned, too, because he of all stylists is one who knows how to distribute words most powerfully, ―Jeeves uncovered the fragrant eggs and B. and I pronged a moody forkful.‖ Oh, the word forkful at the end of the sentence, unbeatable. [Laughter]
MARK FEENEY: You can all but taste the eggs.
EDMUND MORRIS: Right.
MARK FEENEY: What about biographers? Are there biographers that you particularly admire? Who would you like to write your biography?
EDMUND MORRIS: I‘ll evade that question and say, Boswell to begin with and to end with— the first and the greatest of all biographies, Boswell‘s Life of Johnson. And to go with somebody famous to somebody extremely obscure, there was an American writer, a biographer called Thomas Beer, B-E-E-R, who flourished in the twenties and thirties, wrote a lot of ―Talk of the
Town‖ type pieces for Saturday Evening Post. He wrote three books in the 1920‘s. One was called, The Mauve Decade, which made him famous, about the 1890s.
The other was a biography of Mark Hannah, the Republican Senator. The other was a biography of Stephen Crane. Thomas Beer pioneered a biographical style that is very much like impressionistic painting, pointillistic coloration. Extraordinary use of dialogue. He‘s a magnificent stylist. He made biography into an art, a literary art. He is completely forgotten about now but I admire him profoundly.
MARK FEENEY: Do you think this is a good period for biography? Is it valued and practiced as well as it might be?
EDMUND MORRIS: I think it is. I think the biography has taken the place of the novel in the sense that a biography, a good biography tends to be about extraordinary, compelling personalities passing through adventures and coming to some sort of resolution at the end, which is the recipe for all great novels in the past but is no longer a recipe for good fiction.
MARK FEENEY: You were born in Nairobi and the book begins with TR on safari in Africa. Did you feel a personal resonance there? It‘s so vivid, the writing, even by your standards in that section of the book. Did you feel that?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, all writers have capital that they like to spend. And I was always aware that I had this African capital that I needed to spend at some point. Since I grew up in that country and accumulated a lot of atmospheric stuff. So to write about TR‘s year in that part of the world where I lived was comparatively easy because I knew all the landscapes that he trekked through. In fact, I‘ve recently discovered that the house that he stayed in when he was in Nairobi in 1910—he would come in from the Safari regularly, stay in this large, gray stone house in Nairobi, was right across the river from the house I grew up in.
Now, when I was a small boy, going through my Tom Sawyer phase, I was aware of the fact that this famous American former president had come to Nairobi and had gone on a safari and taken care of about three-quarters of the wild life of the East African colonies. But I didn‘t realize that he had been the guest of Lord and Lady McMillan, whose house this was. I did know that Lady McMillan, this old widow was still living there when I was a kid and I would sometimes sneak across the river and worm my way through the bamboo palms, and look at her on her terrace, having tea and being waited on by servants and white kanzus.
It occurs to me now that that‘s the veranda that TR sat on writing his African game trails. And if I had known that when I was 10 years old and had known that many years later I would be writing his biography, I could have gone up to the old lady and said, ―Please, tell me about Theodore Roosevelt, Mrs. McMillan.‖ So there was that sort of childhood identity with him. I saw a picture of him when I was 10 years old. I liked the look of him.
MARK FEENEY: You can remember seeing that picture?
EDMUND MORRIS: Yeah. In a Civic History of Nairobi is a photograph of him in a pith helmet with his teeth showing. All those teeth! And his moustache. And he just looked like fun.
MARK FEENEY: Did you travel much for your research? Did you try to follow his own path and journeys?
EDMUND MORRIS: Not really. This time around I didn‘t because I knew all of the Europe that I described and I certainly knew the Africa. And to my regret I never got to the River of
Doubt, as Tweed Roosevelt did. He led an expedition there. And if I‘d had the time and the money and the energy I would have liked to have done that but I didn‘t. What I did do though, as far as the River of Doubt expedition was concerned, was go to all the Portuguese sources, the Brazilian sources. And with the aid of a Portuguese dictionary managed to get a lot of information about the expedition that‘s not available in English.
MARK FEENEY: After Colonel Roosevelt himself, I think the single, most remarkable character in the book is Colonel Rondón, is that how it is pronounced?
EDMUND MORRIS: Colonel Candido da Silva Rondón. Yes.
