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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.