Sunday, January 2, 2011;
Reading Edmund Morris's "Colonel Roosevelt" is a rewarding journey, as it must also have been for its author, who concludes his three-volume saga begun in 1980 with publication of "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." "Theodore Rex" (2001) covered the middle years. "Colonel Roosevelt" begins with the ex-president in Africa, having, in 1908, installed in office his acolyte William Howard Taft. Roosevelt was prevented from running again by a pledge he had made in the 1904 campaign. Taft's mission was to advance Roosevelt's progressive blueprint.
After leaving the White House, Roosevelt was a world celebrity, traveling across Africa, slaughtering game for the Smithsonian (he never saw an animal he didn't wish to have the pleasure of killing), then lecturing to and being feted by European crowned heads. The volume ends in 1918 with his death at home at Oyster Bay, on Long Island, from heart failure at the age of 60, never again to fill a room or a platform with his aggressive energy, his inexhaustible charm, his irrepressible frankness and his cocksure advocacy.
Between Africa and annihilation, we have an almost real-time narrative of Roosevelt's attempt to reassert himself as a force in American politics and then to reclaim the presidency, in 1912, as the candidate of the new Progressive Party. Taft, Roosevelt believed, had betrayed his mentor's progressive vision. The Democrats, soon to be led by Woodrow Wilson , had swept the midterm elections of 1910. When the Republican bosses rejected Roosevelt and nominated Taft again, Roosevelt ran as an independent, split the Republican vote (there weren't many independents then) and put Wilson in office, a lesson on the limitations of the American two-party system: Third-party influence comes at the price of defeat. In this case, though he detested Wilson, Roosevelt's Bull Moose run made possible a Democratic presidency whose policies had more in common with Roosevelt's than with those of the business-oriented elite of his own party.
It is a dispiriting journey, with touches of Greek tragedy, as if Theodore Rex had turned into Oedipus Rex. Much of it makes for sad reading, exemplifying the truism that virtues carried to extremes transform into vices. Roosevelt had an unwarranted faith in his ability to control events, and up until 1912 he attributed his political success to his energy, his vision and the good sense of the American people. Mark Twain, who detested Roosevelt, had another view. "Mr. Roosevelt is the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War," Twain wrote in his autobiographical dictations in 1907, "but the vast mass of the nation loves him, is frantically fond of him, even idolizes him. This is the simple truth. It sounds like a libel upon the intelligence of the human race but it isn't; there isn't any way to libel the intelligence of the human race."
Twain had much more to say about Roosevelt, nothing of which appears in "Colonel Roosevelt." In a rapidly expanding mass-market culture, Roosevelt was easy to love, a well-born insider disguised as an all-American populist. What Twain saw in Roosevelt was the boaster, the bully, the demagogue, the reckless embodiment of the warrior ethic, the propagandist for the glorification of the Wild West, the embodiment of a gun culture who embraced war as the highest and best test of manhood. Twain, who was anti-war and anti-imperialist, died in 1910, while Roosevelt was in Africa, where Morris begins.
By August 1914, the Western world was about to enter a war that made Roosevelt's warrior ethic increasingly anachronistic, even repugnant. His strongest desire was to lead a regiment and die gloriously on the battlefield, but the war office repeatedly turned him down. Encouraged by his father to do the manly thing, Roosevelt's least warrior-like son died in the air over France; another was seriously wounded in the trenches. "But what made this loss so devastating to him," Morris writes, "was the truth it conveyed: that death in battle was no more glorious than death in an abattoir." I'm not convinced that Roosevelt fully believed this. Morris's trilogy ends with his Oedipus no closer to stoic wisdom - or wisdom of any kind - than at any other time in his life.
"Colonel Roosevelt" is compelling reading, and Morris a brilliant biographer who practices his art at the highest level. Minor flaws, yes. But he has the reader's interests at heart, even in his proliferation of one-sentence paragraphs and short sections, which can be seen as an effort to manage the pace of his detailed narrative, and an attempt to deal with the huge amount of biographical and contextual material. Sometimes the book relies too much on Roosevelt's own writings, and Morris's penchant for odd similes ("like a female ranger living near Old Faithful, Edith Roosevelt understood her husband's regular need to erupt") is both amusing and off-putting. But, mostly, the writing is vivid in its restraint, powerful in its precision and shapely in its structure and vision. Morris has a way of making aspects of Roosevelt's life and values relevant in both dark and bright ways. A moving, beautifully rendered account of Roosevelt's near-death by assassination during the campaign of 1912 resonated for this reader with all the emotion of the assassinations of our recent history.
Fred Kaplan is working on a biography of John Quincy Adams.
By Edmund Morris
Random House. 766 pp. $35