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Morris takes care to freshen history

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While not a prolific historian, the aristocratic Edmund Morris achieved high recognition in 1980 when his first volume of the life of Theodore Roosevelt — "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" — won a Pulitzer Prize.

Ardent Teddy fans anxiously awaited volume two, but Morris was tapped by President Ronald Reagan to be his "in-house biographer," and he was granted unprecedented personal access, which allowed him to read Reagan's personal White House diary.

Never one to rush into print, Morris didn't finish the Reagan biography, "Dutch," until 1999, making it a 14-year project — and it was a major disappointment to scholars. Morris had inserted himself in the book as a fictional narrator, a technique he used, he said, because Reagan was a performer who had to be observed, as if on camera.

The Reagan family was distraught, and the book quickly faded into obscurity.

During a telephone interview from Los Angeles, Morris reasserted his pride in the book and said if he were to do it again, he would not change anything. But now there is something more interesting to talk about: volume two of his work on Theodore Roosevelt, titled "Theodore Rex."

Like volume one, this look at the vigorous two-term Roosevelt presidency is superbly researched while retaining the novelistic writing flair for which Morris is known.

No matter what you think of "Dutch," the 61-year-old Morris has atoned for it with "Theodore Rex" — and he says the third volume in the trilogy should be finished in three to four years.

Insisting he is not a historian, Morris has no academic training in history, nor has he taught college students. Born and educated in Kenya, the author graduated from the Prince of Wales School, Nairobi, and Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, where he studied English and music. ("I wanted to be a professional musician.") Afterward, he worked as an advertising copywriter before emigrating to the United States in 1968.

Once in America, Morris became a freelance writer for magazines. He also wrote a screenplay about Theodore Roosevelt that was never produced. But he found his subject so interesting that the screenplay grew into a biography.

Morris says historians cannot legitimately criticize him, because his style is "meticulous. I document every single fact. I write biography the way history used to be written — in narrative form. Twentieth century history has been taken over by sociologists and scientists. Today, it has become sterile, lost its life."

He likes being mentioned in the same breath with popular historian David McCullough, author of "John Adams," but Morris' immigrant status gives him "a slightly detached viewpoint of American culture. Objectivity, I think, makes what I write at least fresh, because a lot of things Americans take for granted, such as the U.S. Constitution, are miraculous to me."

He adds that "Theodore Roosevelt is a biographer's dream. He produced 150,000 letters, so there is no shortage of information. He was one of our supreme diplomats. His erudition, knowledge and cleverness served him well. He was the kind of man who understood foreign cultures. He read in English, French, Italian and German. He knew the history of Islam and the Ottoman empire, he was intimately familiar with the history of the Russian Empire — and he understood Japan."

Roosevelt also "had the common touch," Morris said, "and could speak the language of the man in the street. He never provoked American anti-intellectuals. The people never thought of him as a patrician or a snob. TR seemed totally democratic. Foreign leaders found him courtly, a perfect host, but diplomats found that if they never exercised the way he did, they never got close to him. You had to rock climb or take nude swims in the winter."

Morris sees a lot of Roosevelt's charm in "his naturalness, his boyishness."

If he were a modern figure campaigning on television, "his gyrating voice, his snapping teeth and his high-pitched voice would come off as strange. But in the flesh, he was irresistible. If you read the speeches, they often sound banal — but he put his personality into them. The vitality of his gestures was unmistakable.

"Every now and again, TR uttered a really splendid speech."

Morris carefully compared Bill Clinton's political writing with Roosevelt's and found Roosevelt's content to be much more substantial. "I took Clinton's campaign tract, "Between Hope and History," and compared a page of it at random with one from TR's campaign document of 1904, and TR came out with 97 percent substance to Clinton's 40 percent. The rest of Clinton's writing was hot air and cliches."

Morris also sees Roosevelt as "remarkably enlightened for his time."

His major example is TR's decision to invite a black man (Booker T. Washington) to dinner at the White House. "It was an incendiary act, but he wanted to telegraph the simple moral principle that a black man who had risen under his own efforts was entitled to sit down as an equal with the president of the United States." Yet Roosevelt also believed blacks as a race were socially and intellectually far behind the white man.

An admitted Roosevelt partisan, Morris calls him "a fiery, warming personality . . . he infused dead issues with real life and heat. He took up the great issues of race relations and conservation and made them incandescent. He revitalized the presidency itself. I've spent 21 years in his company, and his company is overwhelmingly interesting and inspiring."

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com