Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris: Review

As Edmund Morris’ new biography brilliantly shows, few presidents have lived as full a life after office as Theodore Roosevelt. But historian Michael Kazin argues that TR’s third act was a bit aimless and contradictory.

Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, just ten years after leaving office, but he accomplished enough in that decade to justify the thickness of the final volume in Edmund Morris's biographical triology.

After leaving the White House, the typical ex-president has done little of consequence but to write—or, at least, edit—his memoirs and augment his bank account. Of course, there have been exceptions: Thomas Jefferson created a first-rate university, and Jimmy Carter threw himself into monitoring elections abroad and stirring up controversy at home. But most of their brethren made it easy for their biographers, who could tack a wistful epilogue onto their manuscripts and wait anxiously for the reviews.

Theodore Roosevelt seemed bent on becoming the great exception to the rule. He died in 1919, just 10 years after leaving office, but he accomplished enough in that decade to justify the thickness of this final volume, the last in Edmund Morris’s trilogy about the man for whom “a strenuous life” defined both his creed and his schedule.

The bare details are exhausting enough. Three weeks after attending the inauguration of William Howard Taft, his anointed successor, TR embarked on a year-long expedition in Africa. He and a teenaged son killed hundreds of large animals and sent some of their carcasses back to the Smithsonian, where, suitably stuffed, they continue to return tourists’ gaze. After the hunting ended, Roosevelt gave headline-grabbing speeches in Egypt and Germany and conducted a bit of diplomacy with various emperors and kings.

On returning to the States, he jumped back into political combat at the highest level. TR tried to wrest the 1912 Republican nomination from the unpopular Taft, who had turned his back on corporate reform. “We stand at Armageddon,” Roosevelt declared, “and we battle for the Lord.” When party bosses blocked his way, Roosevelt quickly organized his own Progressive Party; that November, he lost to Woodrow Wilson, leaving Taft behind in a humiliating third. TR quickly became the new president’s most influential critic—while also taking part in a campaign to get the nation prepared to enter World War I, barely surviving a scientific mission to chart a long, dangerous Brazilian river, and writing eight books and hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from zoology to modern art. Finally, after the U.S. declared war, TR made a desperate attempt to convince the administration he had long scorned to let him command a volunteer regiment in France. The offer was turned down.

The politician who considered it to be moral and salutary to send millions of young men to possible slaughter never recovered from losing his own child.

Morris navigates through this cascade of activities with a pleasantly unstrenuous style. After spending more than 30 years in the company of all things Rooseveltian, he can capture the man’s thoughts and moods with a few nimble phrases and distinctive quotes. In 1912, a group of Republican insiders who vainly sought to persuade TR not to challenge Taft “saw that his moral fervor, the way he had of charging argument with more passion than it needed, would prevent persons of colder blood from understanding that he was actually a thoughtful man.” As the group departed, “Roosevelt stretched out his arms and said, ‘I feel as fine as silk.’” When describing his subject’s trips into the wild, Morris, who grew up in Kenya, takes his time to delight, as did TR, in the plentiful beauties of the natural world: “The zoologist [in Roosevelt] is distracted by horizon-filling herds of wildebeest, kongoni, waterbuck, impala, and other antelope. Errant zebras have to be tooted off the rails. Long-tailed monkeys curlicue from tree to tree. A dozen giraffes canter alongside in convoy, their tinkertoy awkwardness transformed into undulant motion.” This is a fine, if mildly baroque, tribute to a famously literary man.

But TR’s life justifies three large volumes because he was a lifelong politician and, on occasion, a statesman as well. No 60-foot busts of writers or explorers get chiseled out of Dakota granite. Roosevelt was the tough-minded champion of a new, yet essentially conservative social order. He sought to reconcile often hostile interests—business and labor, city and country, blacks and whites, recent immigrants and the native-born—by erecting a mildly regulatory state that would unify Americans with the glue of foreign expansion. “I am not advocating anything revolutionary,” he explained in 1902, “I am advocating action to prevent anything revolutionary.”

Unfortunately, for Morris, personality does nearly all the work of historical analysis. He deftly evokes Taft’s stubborn failure to engage the public: “The electorate would have to judge him by his record—in token of which, he launched… into a defense of his tariff policy, detailed enough to turn two and a half newspaper columns gray.” But Morris cannot explain why Taft was able to retain control of the GOP machine in 1912 or why TR, after his loss that year, had no alternative but to return to the party he had flamboyantly condemned. The toothy grin, the unceasing enthusiasm, and the self-righteous rhetoric could not persuade nearly enough voters to abandon their party loyalties. On the campaign trail, one scrubwoman announced, “I’m fur Teddy” because “He’s fur me.” A century ago, a majority of Americans belonged to her class, but Morris does not wonder why most wage-earners did not rally to his side.

Neither does he resolve the contradiction between TR’s zest for battle and his understanding of the horrors that wars visited on young men, their families, and their nations. On the one hand, the Colonel—a title he earned in 1898, fighting in Cuba with the Rough Riders, and always cherished—was convinced, writes Morris, that war, if “waged for a righteous cause” was “good for man, good for man’s country, and often as not, good for the vanquished, too.” Yet, as president, TR had won the Nobel Peace Prize for settling a conflict between Russia and Japan and was appalled, in the summer of 1914, that the arrogant men at the helm of great empires could find no way to stop a conflict touched off by an assassination in Sarajevo from rapidly engulfing all of Europe.

To his death, TR remained a gentleman of inherited wealth and status, a proud alumnus of Harvard’s Porcellian Club, who also needed to keep proving he was as tough as any man who enjoyed neither his privileges nor his fame. Perhaps Morris has too much respect for his subject to note the irony in the fact that Roosevelt fell into inconsolable grief after his youngest son Quentin, an Army pilot, was killed in combat over France in 1918. The politician who considered it to be moral and salutary to send millions of young men to possible slaughter never recovered from losing his own child.

Still, the literary splendor of this book and of Morris’ previous two volumes should ensure they will be read after more sober, insightful accounts of Roosevelt’s place in history are forgotten outside the ranks of academic specialists. Kathleen Dalton, in her one-volume biography, published in 2002, writes more cogently about TR as racial ideologist, progressive standard-bearer, and diplomat. But no one besides Morris has enrobed Roosevelt’s personality in such discerning prose, marrying a passion for his many gifts with enough of the distance required to understand both his popular appeal and the limits his aggressive psyche imposed on his political influence. Any ex-president would be thrilled to have such a muse.

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Michael Kazin is the author, most recently, of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan and is co-editor of Dissent.