washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Jonathan Yardley

A Last, Rough Ride

By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page C04


Theodore Roosevelt After the White House

By Patricia O'Toole

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Simon & Schuster. 494 pp. $30

Theodore Roosevelt left the White House in 1909, eight years after entering it following the assassination of President William McKinley. In 1904 he promised that he would not seek two full terms, and as the election of 1908 approached he found himself bound by that promise. So he anointed William Howard Taft as his successor, engineered Taft's nomination by the Republican Party and helped persuade the American people to elect him.

He got what he wanted, or what he said he wanted, but it didn't take long before he realized that it wasn't what he wanted at all. Roosevelt was a mere 50 years old, full of plans and vigor, restless and ambitious, accustomed to holding and wielding power. He was, Patricia O'Toole writes, "an artist of power." It was central to his existence:

"The unabashed joy that TR took in power -- acquiring it, exercising it, and contending against the powerful -- was as complex as any large outcropping of the human psyche, but three layers of the bedrock beneath the joy are particularly suggestive: he had enormous self-confidence, a deep longing to be a hero, and an indomitable will. The self-confidence was a gift from his cherishing parents. The intense, almost sacred aspiration to heroism also started at home, with the idolization of his father."

As to the "indomitable will," O'Toole suggests -- and is scarcely the first to do so -- that its roots lay in a "childhood humiliation" by two bullies that inspired him to build himself up physically and psychologically. In 1909, though, after years of meeting and overcoming the challenges that elbowed their way into the Oval Office, he had to go out looking for challenges on his own. So in company with his son Kermit, he went to Africa on a year's safari, in the course of which he killed an appalling number of wild animals, 512 in all, which Roosevelt justified in the name of science -- the specimens were presented to the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo -- but which O'Toole correctly says "has the unmistakable look of slaughter."

When he got back to the States, Roosevelt kept himself happy -- and in the public eye -- with a speaking tour of his beloved West, in the course of which he dropped not especially subtle hints that he might be a candidate for the Republican nomination in 1912. Not only did he miss the power he so loved to wield -- power that, he believed in all sincerity, he exercised in the best interests of the American people -- but he quickly found himself disillusioned with Taft. The new president was "indolent, irresolute, dependent, and undone by opposition and criticism -- a dooming combination." Beyond that, Taft turned out to be something less than a Roosevelt (i.e., progressive) Republican.

As 1912 approached, the allure of the White House grew ever stronger. In 1911 Hiram Johnson, the governor of California, received "one of Roosevelt's last stout professions that he did not wish to run and one of the first definite hints that he might." Citing to Johnson "the progressive cause we have at heart," TR left little doubt that he alone was capable of assuming its leadership, which is precisely what he subsequently attempted to do. "For the passionate," O'Toole writes, "believing is seeing, and once Roosevelt believed that the nomination could be his, he could see no other acceptable course, no other sensible candidate."

The passion with which he pursued the nomination was so overheated that rumors circulated about his drinking (he was in fact a very light drinker) and his sanity. Indeed, as "the public wondered why Roosevelt would humiliate his old friend [Taft], break his 1904 pledge not to run again, . . . squander his prestige and risk his high standing in history, 'crazy' and 'drunk' seemed plausible hypotheses." They were hypotheses to which Roosevelt was utterly oblivious:

"In 1912 Roosevelt believed, or thought he believed, that the United States faced its gravest crisis since the Civil War. . . . No doubt Roosevelt magnified the crisis to justify his involvement, but it is also true that the election of 1912 was no ordinary election. It was a moment of transfiguration in American politics, with the Democrats fashioning themselves into the party of liberal ideals and the Republicans pointing their craft toward the far shores of conservatism."

Roosevelt arrived at the Republican Convention in Chicago full of his usual confidence and bluster, at least for public consumption. The truth was, he "had no chance to win and had concluded as much before the convention." Though TR had received large popular votes in a handful of primaries, the conventions were still controlled by party bosses, and Taft was the bosses' man. By the time Taft was awarded the nomination, Roosevelt "had divorced himself from the Republican Party and moved on," calling for a new party "that would appeal to progressive-minded citizens, Democrats and Republicans alike, in every section of the country."

It was called just that: the Progressive Party, though it was commonly known as the Bull Moose Party, in honor of the animal whose strength and sinew Roosevelt liked to say he shared. He persuaded Hiram Johnson to join the ticket and ran a vigorous campaign, but he was a "fading star who would always draw an affectionate crowd but seemed just outside the orbit of the times," whereas the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, was the ingenue, the blank screen onto which the public could project whatever it wished to see.

In a four-man race -- Eugene Debs ran as the Socialist candidate -- Wilson won easily: 435 electoral votes to Roosevelt's 88 and Taft's "paltry" eight. Those 88 votes were impressive for a third-party candidate. The party itself limped along: "Progressives won fourteen seats in the House of Representatives but failed to capture a single seat in the Senate and took only one governorship." Though by now it is no more than a vague, distant memory, its influence on the country was large:

"The people did not want a new party or Theodore Roosevelt, but they did want the social and economic reforms he espoused in 1912, and their demand for it had forced Woodrow Wilson into a quickmarch toward liberalism. Between 1913 and 1916, he and the Democrats in Congress instituted workmen's compensation, banned most child labor, and expanded farmers' access to credit. They also created the Federal Reserve Board, gave the United States a tariff commission, and replaced the Sherman Act with a new antitrust law and the Federal Trade Commission."

For Roosevelt, the "rewards were defeat, blame, and a painful case of envy, but the Progressive Party died triumphant." Roosevelt remained on the public stage but in a greatly diminished role. He spoke out boldly, and before almost anyone else, about the need for America to arm itself as World War I threatened European stability and the safety of American ships; he tried, with absolutely no success, for both the Progressive and the Republican nominations in 1916. He died in 1919, just 60 years old, loving as ever toward his family but saddened and perhaps embittered by his post-presidential years.

Patricia O'Toole tells the story of his last decade competently and sometimes perceptively, but her prose is mostly lifeless and her narrative gifts are limited. "When Trumpets Call" suffers greatly by comparison with other recent work on Roosevelt: David McCullough's "Mornings on Horseback" and the first two volumes of Edmund Morris's biography. It is a useful examination of a neglected period in Roosevelt's colorful life, but there's all too little color in it.

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