Sunday, March 08, 2015

March is Mostly Mets Reading Month: "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" and the challenge of "Dutch"

Today's March is Mostly Mets Reading Month entry has us shifting away from the Mets and over other kinds of heroes. 

March 8: "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," by Edmund Morris

Published in 1979

One of the neat parts of being a journalist is that you get the opportunity to meet important people.

And if a reporter can balance the flaw of being nosy with the attribute of being polite, he can ask important people questions beyond what is expected.

Sometimes, the answers are surprising.

I was assigned to cover an event, a fundraiser for a local Alzheimer’s support group. The keynote speaker was Maureen Reagan, the daughter of the president who was afflicted with the disease.

I was given the chance to interview Mrs. Reagan, who was charming and passionate about the cause. Once we covered the required topics, I asked what the family thought about “Dutch,” the controversial book about her father by Edmund Morris.

“That man!” she said, clearly unhappy and disappointed with the biography. “We gave him all that access, and that’s what he came up with?”

I was a little surprised because I had so thoroughly enjoyed Morris’ first book, “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.”

It’s an epic volume, the first of three about TR that Morris would eventually pen. The book traces Roosevelt’s life from his birth and complicated family to the moment in the Adirondacks when a messenger arrives with a telegram bearing the sad news of President McKinley’s death.

Columnist Irvin S. Cobb once wrote “You had to hate the Colonel a whole lot to keep from loving him,” and Morris recounts with amazing detail why that’s true. A reader will cheer for, and be inspired by, Roosevelt in his triumphant moments and shed tears during the devastating tragedies.

It’s not a one-sided story. Roosevelt’s version of war is far too romanticized, even as he and the Rough Riders have their moment in the sun. We know that Morris is building toward the fateful moment in the third volume. And, it’s noted, that the future president never lacked for confidence.

The book is every bit deserving of the Pultizer Prize it won, and, when asked, I declared it my favorite – in the days before “Faith and Fear in Flushing.” Its paper jacket is just as tattered as Leonard’s Koppett’s book on the Mets.

Which brings us back to “Dutch.”

It seems President Reagan was impressed by “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” as well, and aides appointed Morris as Reagan’s official biographer and was granted extraordinary access to the White House, the president and his family and the administration’s papers.

The perplexing result was a work of non-fiction by an imaginary author – named Arthur Edmund Morris – who weaves the story of the imaginary author and his encounters with Reagan.

It was, at best, unconventional and suggested that Reagan was such an enigma that even his official biographer didn’t understand him.

And, since I usually only non-fiction, this hybrid threw me completely for a loop. I've been told that I see the world in black and white, and Morris is clearly dabbling in the gray area with "Dutch."

Morris returned to traditional storytelling for the following Roosevelt biographies, and they are equally enjoyable.

And, hoping to part with Mrs. Reagan on a happier note, I asked her which Reagan biography the family enjoyed. She suggested anything by Lou Cannon, the former Washington Post White House correspondent who has penned at least five books about the Gipper.

Here's the rest of your reading list:

March 5: "Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century" by Marc Okkenon
March 4: "Clemente! The Enduring Legacy" by Kal Wagenheim 
March 3: "Mets by the Numbers" by Jon Springer and Matthew Silverman
March 2: "Faith and Fear in Flushing" by Greg W. Prince

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