A Strenuous Life

By Kathleen Dalton

Knopf. 708 pp. $35

Katherine Dalton subtitles her perceptive and entertaining new biography of Theodore Roosevelt "a strenuous life" because, more than any other president, he embodied the virtues of energy, vitality and self-improvement. JFK may have preached the need for "vigor," but unlike TR, who was a loyal and devoted husband, Kennedy directed a good deal of his vigor into strenuous philandering. A fresh look at TR is particularly timely because he had the persona that many people today wish their president to have; this indeed, would seem to account for the runaway popularity of the first two volumes of Edmund Morris's sweeping, cinematic study of Roosevelt's life.

No one ever accused TR of lacking "the vision thing." He devoted his life to transforming and improving the quality of American politics and the character of American citizens. His intellectual interests were almost unbelievably far-ranging. He was, for example, perhaps the foremost authority on American birdcalls. His naval history of the War of 1812 pioneered quantitative social science techniques. He found time while president to write and publish a study of Irish sagas.

But as Dalton recognizes, admiring him is not the same as judging his virtue as a public figure, which forces one to consider not so much his qualities of mind and spirit as the soundness of his political ideas and actions. Roosevelt longed for presidential greatness, but it eluded him. Greatness requires opportunity. The first decade of the 20th century was a time of intellectual and political ferment. Much to Roosevelt's chagrin, however, it did not yield the sort of crisis -- a threat of secession or an economic collapse -- that produced veritable mandates of greatness for presidents such as Lincoln and FDR.

And as Dalton shows, Roosevelt did not make the most of the leadership opportunities he was afforded. The Republican Old Guard had acquiesced to his nomination as vice-president only to liberate the New York Republican Party from his "goo goo" governorship. His "accidental ascendancy," resulting from McKinley's 1901 assassination, forced him to conciliate party conservatives to gain their support for his nomination in 1904. When he finally won election in his own right, he seemed poised to embark on an ambitious program of reform and to place his political stamp on the Republican Party. But in the midst of his victory celebration, he astonished everyone, including his wife, by announcing that he would not seek re-election in 1908. Although the constitutional amendment limiting the president to two terms was not to be be adopted until the wake of his cousin Franklin's four-term presidency, Roosevelt felt that George Washington's precedent of retiring after two terms embodied the true spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution.

From that moment on, he was a lame duck. Republicans in Congress ignored his demands and concentrated on positioning themselves to influence the succession. His second term did include many positive accomplishments in such fields as railroad regulation and conservation, but they paled in comparison to what he had expected to accomplish. Dalton acknowledges that Roosevelt made a "serious political blunder," which she attributes to "the excitement of victory." But it was not just an emotional overreaction. It was emblematic of the man's self-indulgence and his profound misunderstanding of American politics. His election victory was so decisive that he believed he could revel in an act of ostentatious self-denial and still have a great second term.

As FDR and Ronald Reagan later discovered after scoring far more sweeping victories, Congress, the Court and the states do not give up their prerogatives just because a president wins in a landslide. To surmount obstacles posed by the separation of powers, presidents must stimulate party loyalty and exert party control. Roosevelt's beau geste destroyed his chance to lead his party. The pain inflicted by this decision also seems to have destroyed his dedication to constitutional principles. In 1912, he renounced his renunciation. And by running as a third-party candidate, he gave himself another grandiose self-inflicted wound. The Bull Moose brayed his contempt for the constitutional system, especially its excessive devotion to individual rights, and advocated the popular recall of judges and greater reliance on voter referenda and initiatives as means for overcoming the obstacles to reform posed by courts and legislatures.

To make sense of TR's political shortcomings, it helps to think of him not only as one who led "a strenuous life," but as "The Last Romantic," the subtitle of H.W. Brands's fine 1997 biography. As Brand indicates, Roosevelt's virtues -- his commitment to public service, his respect for nature and his contempt for materialism -- were undermined by his romanticism -- his love of the grand gesture, his obsession with heroism and, most important, his disrespect for the "artificial" constitutional constraints that limited his vaulting ambition.

Dalton is well aware that constitutional government is profoundly unromantic -- and she admirably shows the ways in which the humdrum side of governing held little appeal for TR. The federal system separates and divides power because it assumes that citizens and their representatives cannot be relied upon to be heroic and virtuous. As Jean Yarborough's work on TR brilliantly demonstrates, his contempt for constitutional checks and balances ignored their seminal role in preventing demagoguery, including his own. Roosevelt's favorite president, Lincoln, also bemoaned congressional and judicial obstructionism. But he never lost sight of the virtues that adhere not simply to individuals but to the constitutional order itself.

Lincoln's political life was all the more strenuous because he was dedicated to a vision of political equality and to the constitutional constraints that made realizing that vision so difficult. Those searching for presidents to emulate should not settle for Roosevelt's dazzling rambunctiousness. As Kathlees Dalton reminds us in this thoughtful study of presidential exuberance, citizens are best served when the attractive qualities of this president's strenuous life are combined with the constitutional sobriety upon which republican government depends. *

Marc Landy is a professor of political science at Boston College and co-author, with Sidney Milkis, of "Presidential Greatness."

Theodore Roosevelt in 1898