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Historian Douglas Brinkley Portrays a 'Green' Theodore Roosevelt


In an age when "green," as in environmentally friendly, is all the rage, one of the most prominent U.S. historians has written a book about a man who provided the foundation for much of the conservation movement, former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt.

In his new book, "Wilderness Warrior," Douglas Brinkley portrays President Roosevelt as a crusader for the cause of protecting America's wild heritage, in the form of national parks, forests and grasslands. Brinkley teaches atf Rice University in Houston.

The wilderness has been a feature of the American experience since the nation's beginnings, but present generations might not have had much opportunity to enjoy such natural splendors had it not been for a sickly easterner who went to live on a ranch in North Dakota in 1883.

Theodore Roosevelt overcame illness and mental depression by roughing it in the Dakota badlands, according to Historian Douglas Brinkley.

"So Roosevelt came to a very modern conclusion ... that we needed to save nature, not just because it is pretty, but because it had redemptive spiritual value and was the great replenisher of the soul. And he felt that urbanization was destroying souls," he said.

In his book, Brinkley focuses on Theodore Roosevelt's lifelong commitment to preserving nature by reserving large areas as national parks and protected zones.

"Although my book, 'The Wilderness Warrior,' is about history, it is about Theodore Roosevelt's life from 1858 to 1919. It resonates today because all over the country people are looking to save land, to rehabilitate endangered species, to clean up rivers and lakes and create a sustainable environment for us to live," he said.

Roosevelt was a Republican, but his appeal crosses modern party lines and Brinkley thinks Republicans of today are beginning to reconnect with the conservationist policies he triumphed.

"There are many Republican conservationists who are saying what the modern Republican Party has lost is T.R.'s vision of the environment. In fact, Newt Gingrich, of all people, is saying that the modern Republican Party should be the leader on environmentalism," he said.

At the same time, Brinkley says some of the people who call themselves environmentalists today need to look at Roosevelt's practical side and his promotion of economic development.

"There are people who are stopping building over a snail darter. That is taking the endangered species act in a kind of anti-development extreme," he said.

In addition to the books he has written about such historic persons as Theodore Roosevelt, Brinkley has written about contemporary figures like writer Hunter S. Thompson, newsman Walter Cronkite and rock singer and poet Bob Dylan, all of whom he met personally.

"There are huge boons and advantages because you actually get to know the human being, you are not just writing out of the cardboard boxes of letters," he said.

But in the end, he says, whether the subject is from a century ago or today's world his task is to share what he learns about them.

"When you are a historian you feel a bit of an obligation to communicate your findings to the public at large and hopefully get them interested. I am an enthusiast for history, so part of my job is to get people excited about it," he said.

Brinkley shares many of his insights on a regular basis on television news programs, where he is a frequent guest. But he says his own celebrity is sometimes a burden, taking him away from what he really loves, which is researching and writing.

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