Edmund Morris taken to task for a fictional approach

Historians in the News

It’s bad enough that various finger-to-the-wind Republicans–like Colin Powell, Bill Weld, Chris Buckley, Ken Adelman, and Scott McCellan–are rushing to get on the Obama bandwagon now that it has gale-force momentum. (Where were they, one wonders, back in early September, when Obama was behind in the polls and could really have used their help?) To add insult to injury, the Republican president most admired by John McCain is more or less endorsing his opponent, too. At least he is if you believe his self-appointed amanuensis, Edmund Morris.

In a bizarre[1] op-ed in today’s New York Times, Morris pulls a bunch of Theodore Roosevelt quotations out of context and makes it seem as if the old Rough Rider, who died 89 years ago, is answering questions on the state of today’s politics. A sample of his technique: He takes a comment Roosevelt had made about Woodrow Wilson (”It is entirely inexcusable, however, to try to combine the unready hand with the unbridled tongue”) and turns it into an assault on Sarah Palin, whose resemblance to Wilson–that idealistic egghead who would not have been caught dead hunting a moose–entirely escapes me.

Such a literary performance would have to be judged as pretty weird, but it is nothing unusual for Morris, a writer of some gifts who has a penchant for injecting fiction into what are supposed to be sober works of biography. This tendency was most ill-advisedly on display in “Dutch,” Ronald Reagan’s authorized biography, which was judged a bust because Morris injected a fictional character, confusingly also named “Edmund Morris,” into the narrative to describe events in Reagan’s life that Morris had not seen for himself.

The same tendency was on display, in more attenuated form, in Morris’s magisterial biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Volume two, “Theodore Rex,” for instance, began with a prologue that purported to report Roosevelt’s impressions as he was traveling in a train across the American landscape–impressions that seem to have been imparted to the dead president by his slightly zany biographer.

At least the “Theodore Rex” prologue was a fairly convincing piece of work. Not so Morris’s op-ed. It is impossible to know, of course, what Roosevelt would think if he were resurrected today. But if anyone is his successor in personal and ideological terms, surely it is John McCain–another war hero known for aggravating his own party–rather than Barack Obama, a doctrinaire liberal in the Woodrow Wilson mold. Readers interested in my take on where Roosevelt fits in today’s political spectrum should check out this [2] article from World Affairs journal.

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