MARK FEENEY: Could you talk a little bit about him for those in the audience who haven‘t read the book yet?
EDMUND MORRIS: Yes. He is one of Brazil‘s great, national heroes, nominated I believe, twice for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920 for his work in behalf of the Brazilian Indians. He was practically, almost 100% Indian himself. But when Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1910, what happened was, he was there just, he thought, to do an expedition for the American Museum of Natural History, an American expedition, up the Tapajós River- the Papagaio River I think it was.
But a Brazilian foreign minister said to him, ―Colonel Roosevelt, would you consider a double expedition with one of our own colonels, Colonel Mariano da Silva Candido Rondón. And if you would like—he is our greatest explorer. He has explored the Brazilian outback. He has laid down telegraph lines. He knows the country as no other Brazilian does. If you would join with him to explore a river that he has discovered called the Rio de Duvida, the River of Doubt. It‘s called that because nobody knows where it goes. We think it‘s a tributary of the Amazon. If you will do this and you will write a book about it, we will finance the expedition.‖
So that‘s how it occurred that TR took this irresistible opportunity, as he said, ―to become a boy again, to go in search of this unknown river.‖ So the two colonels led a bi-national expedition. The Brazilian half of the expedition was highly professional, all trained, Brazilian army officers, photographers, seismographers, telegraph engineers—and TR‘s own complement, who were much more towards the natural history side.
In the course of this long, and extremely arduous, and nearly fatal expedition, the two colonels bonded. They spoke French. That was their only common language. They had exactly co-equal status. They were both intellectually drawn. Colonel Rondón was a positivist and a lover of classical literature. To look at the books that they packed on their canoes going down the river is to be embarrassed as to how unsophisticated we are these days. All these men were packing Homer, Thucydides, Camoish(?), Jane Austen and God knows what else.
Colonel Rondón and TR achieved such synthesis that at the end of the expedition, they said farewell to each other on the ship that was bringing the seriously ill Theodore Roosevelt back home. TR said to Rondón in French, ―I hope you will come and visit me in my country.‖ And Rondón said, ―I will when you next become President of the United States.‖
MARK FEENEY: Another president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, did he ever talk with you about Theodore Roosevelt? Did his name ever come up?
EDMUND MORRIS: Did Reagan ever talk to me about TR?
MARK FEENEY: Yeah.
EDMUND MORRIS: Once, when I went in for my first interview. As I walked toward his desk he said, ―I‘m not going to ride up San Juan Hill for you.‖ [Laughter]
MARK FEENEY: Is there anybody on the political landscape today that you would see, however distantly, as a political descendent of Theodore Roosevelt?
EDMUND MORRIS: Nope. [Laughter]
MARK FEENEY: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, guys like that come along once—well, I wouldn‘t say once in a century or once in a generation. They come along irregularly. But it seems to me that in American presidential history the times always precipitate the man. Lincoln was precipitated by the Civil War. He was the only person who could have become president at that time. He embodied in his own divided nature, the divisions of the Civil War.
FDR was precipitated by the banking crisis, the Depression and the class struggle of America in the 1930s. He was the only president who could have done what he did at the time. Nixon, that fatally flawed president, was precipitated by the crisis of the Vietnam years. American was self- doubting and tormented and they produced a self-doubting and tormented president. The America of the 1980s wanted to be reborn, to recover its national spirit after the malaise of the Carter years and it precipitated Ronald Reagan. And over night the country became positive and began to recover its self-respect.
Bill Clinton was precipitated by the cyber-spatial in 1990s, a period when the Internet was beginning to take over all human discourse, when international borders dissolved away and people began to float freely in cyber space. And we had this free floating president, who floated in whatever direction he could register the most hits. And he precisely expressed our national ethos at the time. And I could go on. So I think, when the time requires it, another Theodore Roosevelt will be precipitated.
MARK FEENEY: Well, that‘s a cheering thought. Well, TR was once described as, quote, ―the most interesting American who ever lived.‖ Two-part question—was he? And is he still?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, he is certainly the most interesting American I‘ve ever studied. And it‘s pretty universally accepted I think in most of the reviews of books about him, not just my own book, he was compulsively interesting. There are certain characters in history who are inexhaustibly interesting, Wagner, Lincoln, Charles de Gaulle, TR. Men of this quality can have books written about them forever. And all the books will be different because they are polychromatic and polygonal. There is just more and more to find out about them.
