Edmund Morris's Misuse of Teddy Roosevelt and History in the New York Times

Twisting Teddy's words in the "Times."

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The historian Edmund Morris has an op-ed in today's New York Times in which, by cherry-picking quotes from Teddy Roosevelt, he attempts to make the case that America's 26th president would support Barack Obama.

Like those silly op-eds that are written in the open-letter style, this colloquy formula is nothing more than a crutch for someone too lazy or muddled to write a persuasive piece on his own. Morris's article, however, is detestable not just for its pedantic structure but for its perniciousness.

In setting up his fictional interview, Morris claims Teddy's "statements below are drawn from the historic record and are uncut except when interrupted by his interviewer." Well, the statements are factually correct only inasmuch as Morris managed not to introduce typos when reproducing them. Contextually, however, they are grossly distorted, and, as a historian, Morris should be ashamed.

Among the biggest whoppers, for example, is this "exchange" with Roosevelt:

Q: Does [John McCain's] vow to give Joe the Plumber a tax break remind you of Reaganomics?

A: This is merely the plan, already tested and found wanting, of giving prosperity to the big men on top, and trusting to their mercy to let something leak through to the mass of their countrymen below—which, in effect, means that there shall be no attempt to regulate the ferocious scramble in which greed and cunning reap the largest rewards. It's a devastating quote from Roosevelt's 1912 convention address, but it represents only half of his comments. Here's the rest, which just as effectively pillories Obama's redistributive economic policy:

The other set has fixed its eyes purely on the injustices of distribution, omitting all consideration of the need of having something to distribute, and advocates action, which, it is true, would abolish most of the inequalities of the distribution of prosperity, but only by the unfortunately simple process of abolishing the prosperity itself. This means merely that conditions are to be evened, not up, but down, so that all shall stand on a common level, where nobody has any prosperity at all.

And consider this one from Morris, which supposedly shows Teddy's support for Obama's eloquence:

Q: You're not afraid that [Obama is] primarily a man of words? Like Woodrow Wilson, whom you once called a "Byzantine logothete"?

A. It is highly desirable that a leader of opinion in a democracy should be able to state his views clearly and convincingly. Under Morris's skillful editing, however, Teddy's views are rendered neither clearly nor convincingly. Here's how Roosevelt finished that thought in his 1910 speech in Paris: "Indeed, it is a sign of marked political weakness in any commonwealth if the people tend to be carried away by mere oratory, if they tend to value words in and for themselves, as divorced from the deeds for which they are supposed to stand."

Then, too, there is this exchange, supposedly representing Teddy's views on Sarah Palin:

Q: Talking of foreign policy, what do you think of Mr. McCain's choice of a female running mate?

A: Times have changed (sigh). It is entirely inexcusable, however, to try to combine the unready hand with the unbridled tongue. My guess is that as strong a leader as he was, Roosevelt would have been more focused on the presidential candidates than on their vice presidents. And in that respect, the words Morris culls could just as well be applied to Mr. Obama, who has no foreign policy experience. Beyond that, though, Teddy wrote those words in his autobiography as he decried the "peace-at-any-price persons" who wanted to gut the U.S. Navy. Given the Democratic Party's traditional military stance—and, more recently, Rep. Barney Frank's announcement that he would like to slash the Pentagon's budget by 25 percent—the quote more aptly should be applied to the Democrats.

Morris's distortions don't end there, and the above are just a taste. And in so perniciously twisting Roosevelt's words, Morris's article tells us more about him than about the man whose legacy he distorts.

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