By Edmund Morris
Random House, 784 pages
When Theodore Roosevelt ended his second term as president, in March 1909, he was 50 years old: no longer youthful, by any measure, but not especially old, either, even by the standards of the day. Having pledged, on the night in 1904 when he was elected president in his own right, not to run for a third term, he felt compelled to honor that impulsive gesture and so found himself in that curious twilight habitat in which ex-presidents reside.
So begins the third, and final, installment of Edmund Morris’s monumental study of the 26th president, a process begun in another epoch in Roosevelt studies—The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt appeared 32 years ago—and interrupted by his misbegotten tenure as Ronald Reagan’s official biographer. In that project, Morris was famously stymied by his inability to comprehend Reagan. It may well be impossible to comprehend TR as well; but the saving grace of Colonel Roosevelt is that Morris, at the least, appreciates his subject and brings to this chronicle of Roosevelt’s troublous, ambiguous last decade a learned affection and sympathy. Roosevelt was not only the most impressive intellect to occupy the White House since Thomas Jefferson but also a complicated, contradictory, lovable, and maddening man, and a supreme politician. The sole weakness of Morris’s biography, most evident in the second volume (Theodore Rex, 2001), on the presidential years, is that the author is unengaged by the issues that animated Roosevelt’s public life. But its primary strength is his understanding of a mind and manner unlike any other in American public life. There is no last word on Theodore Roosevelt, just as there is never any final verdict in history; but there can be no understanding of TR without recourse to Morris’s three volumes.
First, politics. Roosevelt instantly realized the mistake he had made in limiting himself to two terms in the White House, the traditional precedent set by George Washington; but he set about surveying the landscape and selected his able proconsul William Howard Taft to succeed him. It was not his shrewdest decision—Taft’s temperament was judicial, not political—but it is difficult to imagine Roosevelt’s satisfaction with any successor. Morris, for his part, imbibed TR’s increasing disillusion with the Taft presidency—the author’s contempt for Taft is all-encompassing and disproportionate—and the policy views that divided the old colleagues are neither explored in much detail nor examined from any viewpoint other than Roosevelt’s own. Which is too bad: Republican dogma at the height of the Progressive Era is an interesting subject in itself, and Roosevelt’s disenchantment had as much to do with vanity as policy. So he decided to challenge Taft in 1912. He dithered just long enough to ensure that he failed to wrest the nomination from the incumbent and, when the enterprise collapsed, was sufficiently insulted to divide the Republicans, run as a third-party candidate, and deliver the presidency to Woodrow Wilson. This may be seen as the supreme example of Roosevelt’s heroic, but fractured, instincts: sufficiently inspirational to carry an unlikely crusade close to success and self-destructive enough not to ponder the consequences of a scorched-earth policy.
The balance of Roosevelt’s political career was a slow, uneasy diminuendo. The Progressives, who had stoked his ambition in 1912, swiftly lost their appeal, and he moved by stages back to orthodoxy. His support for the 1916 Republican nominee, Charles Evans Hughes, was lukewarm at best—and might well have been fatal to Hughes in a close election. Which left him, by a turn of events in the larger world, in an unexpectedly advantageous position at the end of World War I. Roosevelt’s fortunes prospered in public opinion as Wilson’s declined, and it is possible that had he lived beyond 1919, he would have been the successful Republican nominee the following year.
It was Roosevelt’s parallel existence as a naturalist, habitual adventurer, and passionate inquirer that shortened his life, and this is what gives Colonel Roosevelt its splendor and poignance. On leaving the White House, his initial project was a year-long expedition to East Africa and the Congo, and up the Nile to Sudan, relentlessly shooting big game and collecting thousands of specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History. Roosevelt’s career as a conservationist, in and out of political office, is well-known; his knowledge of biology and animal life, and ceaseless interest in the pattern of human development and evolution, are less well known but equally prodigious. Roosevelt had an intellectual curiosity that was lifelong and deeply entrenched. He moved across the African plain with a specially bound traveling library and chronicled everything he saw and did; he effortlessly identified the songs of birds, the voluminous plant life, and varied signals of the landscape and changing seasons. Like more than a few hunters, he seemed to delight in knowing everything about the creatures he slaughtered and possessed both a startling bloodlust and tender passion for his prey.
