Rare is the subject whose life becomes more interesting after two terms as President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt, however, was an exceptional man indeed. Preferring to carry the honorific that recalled his charge up San Juan Hill in 1898, he enjoyed incarnations as a hunter and explorer, lecturer, campaigner, progressive reformer, and founder of America’s last significant third political party, all while maintaining his profession as a prolific man of letters.
Colonel Roosevelt, the third of Edmund Morris’ exhaustive and outstanding trilogy (the Pulitzer-winningThe Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex were published in 1979 and 2001, respectively), details the final decade of Roosevelt’s life. It is the apt culmination of a staggering amount of research, compiled and spun into wonderful prose that keeps its reader engaged throughout.
Morris is an adroit Presidential historian. In addition to the two earlier Roosevelt volumes, he producedDutch after a commission as the official biographer of Ronald Reagan. Wading through momentous historical events in Colonel Roosevelt, Morris makes an important decision. His inclusion of much Rooseveltian correspondence creates the illusion that the former President was at the center of national decision-making. Though still a public intellectual by virtue of his widely published columns, Roosevelt was primarily ensconced at his Oyster Bay estate. Yet because this is a biography of a man with unparalleled influence in his time, this choice serves to reinforce the Colonel’s magnitude, which Morris does just enough to not overstate.
With mixed emotions, Roosevelt and his family left the White House in the hands of his favored successor, William Howard Taft, in whose progressivism he had great faith. Wanting not to cast too long a shadow over the new administration, the Colonel quickly went abroad. After a safari in British East Africa, Roosevelt embarked on a more luxurious tour up the Nile and through Europe. There he was thrust back into the spotlight, greeted by thunderous crowds and hosted as if still an active head of state by monarchs across the continent.
Roosevelt grew outraged that Taft was drifting into the hands of Republican Party bosses. By quoting Roosevelt’s many letters, Morris brings to life the betrayal felt by the ex-President. Through his regular newspaper and magazine columns, Roosevelt began to hammer the Taft administration for its weak stances against major corporations and trusts, tariff reform, and conservative rhetoric. Taft’s firing of Gifford Pinchot, an ally of Roosevelt who served as the country’s first Chief of the Forest Service, particularly irked Roosevelt.
The author skillfully hints at the coming Republican schism throughout the first years of Taft’s presidency: “Roosevelt listened without committing himself.” With such insights, Morris intimates that behind a straight face, political ambitions still drove the Colonel. Roosevelt willingly campaigned in support of Republican nominees for the 1910 midterm elections, but by then his progressivism was bursting through his famous toothy smile.
Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech of that year was a touchstone for his impending break with Republicanism. Morris gives it appropriate weight: “Kansans stood rapt as the Colonel, acknowledging that there could be such as thing as too much federal power, called for a compensatory spirit of democratic redress, as strong in the extremities of the country as at its center.” Making nationwide headlines, the speech called for reforms that were recognized as radical – with one New York newspaper calling him a communist – for the time.
Believing, as ever, that Righteousness was on his side, Roosevelt accepted pleas from progressive Republicans to bid for the presidential nomination in 1912. Morris’ detailed account of back room scheming by progressive and Old Guard Republicans prior to the nomination leaves his reader furious, holding out hope that things have changed. In a raucous climax, Roosevelt was ousted by machine Republicans. Rejecting his most loyal former patrons and embracing “radicals,” he became the leader of the Progressive Party (known famously as the “Bull Moose” Party).
Morris portrays Roosevelt in his last years as a passionate voice for military “preparedness” in the buildup to World War I. The aggressive militarism of Wilhelm II of Germany makes today’s stereotype of Roosevelt the Imperialist seem like child’s play. Roosevelt, whose four sons all served in the war, applauded President Woodrow Wilson’s strong response to German naval aggression, but soon derided him for his well-meaning but poorly written Fourteen Points.
More than it reinforces or dispels mythology surrounding our 26th president, Colonel Roosevelt paints a picture of a man who became larger than himself in the later years of his life. The cult of personality around Theodore Roosevelt led his faithful worshippers to suggest his name for the 1916, and even 1920, presidential elections, long after his physical force was spent. Indeed, Republicans sought his advice even as he lay on his deathbed. His fiery support opened the gates for the progressive change that would become law after his death in 1919. Morris is to be commended for completing a fitting finale to the biography of a man who pursued life at full throttle.
Note: this review appeared in The Wagner Review on October 27, 2011