MARK FEENEY: I‘m wondering, would you mind reading a little bit from your book before we take questions from the audience? It just so happens we have a copy. And I should add, by the way, and I‘ll remember to add at the end of the question and answer session that Edmund will be signing books when we are done. But would you mind?
EDMUND MORRIS: Okay. I‘m sorry that we couldn‘t talk about Edward Arlington Robinson.
MARK FEENEY: Well, we will do that and then we will go to questions. The last three paragraphs I think are—
EDMUND MORRIS: You‘ve chosen it?
MARK FEENEY: Well, you can choose something else. That would be my proposal. Here, for you.
EDMUND MORRIS: Just these two?
MARK FEENEY: It begins, ―Three decades later, and that refers to the present.‖
EDMUND MORRIS: Okay. This is the end of the epilogue. The epilogue tells the story of TR‘s post humus reputation, the rise and fall of his reputation in all the major books that had been written about him since he died. It brings us up to the present.
MARK FEENEY: And one of the great intentions he fulfilled was the poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson.
EDMUND MORRIS: I knew you would get onto that.
MARK FEENEY: And Edwin Arlington Robinson provides the epigraph for each chapter in your book. Can you talk a little bit about TR and Edwin Arlington Robinson?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, very briefly, Edwin Arlington Robinson won three Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry, almost completely forgotten today, was a poet that Theodore Roosevelt fished out of hell by the hair of his head. And that is Arlington Robinson‘s language. He wrote to Kermit Roosevelt, ―Your father fished me out of hell by the hair of my head.‖ In the year 1905 when he was starving and working as a subway ticket stamper in New York City, TR read a short volume of self-published poems by Edwin Arlington Robinson called The Children of the Night.
And he admired the poem so much that he not only reviewed the book in Scribner’s Magazine but wrote Arlington a letter saying, ―Dear Mr. Robinson,‖ in so many words, ―Dear Mr. Robinson, I heard that you are in some financial difficulty. I‘ve read your poems and admire them very much. Would you be interested in a federal position on strict condition that if you accept it, you will not do any federal work whatsoever but will continue to write poetry?‖ [Laughter]
And Robinson accepted this irresistible offer, became an officer in the Customs House in New York City and proceeded to write poetry on the federal nickel for the rest of TR‘s presidency. And after TR left the White House Arlington Robinson went on from strength to strength, gradually winning recognition in the teens as the most original poetic voice in America outside of that of Robert Frost, his somewhat jealous rival. He went on to great fame an enormous success in the twenties and thirties until his dying day, never ceased to praise Theodore Roosevelt for saving him.
So in testimonial to that, and also to the quality of his poetry, I‘ve used as epigraphs to all my chapters, sections from the poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson.
MARK FEENEY: So not only do we have a president who read poetry while in office, he reviewed poetry while in office. And I guess you could say he was the founder of the National Endowment for the Humanities through finding this job for Edwin Arlington Robinson.
EDMUND MORRIS: A neat aperçu, which never occurred to me. [Laughter]
MARK FEENEY: Well, you are welcome to it for the paperback. If anyone in the audience would care to ask questions, there are microphones there and there. Please step up to them. And while we are waiting for people to come forward, I will ask, if I may, a Reagan question. This is the Centennial Day and you wrote about it today. What are your feelings on Ronald Reagan 100?
EDMUND MORRIS: I admired him profoundly as president. It was impossible to fall in love with him as many of his acolytes do. I found him so cool and so remote that I never disliked him or liked him. I felt completely objective about him. As a man, as a person in private, I found him extraordinarily uninteresting. He had no interest in himself. That was the reason. So to ask Reagan questions, was to get nothing in return. He never thought about himself. He had no ego. He had a tremendous sense of id. He knew exactly who he was and what he wanted, formidable id but no vanity. That was perplexing to a biographer.
His charm was delicious but it was public charm. TR‘s charm could be felt privately. It was most powerfully felt privately. Reagan‘s was discharged publicly. In private none of this magic was apparent. He was, by nature, thespian. He was an actor. When he went out through the door, he became extraordinary. In private, there was nothing there. That is not to disparage him. I have to try and explain the mystery of the theatrical personality. They live, they are born to exist in the public sphere.
