Author Edmund Morris

Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential biographer discusses the last of his trilogy on Theodore Roosevelt and reveals why he chose the title and what drew him to the subject.

Considered the foremost authority on Theodore Roosevelt, writer Edmund Morris is best known for his biographies. His first, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, won the Pulitzer Prize, and he recently published the last in his trilogy, Colonel Roosevelt. As President Reagan's authorized biographer, his book Dutch was a national best seller. Morris was born in Kenya and went to college in South Africa. He worked as an ad copywriter in London before immigrating to the U.S. and has also written extensively on travel and the arts for various publications.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Edmund Morris is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer whose many notable books include the Reagan biography “Dutch.” He is out now with a third and final look at the life of Theodore Roosevelt. The new text is called “Colonel Roosevelt” and was just named one of the best of the year by “The New York Times.” Mr. Morris, an honor to have you on the program, sir.
Edmund Morris: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: We should start with the title, “Colonel Roosevelt.” Why Colonel Roosevelt?
Morris: Well, he didn’t like being called “Mr. President” after he left the White House, unlike most presidents who kind of want to hang onto the title. He believed that power was finite; supreme power is a gift from the people which was given to him for two terms and after two terms, he decided to leave the White House.
When newsmen said to him, “What do we call you now, Mr. President?” He said, “No, not Mr. President. I’m not president anymore. But you can call me Colonel – Colonel Roosevelt – because I got the title fighting in the Spanish-American war, I got it in battle. It’s an honorable title and I feel I have it for life, so you can call me Merck.
Tavis: I love how you phrased the statement that he, after two terms, decided to leave the White House. Indeed he did. There were those who thought and had hoped he’d run for a third term. Many believe even now that he could have won had he run for a third term, which leads me to ask whether or not, particularly given that he didn’t want to be called president after he left, did he enjoy being president?
Morris: Oh, he loved it, and he did run for a third term. What you’re referring to is the fact that when he was president in 1908 he was offered a third term consecutively.
Tavis: Correct.
Morris: He pushed it away at the moment when he really wanted it. But for that same reason I was talking about just now, the sense of finite power, he felt that if he held on to power too long it would begin to corrupt him. But having given it up and having spent four years away from the White House, he wanted to get back in.
Tavis: Yeah. See, that’s why you’re the historian, that’s why you’re the biographer here, because he did, in fact, run for a third term, and I meant consecutively. Let’s talk about the point you make now about running for that third term. He runs for that third term as a third-party candidate. Talk to me about this third party then.
You know obviously I want to make some parallels, if we can, to the Tea Party today, but talk about his third-party run.
Morris: Yeah, the parallels occurred to me too a few weeks ago. He did want the Republican nomination in 1912. He was a Republican. But it went to the sitting president, President Taft. So TR, who felt he had an enormous constituency of progressive Republicans – that’s with a small “P -” decided to bolt the party, to bolt the orthodox Republican Party, form his own third Progressive Party, with a capital “P,” which in fact he did.
That’s now known more popularly as the Bull Moose Party, the most powerful third-party movement we’ve ever had in our history. Even though he didn’t win that year, 1912, nevertheless it was an extraordinary political performance.
Tavis: What made it, before we come back to the Tea Party and make these parallels and comparisons – to your point, it’s the most powerful, the most successful third-party run in history – what made it so?
Morris: Well, the size of the vote. He had a larger vote than the sitting president. He came in second. But because he’d split the Republican Party by bolting, he divided the Republican vote and Woodrow Wilson got elected on a minority vote.
Tavis: Now to these parallels – are there parallels between what we are seeing today?
Morris: Yes, there are parallels. The Progressive Party, the Progressives 100 years ago were a largely middle class movement, people who felt that they were being excluded from the cozy operations of establishmentarian government, which is to say the conservative Congress, a very powerful Wall Street, and a president who was sympathetic toward the power structure.
These middle class people felt excluded from power, they felt themselves to be victimized by great corporations and by corrupt politicians, and their anger, which had begun to develop during TR’s own presidency, largely inspired by his own progressive instincts, by 1910, 1911, 1911 was formidable. That’s one of the reasons he felt compelled to leave them and turn it into an actual unified political party.
Now, the Tea Party is unified in the same way in the sense that they are equally passionate, equally angry, and they too feel excluded from power. The difference is that the Progressives of 100 years ago were a much more elevated social group. They did not comprise the lower middle class or the working class. They were a pretty middle-of-the-road, middle class, White movement.