Nor was his shrewd detachment confined to the lesser species. Once he landed in Egypt, he was back among journalists and importunate officials and proceeded on to a well-publicized tour of Europe that was impressive in scope and unexpectedly amusing in Morris’s telling. Most of all, he wanted to visit historic sites, meet scholars, and deliver a series of learned lectures at universities. But the royal families and prime ministers of the Continent, as well as his American acolytes, would not leave him alone, and he entertained and endured them with impressive aplomb. He accompanied the kaiser on maneuvers with the German army; he charmed the king of Spain a dozen years after helping to oust the king’s empire from Cuba in the charge up San Juan Hill. In May 1910 he happened to be in London when Edward VII died, and his appointment as official U.S. representative at the funeral affirmed his unofficial status as the planet’s most prominent American. In a series of extended letters, mostly to his friend the British historian George Otto Trevelyan, he described the proceedings in uproarious detail, with a surgical precision and sharp eye for the human comedy. He perceived, with considerable accuracy, the subtle tensions and discord that would explode across Europe four years hence. The French foreign minister, apoplectic about protocol, confided and complained to Roosevelt, who offered a measure of soothing advice and good sense. The letters comprise an astonishing piece of historical literature.
And yet such even temperament and capacious mind, not to say good sense, was not always evident. In 1913 Roosevelt followed his African adventure and Bull Moose episode with an expedition to the Brazilian wilderness to chart the source of the Rio da Duvida (River of Doubt) and trace it north to the Amazon. In the course of the extended journey, significantly more arduous and harrowing than expected, Roosevelt contracted malaria and an infection from a leg wound that nearly killed him. Persuaded that his illness imperiled his comrades, he pleaded with his son Kermit to leave him to die in the jungle. Kermit refused, but Roosevelt lost 50 pounds in the ordeal and never fully recovered his health, suffering recurrent outbreaks of malaria and lethal leg abscesses until his premature death four years later.
At this juncture, once returned from the Amazon, Roosevelt’s private and public lives intersected in frustration. The outbreak of war in Europe prompted his better instincts. He swiftly grasped the scope and significance of the conflict, especially for the United States, and became an increasingly strident critic of the resolutely neutral Wilson administration. Roosevelt was not only the foremost advocate of preparedness for what he assumed was inevitable American entry into the war but also a knowledgeable, constructive architect of what mobilization would require. His enthusiasm was markedly different from Wilson’s detachment; and the contrast, especially when German naval warfare took American lives, drove Roosevelt into something like frenzy. When, in due course, Wilson came to see things Roosevelt’s way and declared war on Germany, Roosevelt embarked on a quixotic crusade to command a volunteer division in France. Of course, the president and his secretary of war, Newton Baker, recognized the difference between the Rough Riders and the Western Front; and Wilson, not without malice, declined to send TR overseas. Roosevelt’s four sons fought gallantly, two suffered grievous wounds, and his youngest, Quentin, was killed in aerial combat. Six months later, two months after the armistice, Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep.
To be sure, there is a tragic element in the final decade of TR’s crowded existence. Checkmated by political convention, he was at the periphery of events he yearned to command. His errands into the wilderness were the culmination of a lifetime’s interests; but one can detect, especially in the Amazon, a kind of suicidal impulse. It is possible that the death of Quentin Roosevelt prompted his father to reconsider his romance with martial values. It is equally possible, however, to say that Roosevelt’s restlessness and despondency were nothing new in his nature and that the extraordinary volume and variety—certainly the urgency—of his life’s work and play were responses to a chronic melancholy and ceaseless inquiry. The triumph of his life was to transmute those impulses into thought and action on a heroic scale.