MARK FEENEY: I apologize to those at the mic, I just want to ask this one, last question. You could say, though, that TR was an actor, too, but he was much more of a stage actor. And had he been around 100 years later, the camera would have been horrified by him. He was so vigorous, whereas Reagan had the genius of letting the camera come to him.
EDMUND MORRIS: You‘re right. Once with Reagan--I watched his last speech to the American people, which was very telling. I went down to the Oval Office to watch him deliver it. He came in and he seemed oddly ill at ease. It was like five minutes to go before nine o‘clock, carrying a glass of hot lemon water in his hand, wrapped around with a white napkin, which he always drank before he spoke, it made his voice silky. And he sat down but he seemed strangely ill at ease.
And he kept looking at this dead monitor in the corner of the room. And the monitor flicked on about a minute before the address with his picture on it. And Reagan said, ―Ah! There he is.‖ And he became Ronald Reagan. [Laughter]
MARK FEENEY: First question from over here.
QUESTION: Thank you. And thank you so much for this informative and lively book review. I hate to be the snake at the garden party, but I want to take him down a peg and I would like you to respond to this. When he—Examples: when he took the trip down the River Doubt, it was ill planned. He certainly risked his son‘s life and he became a lifelong victim of malaria. He risked many other people‘s lives without consideration, without thought about what he was doing. He risked his own life, which he did repeatedly. He seemed not to care about that so much.
When World War I was in the offing, he urged, urged, urged, he made fun of Woodrow Wilson for not going into the war. Woodrow Wilson finally went into the war. He urged his son to join this valorous soldier. When he was killed, almost as soon as he entered the war— that was 1918. Roosevelt was heartbroken. He died in 1919. Can we include this frivolous idea toward life and death, even among his own people as part of his legacy? Thank you.
EDMUND MORRIS: I‘m glad you asked this question, Ma‘am, because we have been rather, dwelling rather too much I think on TR‘s positive aspects. We actually did talk about Quentin a lot in a private meeting upstairs just now. But the points you raise are valid ones. There was something sick about his desire to fight in battle, in the sense that his desire to go and fight, and when he was denied the opportunity to lead a division of American volunteers at the age of 58 to Europe, to fight beside the French—when he was denied that opportunity by Woodrow Wilson- quite rightly denied the opportunity- the sickness was his desire that his four sons should go and fight in his stead.
And he made it quite plain that since he himself had been deprived of the privilege of being possibly killed in action, maybe one of his sons could do him that favor, which Quentin did. Quentin—I should say that all four sons went to war willingly. They were brought up to be hawks, as TR would say, not to be sparrows. Or was that Edith? That was Edith‘s line, wasn‘t it? Edith said, ―I would like my sons to be hawks, not sparrows.‖ So it was in the mother‘s influence as well.
But it was quite plain from what TR wrote that he rather hoped that one of his boys would be, or more, would be wounded and perhaps killed in battle and so bring honor to the family name.
When Quentin was killed in July of 1918, he was absolutely devastated, realizing how ugly war was, what death, indeed, was, realizing what had been stamped out in the death of this promising boy, who was the least bellicose of the four, by the way. And he never quite recovered from that and I‘m quite sure that his grief for Quentin, which was extreme, contributed to his own, early death, just five months later.
MARK FEENEY: Over here.
QUESTION: Mr. Morris, I wonder if you could talk about the dialectic nature of Mr. Roosevelt: a Nobel Peace Prize winner; a war monger; a great, great Progressive; and as it turned out, a pretty rabid anti-Semite and racist. Would you please address the contrary natures of the President?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, you are quite wrong about a rabid anti-Semite, absolutely wrong. TR had no anti-Semitic prejudice that I‘m aware of. His racial policies I will discuss. But before I get into that important subject, let me just say that men of his dimensions embody in themselves contradictions. All of the men I cited earlier on, Wagner, Abraham Lincoln, and Napoleon, and de Gaulle, contain profound contradictions within themselves. So everything—as I‘ve often said about TR, everything you say about him is true except I will argue about the anti- Semitic allegation.