Tavis: Not to take us off-subject, but I think there is a line I can draw, again, to Roosevelt and what he did, to get your take on the news of this week beyond the Tea Party, is that given how progressives today feel in this week so let down by this president, Barack Obama, there is talk all over the place now about whether or not there is, in fact, going to be, or whether or not there should be a primary challenge to this president on the Democratic ticket, a real progressive running against President Obama for the nomination.
How would you contextualize that, compare that, if at all, to what we’re talking about now?
Morris: One has to be careful about these terms, “progressive,” “liberal.” They mean different things to different generations. The word “progressive” now does not mean what it meant then. I will only say that TR in 1910 campaigned for congressional candidates, progressive congressional candidates, before he created this party, and he suffered a catastrophic defeat.
Even though he was not running for office himself, all the candidates he tried to help were actually hindered by his help, and it was a humiliation as great, then, for him as President Obama has recently suffered in these elections. If it’s any encouragement to the president, TR rebounded with amazing force and vitality from that defeat in 1910, to the point that two years later he led this enormously powerful resurgence, this Progressive Party campaign that nearly won the election.
Tavis: I thought there might be something there worth mining, so thank you for responding to that. How often does one who was born and raised in Kenya get a chance to write a book about a world figure and open the book with this world figure on safari in Kenya?
Morris: Well, it was a luxury to be able to write about my own country and my own background. I grew up there. I was born in Kenya, so the prologue to this book, which describes that enormous safari he conducted in 1909 and 1910, it was, it came naturally to me to describe that environment.
In fact, it was also emotionally moving for me because as a small boy at the age of 10 I saw a photograph of him in a local civic history, this famous American president who had come to Nairobi in 1909. I remember distinctly there was something about his face and his smile and his mustache and his helmet and his Americanness that attracted me.
I thought, “This guy looks like fun.” Although I forgot about him later, for another 25 years, I think that image stayed in my head.
Tavis: That’s quite a story, though, that you recall that image from being a boy and you end up writing a trilogy about the guy.
Morris: (Laughs) If I had known how big it was going to be when I started, I might have changed my mind.
Tavis: (Laughs) To your point, though, now, what makes him the kind of character worthy of – not even just worthy of, but the weight is there to support a trilogy?
Morris: The fact that he was not just a politician. If he had been I wouldn’t have wanted to write about him. But he was so polygonal, he had so many dimensions. He was a writer, he wrote 40 books. He was a bona fide intellectual. His literary output was enormous. His disciplines encompassed science, biology, paleontology, ornithology, as well as history and biography.
He was funny – one of the funniest men who ever lived. He was a really rounded, rich personality and a delight for any biographer.
Tavis: You spend a good amount of time in this text – and this covers, of course, the last 10 years or so of his life, or certainly post-presidency – but you spend a good part of this book talking about the issue of race, and after digging through it, and I’m still going through it, I’m not sure – I want to phrase this the right way – I get the sense, at least at this point in my read, that he fancies himself – my word, not yours – fancies himself more progressive – there’s that word again – more progressive, more advanced on the issue of race than he really was.
What I’m suggesting is that for all that he thought he did do, it seems to me to be more symbolic than substantive.
Morris: Although his attitude was complex, like many – like all patrician White men of the time he regarded himself as belonging to a superior breed. That’s no question. In comparison with his colleagues he was comparatively enlightened. The first person that he called upon to consult with him when he became president after the assassination of McKinley in 1901 was Booker T. Washington, who was already his friend and whom he believed to be one of the greatest men he’d ever met.
He invited Booker T. Washington to come to the White House and consult with him about how to handle Southern political strategy and he famously invited Dr. Washington to dinner in the White House within weeks of becoming president, creating a firestorm of hysterical resentment in the White segregationist South.
But after that genuinely enlightened and courageous gesture he realized that it had damaged him politically, so he began to retreat. Although he continued to be friends and colleagues and consulted with Dr. Washington, he never invited him back. In 1906 he did a dreadful thing, the worst mistake of his presidency, when he dishonorably discharged a whole regiment of Black soldiers in Brownsville, Texas on allegations that they had rioted and killed a local White citizen.
Completely trumped-up charges which TR believed too quickly, too impossibly. Although he realized he’d made a mistake in firing these guys, discharging them with no chance to defend themselves, express their own case in a court martial, although he realized he’d made a catastrophic mistake he never rescinded it.
From then onward his relations with Black Americans were fraught. Woodrow Wilson came out, at least Booker T. Washington came out for Woodrow Wilson in 1912, so TR, in a sense, blotted his racial copy book.
Tavis: The new book – I’m just scratching the surface, I wish I had more time to dig into this – the new book from Pulitzer Prize-winner Edmund Morris is called “Colonel Roosevelt.” Mr. Morris, good to have you on. Congrats on the book, sir.
Morris: Thank you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm