Edmund Morris: Why Is Obama Reading My Book?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Edmund Morris is the author of biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Beethoven. This fall he will publish the third volume of his Roosevelt trilogy.]

An author’s first reaction to the news that the president of the United States is reading one of his books is, naturally enough, admiration for the man’s superb taste in prose. Then come qualms. What if he gets bored and badmouths it on Jay Leno? What if he is seen using the paperback edition to swat horseflies at Camp David?

“I’m reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt right now,” Obama said yesterday in Pennsylvania. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed tout de tweet that it’s my The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Well, that’s nice, but the president can’t have gotten very far into it, because right there in the prologue it says how TR detested being called “Teddy.” Maybe a blob of cigarette ash obscured that particular sentence.

Apparently, the 44th president admires the 26th because TR was an early apostle of health-care reform—not to mention draconian regulation of banks and interstate corporations, inheritance taxes, and protection of the environment by executive order. These things are a matter of record, although TR’s progressivism was actually much more radical after he left the presidency in 1909. He didn’t call for national health insurance until he ran for a third White House term in the famous Bull Moose campaign of 1912. His platform was so radical that many of its proposals were not enacted until the New Deal administration of his fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And even FDR couldn’t push the medical plank through, for fear of endangering Social Security....

George H.W. Bush thought enough of TR to ask David McCullough (another Roosevelt biographer) to come to the White House and lecture on him. In 1994, Bill Clinton went through a tree-hugging “Teddy” phase so ardent it was a wonder he didn’t start wearing pince-nez. Then there was “W,” who worshipfully admitted that he modeled himself on the Rough Rider. Whenever he did that, it reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon of a professorial type saying to a much younger man, “Just because I was your favorite teacher doesn’t make you my favorite student.”...

I’m flattered that Obama is reading The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, instead of those fascinating 15,000-page bills Congress keeps sending him. But I’d respectfully suggest that he will learn more about the Rooseveltian executive style in the book’s sequel, Theodore Rex. Perhaps just the opening chapters, Mr. President, describing TR’s first year (1901-1902) in office? They show how, in swift but carefully timed succession, TR—a consummate manipulator of the press—dramatized and identified himself with the major issues of his day: racial prejudice, antitrust power, reclamation policy, Supreme Court reactionism, labor/management strife, and so on. Some of the details are dated now, but what is dateless and of particular relevance to Obama is TR’s karate-chop style. He chose the issue, chose the moment, then struck with all his might. Having struck, he went on to other things, leaving the legislative and the judiciary and a wildly excited press to debate, and maybe push through, the reforms he sought....

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Donald Wolberg - 3/13/2010

Dr. Morris has with biting wit and common sense peeled away the superficiality of Mr. Obama (and otehr former Presidents)although sadly his comments will go largely ignored. It is amazing to me how politicians try to "absorb" ideas they really do not comprehend via the writings (always secondart or tertiary and never primary) of those they can use to further political agendas. Mr. Gore seems to know little or nothing of science, yet extolls manipulated scientific ideas for his own political agenda. Mr. Obama during the campaign was "not sure if he had visited 51 of our 59 states," and told everyone, "we need to do away with carbon." Mr. Clinton acted as if he had read Masters and Johnson in depth, and rented the Lincoln bedroom, no doubt because of his admiriation of Lincoln's second inaugural, and Mr. Bush the younger, had nuclear aspirations with a Texas drawl.