As you probably know, he appointed the first, Jewish Cabinet officer in our history, Oscar Strauss. He used to say when he went campaigning, he took great pride in his mixed ancestry. He once said, campaigning on the lower East Side, ―I wish I had a little Jew in me.‖ He favorite policeman was Otto Rafael, this Jewish policeman that, when TR was Police Commissioner of New York City, TR took a particular shine to this guy. And when TR as Police Commissioner had to guarantee security to an anti-Semitic German public orator who was coming to New York City to deliver a lot of anti-Semitic lectures, TR solved the problem of giving this guy security by given him a bodyguard entirely of Jewish policemen.
QUESTION: I just think it goes to the contrary nature because his rhetoric during the ramp up and World War I towards Jewish bankers and the Jewish establishment has been well documented. So again, I think that just points out further, and again I admire the President so. But it just always never fails to take me back when I look at the contrary nature of the President. Just one other thing, was not the President‘s father someone who was involved during the Civil War in the war buying or buying himself out of the service? And I wonder if that had anything to do with, later on, his own need to glory and self-aggrandizement?
EDMUND MORRIS: No. That theory is trotted out a lot and there is absolutely no evidence for it whatsoever. He was proud of his father and admired him profoundly. I would like, though, to raise the question of race, which you brought out, with regard to American blacks. This is important because TR exhibited these contradictions. When he became president in 1901, the first person he called upon to advise him was Dr. Booker T. Washington, who was then the most eminent black leader in America.
He brought him to the White House to advise and he famously gave him dinner, in 1901 in the White House, the first time any president entertained a black man en famille, as it happened, creating a firestorm of racial outrage in the white South. And after this magnificent beginning and several very courageous appointments of black office holders during his first term, he severely blotted his copy book by his behavior during the Brownville incident of 1906, when he, as commander and chief, discharged a whole regiment of black soldiers in Brownsville, Texas, for an alleged race riot on no evidence whatsoever.
And although he realized he had made a mistake, he would never go back on that decision and he lost, overnight, the support of all the black Americans who so strongly identified with him.
In 1912 he voluntarily and summarily decided not to allow blacks to participate in the Progressive Party in the deep South. He gave his rationale for that. It‘s complex and I don‘t want to go into it now because it‘ll take too long. It‘s in my book. But his record as an espouser and a friend of American blacks was very much damaged by his behavior at the time of Brownsville. And not surprisingly, Booker T. Washington came out for Wilson in 1912.
EDMUND MORRIS: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: After 2,500 pages you decide to end your study with the words of a small boy. What brought you to that decision?
EDMUND MORRIS: The words of a small boy? I‘m sorry.
QUESTION: Thomas Maher.
EDMUND MORRIS: Oh, yes. What about him?
QUESTION: How did you choose that?
EDMUND MORRIS: Early on, when I was writing my first book, I went through a bunch of old papers in the Theodore Roosevelt birthplace. And I came across a package of essays written by these schoolchildren in 1922. Obviously, this class had been given an assignment by their teacher to write something about the dead Colonel. And flicking through these childish essays, I came across this one essay by this one little boy with this one sentence that seemed so perfectly epigrammatic, summing up everything he was, ―He was the fulfiller of good intentions.‖ When I saw it, I knew that it was going to be the last sentence of the last book.
QUESTION: You made my day because Thomas Maher is my father.
EDMUND MORRIS: [Laughter] Whoa! [Applause]
QUESTION: I came from Long Island to be here, never expecting you would say what you said.
EDMUND MORRIS: Extraordinary. It is an honor to meet you, sir. Thank you for coming. If you will give me your address afterwards, I will send you a copy of this essay.
EDMUND MORRIS: Yes, Ma‘am.
QUESTION: Okay. I will try to follow him. [Laughter]
QUESTION: I was just wondering, since the book is about his later life, whether or not whether or not you can comment on his relationship with and influence on his niece, Eleanor, who I feel is a kaleidoscope of personality traits as well.
EDMUND MORRIS: I don't know too much about his relationship with Eleanor. I know she was his brother‘s daughter. And he married her off as President to Franklin, the two Roosevelts. For those of you who are confused, the two branches of the Roosevelt family—the Hyde Park Roosevelts are mainly Democrats and the Oyster Bay Roosevelts tend to be Republican. And one of the Hyde Park Roosevelts once explained the difference even more succinctly. He said,
―We‘re the good looking ones.‖ [Laughter]
But I don't know too much about TR‘s relationship with Eleanor other than she was the wife of Franklin, whom he rather avuncularly liked and admired. The relationship between Eleanor and the Oyster Bay Roosevelts deteriorated seriously in the 1920s.
