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The Pride of Teddy Roosevelt

Underwood & Underwood/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
Theodore Roosevelt, early 1900s


Theodore Roosevelt, the youngest man to serve as president of the United States, and the youngest ex-president, also died young, at the age of sixty, in 1919. Apart from the four presidents who have been assassinated, only two of Roosevelt’s predecessors, James K. Polk and Chester A. Arthur, died younger than he did, as has only one of his successors, Warren G. Harding. The asthmatic child who grew to become the foremost American exponent of strenuous, combative virility lived at full throttle, even during the ten years after he left the White House—and he paid for it.

Edmund Morris’s Colonel Roosevelt covers those last ten years, concluding Morris’s three-volume biography and displaying the same penchant for detailed storytelling that dominated the first two volumes. Morris spares his readers little about Roosevelt’s dramas, including his physical torments. Recurrences of tropical malaria, a gunshot wound from a would-be assassin, painful abscesses from old injuries, a gruesome rectal hemorrhage (and subsequent surgery), bouts with rheumatism—Morris describes each one at length, until Roosevelt finally succumbs to a pulmonary embolism (or more likely, Morris contends, a heart attack). For Morris, Roosevelt’s bravery in courting and suffering these agonies testifies to his outsized personality. Yet as Morris also recognizes, Roosevelt’s will to power—which enabled him, as president, to transform the office—came with awful physical and emotional costs.

Theodore Roosevelt’s dogged courage and toughness are beyond dispute, and they did not fade in his later years. In 1912, while he was headed for a campaign stop in Milwaukee during his schismatic third-party run for the presidency, a lunatic shot him in the chest at close range. After refusing medical attention, TR proceeded to the rally, climbed to the podium, and gestured for silence as the blood soaked through his exposed shirtfront. Morris writes:

Waiting for the noise to subside, he reached into his jacket pocket for his speech. The fifty-page typescript was folded in half. He did not notice that it had been shot through until he began to read. For some reason, the sight of the double starburst perforation seemed to shock him more than the blood he had seen on his fingertips. He hesitated, temporarily wordless, then tried to make the crowd laugh again with his humorous falsetto: “You see, I was going to make quite a long speech.”

More than an hour later, Roosevelt came to the last page of his prepared remarks, and only then did he agree to be taken to the hospital. He survived because the bullet, which was headed straight for his heart, had had to pass through a heavy overcoat and a steel-reinforced eyeglass case as well as the lengthy typescript, before it nestled against his fourth right rib.

Formidable as he was, though, Roosevelt could not ward off the unsteadiness and pathos of his final years, and he brought a good deal of it on himself. After he voluntarily left the White House in 1909—he had conveniently, and in retrospect unwisely, adhered to custom and foresworn a third term four years earlier—Roosevelt preferred to be addressed not as Mr. President but simply as Colonel, the army rank he had earned with the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War (hence the title of Morris’s book). President no longer, Roosevelt proclaimed that he was determined to be an ordinary private citizen. But he was a proud and energetic man, still in the prime of life, and he took poorly to powerlessness.

Roosevelt’s idea of gentlemanly retirement was immediately to commence a perilous year-long safari to Africa with one of his sons, funded in part by Andrew Carnegie, on which it was estimated that he personally killed nine lions, eight elephants, twenty zebras, seven giraffes, and six buffaloes. (Those carcasses and hundreds more of big-game animals slaughtered by the expedition were duly salted and shipped home to be stuffed and displayed at the Smithsonian Institution and American Museum of Natural History, burnishing Roosevelt’s reputation as one of America’s most intrepid hunting naturalists.) Before he returned to the United States, he completed a tumultuous six-week public speaking tour that took him from Khartoum through the major capitals of Europe.

Once back in America, Roosevelt came to regard his anointed successor, William Howard Taft, as the betrayer of his Square Deal policies, and so he set forth to regain his job. But by the time Roosevelt broke publicly with the White House, at the end of 1911, the sitting president with all the perquisites of patronage had already sewn up the support of Republican Party leaders. Roosevelt won the overwhelming majority of the vote in the ensuing nonbinding Republican primaries, but it was insufficient to deny Taft renomination. Infuriated, TR bolted the GOP to run on the Progressive Party ticket and advance a program of governmental activism that he called the New Nationalism, which he had started propounding two years earlier.

Roosevelt had the pleasure of seeing Taft trounced in 1912—TR regarded the Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s victory as a foregone conclusion after Taft won the Republican nomination—but his Bull Moose candidacy ruined his reputation with the old-guard bosses and big-business conservatives who controlled the GOP. Morris does not speculate, but had Roosevelt tempered his outrage and grandiosity and bided his time, he almost certainly would have won the Republican nomination four years later. Instead, he spent a good part of those four years assailing President Wilson from the sidelines as a weakling in foreign affairs, only to be passed over by the Republicans once again in 1916. Roosevelt then had to suffer the humiliation of campaigning in support of the dull, cautious, moderately progressive GOP candidate Charles Evans Hughes, even as the crowds shouted “We Want Teddy!” (Drab though he was, Evans very nearly defeated Wilson, as Roosevelt surely would have done had he been the nominee.)

