Mornings on

David McCullough
Nelson Runger

(Recorded Books)
He certainly was odd-looking. There were too many big white teeth crowding his mouth and his gold-rimmed spectacles were always slipping down his nose (the cowboys on the range called him "four-eyes.")

He parted his hair in the middle. His ears were small (he called them "my best feature.") His hands and his feet were tiny: he wore size six shoes and he fitted nicely in his mother Mittie's dainty slippers, which he carted off to college, wore them when he was relaxing.

Those tales of TR going off to the rugged Dakota Badlands when he was in his twenties in order to fight his way back to good health are mostly apocryphal. His asthma began to disappear while he was at Harvard. He was cured not so much by mornings on horseback as by mornings in the classroom (and evenings at the Porcellian Club.) He was studious, wanted to be a writer or a "naturalist."

But he was, in truth, a very odd duck. He could never sit still. When he got elected to the New York legislature as a representative from New York City, he was but twenty-three years old. On the second day of his first term, he could be heard, leaning forward over his desk --- he was 5' 8" tall --- enunciating in his high (but patrician) voice, "Mister Chairman, Mister Chairman." Some thought he had a speech impediment.

McCullough's takes us through much, perhaps too much, of early Roosevelt history (the Oyster Bay Roosevelts --- the Hudson River Roosevelts were another breed entirely). TR's family was large, and very rich, and given to donating much of his time to public service.

The senior Theodore was --- like his son --- considered incorruptible. He helped found (and fund) New York's Museum of Natural History. Sunday nights were devoted to free meals for the poor newsboys of the city's streets. Once he gave a dinner party for his rich friends in the mansion on 57th Street. The coup de grace was delivered with dinner: he opened the door to the study, and on a round table he had carefully posed five or six disabled kids, complete with braces and crutches. The pledges of help were immediately forthcoming.

There might be too much in Mornings on Horseback about the senior Theodore. His son is far more interesting. TR's youthful illnesses were such that they thought he wouldn't survive, and the chapter on his asthma is a gripper. McCullough goes into the history and manifestations and contemporary (Victorian) knowledge of the ailment.

There was, it was thought, a psychological element to it. McCullough implies that since most of TR's attacks were on Saturday night / Sunday morning, it might have been a way to get out of the heavy religious duties that filled the Lord's Day. (One of my friends who grew up with asthma tells me that he thinks the first two or three attacks were optional; after that, it was hard-wired into his system.) In the days before bronchodilators, it was not only life-threatening, it would scare the hell out of all. It was a hidden curse, inasmuch as only the immediate family knew of it. Much of the pain would involve sitting up with a wheezing child in the early hours of the morning, a loved one who was literally "turning blue."

Despite Theodore's singular health in later life, his family was not a model of good health. His father died of cancer before age fifty. His mother succumbed to typhoid fever in 1884 (the same day as TR's first wife, Alice, died). His beloved sister Anna ("Bamie") had a debilitating tubercular condition of the spine, and brother Elliott was given to seizures. His younger sister Corrine was slightly asthmatic.

One could easily believe that TR's famous ebullience might have come from finally escaping a childhood crowded with so many people with so many ailments, plus being in a family in which all parties were expected to be deeply involved with each other. They lived, slept, ate, prayed and went abroad together. One trip to Egypt, Austria, Germany, France and England took more than a year.

§     §     §

This biography brings us from Teddy's tenth birthday to his departure in 1886 for London for his second marriage. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of TR's perfervid terms in 1881 and 1882 in Albany with the famous and infamous politicians who gathered there, along with an elegantly detailed portrait of the Republican Convention, Chicago, 1884.

Evidently, honorable Republicans cared for their image then far more than they do now. They were horrified by the nomination of a thoroughgoing rotter by the name of James G. Blaine. The reform Republicans, the Mugwumps, wanted him out. (They were called "Mugwumps" because they sat on the political fence with their mugs on one side and their wumps on the other. I just made that up.)

According to McCullough, 1884 was crucial in TR's evolution, for he let it be known that he would back Blaine in the general election, no matter how much of a scoundrel he was. (Most of the others abandoned the party to back Grover Cleveland).

§     §     §

We are given here a picture of TR not only as a family man and a politician, but as a rancher --- riding horseback, throwing cattle, branding, roughing it. According to McCullough, Teddy, Frederic Remington (of sculpture fame), and Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, were the primary builders of the myth of the rugged, tough-living, tough-loving, tough-hearted, tough-assed cowboy.

This biography was first published in 1982. This recorded version came out last year. It involves sixteen tapes. Nelson Runger, the reader, is so lassitudinous that, in contrast to his primary subject, one could accuse him of creeping sonambulance. It is certainly a leisurely ride across the plains and into the sunset, but one gets used to the pace, and, after awhile, wishes that McCullough had gone on into the governorship, the years in the New York City Customs House, the Spanish-American War, the Presidency, and, ultimately, noisily charging up the stairs in "Arsenic and Old Lace."

--- Alicia Rodgers
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