QUESTION: Well, I know in some children‘s books I read, she spent a lot of summers with him.
EDMUND MORRIS: Yeah. She was one of the many cousins.
QUESTION: I was wondering if he had any influence on her greatness and how she was interested in so many things.
EDMUND MORRIS: I don't know.
QUESTION: Well, thank you.
EDMUND MORRIS: Do you know, Darling?
SYLVIA MORRIS: …(inaudible)
EDMUND MORRIS: Yes. My wife is reminding me that FDR always used to say that, ―Cousin Ted was greatest man I ever knew,‖ but it doesn‘t tell us much about Eleanor.
SYLVIA MORRIS: …(inaudible)
EDMUND MORRIS: My wife, who knows much more about Theodore Roosevelt than I do [Laughter] reminds me that Edith Roosevelt once said, ―They ugly duckling is likely to turn out to be a swan one day.‖ So, who‘s next? Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Mr. Morris. Again, thank you for being here. Two quick comments and then a question. The first comment is that Sylvia Morris wrote a wonderful book, as you mentioned earlier, on Edith Roosevelt. And for those of you folks here, everyone, I suppose, interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading that book. It presents a wonderful, kind of softer side of the relationship of the President and Edith.
And those of you that enjoy Mr. Morris‘ books be sure—the only way to read them for me is to have to two bookmarks, one in the narrative text and one in the End Notes. So if you are not inclined to read End Notes because it is not in your nature, I strongly recommend that you use two bookmarks and read them because they are as wonderful as the narrative text often times. And I‘m not from Random House or anything. Just offering that as a fan.
EDMUND MORRIS: You are a footnote fetishist. [Laughter]
QUESTION: Actually, Tweed accused me of that. I don't know if Tweed is still here. My question is about TR and his faith, his faith life. And as I‘ve read, I don't know if to say often is the right term, he would at some level, use religious language oftentimes in speeches and other contexts. I think he, perhaps when he is in Oyster Bay he would regularly go to church. I was just wondering, was his faith life—do you think, based on what you have studied of him, considered to be a genuinely devout faith or was it more commensurate with men of that era and was his language sometimes just based on political advantage?
EDMUND MORRIS: Like all American politicians, he liked to thump the Bible. John Hay once said to him, ―There is one thing I admire about you, Theodore, it‘s your original discovery of the Ten Commandments.‖ [Laughter] And he was capable of conventional pieties as, for that matter, Ronald Reagan was. But I‘ve never divined any spiritual aspirations in TR. He was uncomfortable with questions of spiritual dimension, of metaphysics, very shy of talking about his own personal religious faith if he had one. He used to go to the Dutch Reformed Church, more or less de rigueur.
As President, he would go to St. John‘s Episcopal Church in Washington with his wife who was devout. But he, himself, never struck me as particularly pious. He was the one who tried to get ―In God we trust,‖ taken off our national coinage, on the interesting premise that it debased God to have his name plastered all over filthy lucre. [Laughter] But I had begun to notice, researching the third book, in which I had gone much more deeply into his writing, than in the previous books, serious interest in his part in questions of theology versus science.
For example, he wrote an astonishing essay in 1911, the single most impressive intellectual production of all his literary career called, ―The Search for Truth in a Spirit of Reverence.‖ And it‘s about the conflict between evolutionary biology and orthodox religion, a topic, which has become resurgent in recent years. And the breadth of theological and scientific knowledge he displays in this piece, this long essay, based on readings in many languages, is truly amazing.
And it comes closer to anything else he ever wrote to expressing his own personal attitude toward religion. It is basically that of a stand off, cerebral, theologian rather than somebody full of natural piety.
SYLVIA MORRIS: …(inaudible)
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, I will if we get into that matter, I guess. But I think we ought to cover questions that these people are asking. You can, if you like, go up to the loud speaker and take your turn. [Laughter] She humiliated me once when I was lecturing early on about TR. Some little old lady stood up and said, ―Mr. Morris, what did he die of?‖ I didn‘t know. I hadn‘t gotten that far. So I stood there like an idiot. And Sylvia shouts out, ―Coronary embolism.‖ [Laughter] Yes, sir.
