Biographer goes back to first love

Sunday, December 16, 2001

NEW YORK -- Biographer Edmund Morris feels quite comfortable at the birthplace of Theodore Roosevelt, a reconstructed brownstone off Fifth Avenue. He is looking about the large, oak-paneled library, where years ago he wrote much of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt."

"I've always had a kind of attachment to this place," says the 61-year-old Morris, a slender, bearded man with a quick, polished speaking style.

"When I was working on the 'The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,' I discovered this enormous old ream of paper here at the library. So I dusted it off and wrote the book on that pile of paper."

Many know Morris as the author of "Dutch," the notorious biography of Ronald Reagan in which Morris inserted himself as a fictional character. Although authorized by Reagan, who allowed Morris extensive access during his presidency, "Dutch" enraged Reagan's supporters.

Roosevelt followers, however, respect Morris and credit him with popularizing the late president among contemporary readers. "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," published in 1980 and recently reissued by the Modern Library, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The long-anticipated sequel, "Theodore Rex," came out this fall with a first printing of about 200,000.

Readjusted to T.R.

Morris had set aside his work on Roosevelt to write about Reagan, a project he expected to take five or six years but lasted 14. He evolved from an authorized biographer to a baffled biographer (unable to get inside the mind of his subject) to a reviled biographer whose book was labeled by critics as everything from "irrelevant" to a "scandal and a tragedy."

Despite the extended, distracting hiatus, Morris said he readjusted almost instantly to the Roosevelt sequel. "T.R.'s personality is so compelling that I forgot about Reagan almost immediately," he says. "'Dutch' seems to be the work of somebody in the past."

Upholders of tradition should be relieved that "Theodore Rex" is old-fashioned narrative biography, with no imaginary friends. The book begins with Roosevelt's 1901 ascendancy to the presidency, upon the assassination of William McKinley, and ends eight years later with the conclusion of his second term.

"Reagan had to have an observing biographer, because he was a thespian; he had to be observed in action," Morris explains. "Roosevelt is so superabundant he requires no observer at all. He fills the page by himself."

A recent hero of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt as president became the country's unchallenged political leader. He was the bullish "trust buster," conservationist and diplomat, crusading against corporate monopolies, advocating preservation of the land and winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his resolution of the Russo-Japanese War.

Matured rapidly

"When I wrote the first book ... I was repulsed by his bloodlust. I still don't quite understand why a man who loved animals so passionately and knew so much about the natural world could have this overwhelming desire to kill and kill and kill and kill," Morris says.

"The fact is as president he matured so rapidly and became, indeed, far from a bellicose president, an extremely subtle diplomat. His richness and catholicity, his basic decency, are all admirable qualities."

Morris' next volume will cover the final years of Roosevelt, who died in 1919. Readers should not expect a happy ending: Morris says the old, belligerent Roosevelt resurfaced once he left office.

Roosevelt's daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, once observed that her father "was certainly right for the period he lived in," but questioned whether he could have succeeded at any other time. Morris says he couldn't imagine such a leader today.

"The last president with that acute moral self-certainty was Harry Truman," Morris says.

What about Reagan?

"Yes, the few things Reagan really cared about he was unshakable on. I should have said that. But, there again, I've forgotten about him."

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