When the United States at last entered the Great War in 1917, Roosevelt lobbied hard for a military commission to lead a volunteer regiment in France, but the administration he had denounced for years turned him down. In his own place, Roosevelt proudly sent two of his sons off to fight, only to be devastated when his youngest boy, Quentin, was killed flying a combat mission over France.

Above and beyond his run at the presidency, Roosevelt had done his utmost, after he left the White House, to remain, as he put it famously, “the man in the arena.” Yet he lacked a firm political mooring and lurched furiously between safaris of one sort or another—joining another tropical expedition in 1914, this time along the uncharted Rio da Dúvida in Brazil, and very nearly perishing; delivering hundreds of political speeches and public lectures; writing an autobiography along with seven other books, as well as hundreds of articles, essays, and speeches on whatever artistic, literary, scientific, or political topic struck his fancy. Even as his body began seriously to fail, Roosevelt set his sights on yet another presidential campaign in 1920. But his ferocity of spirit could not make up for his accumulated political mistakes, and he was left to public and private exertions that succeeded chiefly in exhausting him. Quentin’s death was the last crushing blow: the Rough Rider who had loudly romanticized war as uplifting and even ennobling sobbed over his poor “Quentyquee.” “What made this loss so devastating to him,” Morris observes, “was the truth it conveyed: that death in battle was no more glamorous than death in an abbatoir.”

This is Morris’s writing at its best: compact and psychologically astute. Having lived with Theodore Roosevelt for half as long as Roosevelt himself actually lived, and having immersed himself in Roosevelt’s enormous output of writings, Morris knows the details of the man’s life and grasps his temperament better than any other biographer or historian ever has. With a few deft strokes, offset by dry wit, Morris brings TR alive—and even though he greatly admires his subject, he does not always place him in the most flattering light. “He used the strongest language,” Morris observes of Roosevelt’s martial instincts,

to emasculate men who hated militarism, or recoiled like women from the chance to prove themselves in armed action: “aunties” and “sublimated sweetbreads,” shrilly piping for peace. (The tendency of his own voice to break into the treble register was an embarrassment in that regard.)

On TR’s attitudes toward the poverty- stricken, Morris writes shrewdly that “like many well-born men with a social conscience, Roosevelt liked to think that he empathized with the poor. He was democratic, in a detached, affable way.” But if Roosevelt deluded himself, Morris continues, his aristocratic confidence also meant that “he lacked some of the neuroses of progressives—economic envy and race hatred especially. His radicalism was a matter of energy rather than urgency.”

In Colonel Roosevelt, Morris curbs the weakness for overdone, quasicinematic descriptions that occasionally marred his earlier writings. There is nothing here like the labored forty-page prologue to the preceding volume on TR, Theodore Rex, which describes in sometimes portentous and sometimes precious detail the two-day train ride in 1901 that carried Roosevelt back to Washington from Buffalo (where President McKinley had just been assassinated, and Roosevelt as vice-president was sworn into office). The pace of Morris’s storytelling can still be languid. But the major drawbacks in Colonel Roosevelt, as in the other two volumes, have more to do with Morris’s uneven handling of Roosevelt’s true vocation, which was that of a professional party politician.

Roosevelt’s adventures as an explorer, his writings as an amateur historian and naturalist, his gargantuan appetites for art, literature, and science, are all very interesting, and they are essential topics in any full-length biography. But what makes Roosevelt worthy of three monumental volumes is his political career and its legacy. Unfortunately, Morris the discerning biographer and skilled teller of stories is less helpful in explaining why Roosevelt succeeded and why he failed in public life. Not that Morris skimps on politics: election campaigns, factional rivalries, competing programs and philosophies, backroom machinations, all (or mostly) get related in full. Roosevelt’s drive, enthusiasm, and toothy grin—as well as his capacity to hate, and his insistence on seeing any social or political problem as cause for combat—helped define the man’s politics, and Morris describes them well. But Morris is less sure-handed—and at moments he seems uncomfortable—when he comes up against Roosevelt the calculating, contradictory, and cunning politician.

It is a fascinating and, finally, tragic tale. Roosevelt could never have become a successful president, let alone a statesman, had he not been a supremely successful party politician—a point that the historian John Morton Blum made nearly sixty years ago in his classic study, The Republican Roosevelt. During his presidency, Roosevelt’s political resourcefulness helped him earn his eventual place on Mount Rushmore. Thereafter, though, he squandered his political gifts, having lost the discipline required to use them effectively, and his pride and ambition undid him.

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