QUESTION: I have two quick questions. You said that his being shot and then the death of his son was part of a steady decline, which he never really fully recovered from. I was interested in your opinion on—he once called his father the greatest man he ever knew. What affected his life more, his father or the tragedy of his first wife dying, Alice Lee, and his mother in 1884? Which do you think inspired him the most? Or was it a combination of those two things that went on to propel him?
And secondly, great presidents like Lincoln, transcended the radical Republicans. Theodore, himself, took on the establishment in the Republican Party. Where would Theodore fit in with the Republican Party today?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, the three, great bereavements of his early life, the death of his father when he was a student at Harvard and the double death of his wife, Alice Lee, his first wife, and his mother in the same house on the same night in 1884 did affect him to a certain extent in the sense that they just made him tougher. He already was phenomenally tough.
His attitude to the death of Alice Lee, which for a while seemed to unhinge him, for several days TR went around like a complete zombie. And they worried that he might be losing his reason.
But what he was doing was concentrating his faculties, erasing from him memory the very name of Alice Lee. He never spoke about her again, not even to their daughter, Alice Longworth. And these almost masochistic-seeming suppressions formed the leather of which he was made later on in life. He was an indestructible person, largely I think due to the cauterizing effect of these tragedies.
The other question is to where he would stand in the Republican Party now. We must remember that back in 1910, 100 years ago, the Republican Party and Democratic Party were very different from what they are now. In fact, the Republican Party of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party members is more or less indistinguishable of the Democratic Party of 1910. Lily white, small government, reactionary, anti-privilege.
Whereas the Republican Party of those days was the party of the black man, of racial liberals and the party of big, centralized government. TR was a big, centralized government man of Democratic instincts. And so much so, to such a federal extent that I think if he was alive now, he would be a big government Democrat. Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Could you just comment on the fact that he might have had a photographic memory?
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, it is a fact, yes. It‘s a fact. His memory was photographic. Sometimes he would see a face that was vaguely familiar to him and he would do this over his face and then he would say, ―I remember you. You were standing by a train with steam all around you 12 years ago.‖ There are countless, countless anecdotes to show how photographic his memory was, how he could just disgorge whole paragraphs of prose that he read 15 or 20 or 30 years before.
And more than just anecdotes, I came across a concrete example when I was researching this book. A letter from Kermit, his son, writing to his father from Brazil in, what is it, 1913, ―Dad, do you by any chance remember a poem by Edith Thomas called, ‗Far from Castile?‘‖ And TR wrote back, in longhand, ―Yes, you ask about Edith Thomas. Yes, it‘s called, ‗Far from Castile,‘ and it goes like this‖—he wrote up two, long stanzas and sent it off.
So I thought, ―I‘ll check out this poem.‖ I looked – I Googled – Edith Thomas and found, indeed, there was a poem of that name who published in the 1890s. And I found this poem, ―Far from Castile,‖ in an issue of the Atlantic Monthly published, I think, in 1890 or ‘92, somewhere around there. And going through the magazine in order to read it, I checked its text against TR‘s handwritten text 17 years later. And it wasn‘t quite word for word. In about three instances he wrote Lydian cord instead of Gordian knot. And sometimes a line was elided differently.
But apart from these two or three minute differences, it was word to word what he had read in 1890. And I know he read it in 1890 because in that same issue of Atlantic Monthly there was an article by himself. [Laughter] Yes, Ma‘am.
QUESTION: I just wanted to say I was delighted with your assessment of Evelyn Waugh, one of my favorite authors and Jane Austen and Graham Green. I wonder with your acerbic wit and your love of language, have you ever written a novel?
EDMUND MORRIS: No, I‘ve never written a novel. I did write a biography of Ronald Reagan. [Laughter] That was not supposed to be funny. [Laughter] Which was a non-fiction biography told by an imaginary person. But that‘s the nearest I‘ve ever gotten to it.
QUESTION: If I may ask one more quick question about politics, what is your take on the effectiveness of dynasties in American politics?
EDMUND MORRIS: The effect of dynasties on American politics I am not qualified to answer that. I really don‘t think I can say anything intelligent on that subject.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you very much.
EDMUND MORRIS: Thank you. Yes, sir.
QUESTION: I have a quick comment and then a question. The comment is that, it was through your books that I really became a TR fan and a history student. So, thank you for that. My question is, could you talk about his, I would say, controversial position in 1910 where a judicial decision could be overturned by a vote of the people? And did that have anything to do with the leadership in the Republican Party turning against him in 1912? Because that was the sense that I got from reading your book. I was just wondering if you could talk about that; just tell me if I‘m right or wrong.
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, in 1910, when TR came back from Africa and from his grand tour of Europe- the most famous man in the world at that point- to this enormous welcome in New York City where a million New Yorkers turned out to welcome him, he was at the cusp of his life and wanted to spend the rest of his life writing books. But he was almost immediately prevailed upon here in Boston, by Charles Evans Hughes at a Harvard commencement, who persuaded TR to support a progressive measure that Governor Hughes was trying to put through the New York State legislature.
TR made the fatal commitment under the elms of Harvard to aid Governor Hughes and thus got sucked back into active politics. Finding himself during the course of the year becoming the spokesman for the uprising political movement, the Progressive Movement, candidates who were trying to achieve election in the Congressional elections of 1910, Republican Progressives. And he campaigned for all of those that struck his fancy, but came on too strong, too fast, and too hard, putting all his gigantic prestige behind a radical political message, articulated in his famous new national speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, the end of August 1910.
And that speech was so radical, espousing, for example, the superiority of labor over capital and the right of the people, he hoped to withdraw judicial decisions that were contrary to the popular interest—that it completely destroyed his goodwill in the Republican Party and laid the seeds of his dismissal from the Party or his denial on the part of the orthodox Republicans in 1912. So, as a matter of fact, the election of 1910 was a disaster for Theodore Roosevelt personally.
Most of the candidates he espoused were defeated and his political prestige evaporated so rapidly that by the end of the year this man who, at the beginning of the year had been the most famous man in the world, had become a political non-entity. And it is one of the most remarkable things about his biography that somehow, within the next two years, he recovered all his gravitas and led that extraordinary campaign, which to this day, is the most powerful third party campaign in our history.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Good afternoon. First of all I would like to say thank you for helping history to come alive today and making it so vivid. I once heard James McGregor Burns give a talk after he had written a book about the three Roosevelts, Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor. And if I remember correctly, he said that he felt the greatest of the three was Eleanor. And I‘m just wondering what you opinion is, who among the three would you feel was the greatest Roosevelt? [Laughter]
EDMUND MORRIS: Well, FDR was the greater president. He dealt with greater issues. He served much longer and he achieved greater things. Theodore Roosevelt was the greater personality. FDR, one goes to his house. One gets the feeling there was nothing there except his political interests, apart from that and yachting. There was nothing there of any interest to students of political animals. He was a superbly talented and extraordinarily effective executive politician.
All the other things that Theodore Roosevelt was, FDR never approached. TR was a man in the round. FDR was an executive. As for Eleanor, I absolutely must share with you an Eleanor Roosevelt joke [Laughter], which I came across in the papers of James Gould Cozzens, the great American novelist who I‘m rather interested in. He worked in the Pentagon in World War II. He wrote a letter to his mother that I came across saying, ―Mom, I‘m wondering if you would like to hear the latest Eleanor joke?‖ This is 1943.
And he said, ―Eleanor walked in the Oval Office. She had just come back from a transatlantic
trip to Britain. And she said, ‗Franklin, do you notice something different about me?‘ And FDR, who was busy with affairs of state said, ‗New hair style.‘ She said, ‗Franklin, I‘ve been wearing my hair like this since 1929. Don‘t you notice something different about me?‘ He said, ―Well, yeah, new dress. You bought that in London.‘ ‗Franklin, I‘ve been wearing this dress since our honeymoon.‘ [Laughter]
He said, ‗Eleanor, I don't know. I‘m busy. I can‘t see what‘s different about you.‘ She said, 'Franklin, I‘m wearing a gas mask.‘‖ [Laughter]
MARK FEENEY: A reminder that Edmund will be signing copies of his book. [Laughter] And let us thank him very much for joining us today.
EDMUND MORRIS: Thank you so much, Mark.