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Monday, Nov. 15, 2010

The Last Years of ‘Colonel Roosevelt’

Pulitzer Prize-winning Edmund Morris completes three-volume biography

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Theodore Roosevelt, the columnist Walter Lippmann wrote, was the only president in American history “who could truthfully be described as lovable.” He was our nation’s 26th president, there have been 18 more since then, and Lippmann’s statement still holds true.

Lovability and associated personal traits help explain not only Roosevelt’s attractiveness to the general populace, but also why books about him in recent decades have been favorable. This is certainly true of Edmund Morris’ magisterial three-volume biography, the first of which, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, won the Pulitzer Prize.

The traits come out more strongly in Theodore Rex, about his presidential years, and are front and center in the final volume, Colonel Roosevelt (Random House), which deals with his post-presidential career. “People seemed to be irradiated in contact with him,” Morris writes. (“Colonel Roosevelt,” reflecting his Spanish-American War rank, was how he preferred to be called then.)

It is worth dwelling on his zest-for-life personality and his manner of living, for the multivolume biography’s great achievement lies in showing that, though he was as wily a politician as the next, a true humanity lay at the heart of Theodore Roosevelt. And the personality and humanity go directly to the heart of his success as a politician.

He reveled in social and family gatherings. He doggedly adored his wife, Edith, and strove to create an idyllic life for their six children at their home at Sagamore Hill on Long Island, N.Y. They “were unpretentious, even bourgeois”; T.R. was “a genuine democrat, indifferent to splendor.” Though they were “old money,” they hadn’t much of it. They lived largely on what he could earn by his writing.

Remarkably fit, he loved the outdoors, sports and violent physical activity. He totally lacked inhibition. Woodrow Wilson, his Democratic opponent in the presidential election of 1912, remarked of him affectionately, “He is a great big boy.” The great big boy lived a great big life. Not many American lives justify 600 pages being devoted to only the last 10 years, but with Roosevelt you feel that even 600 pages were insufficient to squeeze in everything noteworthy.

Colonel Roosevelt
breaks roughly into three unequal chunks: 1909-1913, the lead-up to and aftermath of the 1912 election; 1913-14, an astonishing adventure in the Amazon; and 1914-19, the World War I years and Roosevelt’s physical decline.

It opens with Roosevelt’s 1909-10 hunting expedition to Africa after having refused to run for a third term, which he almost certainly would have won. The title of an early chapter, “The Most Famous Man in the World,” sums up his status succinctly.

Disappointed in President William Howard Taft, his vice president and anointed successor, for failure to continue Progressive Republican policies, Roosevelt geared up for a run at the GOP nomination in 1912. Failing in this, despite being the runaway favorite with rank-and-file Republicans, he ran instead as nominee of the newly formed Progressive Party. He lost to Wilson, of course, but only after taking a bullet in the chest from a would-be assassin in Milwaukee.

The Progressive Party run aside, he was essentially a lifelong Republican, though modern Republicans, in today’s tea party environment, probably would not recognize him as one of their own. But Democrats might. He wanted, for instance, workers’ compensation, higher safety and sanitary standards and stricter regulation of most industries. He accused the Supreme Court of favoring big corporations. He quoted with favor Lincoln’s remark, “Labor is the superior of capital.” Wall Street, not surprisingly, considered him little short of a socialist.

The Amazon adventure, an arduous, perilous journey at the age of 55 through the Brazilian jungle and down a largely unknown, entirely unmapped river, is absolutely gripping. Roosevelt came within an ace of losing his life. Candice Millard in The River of Doubt told the story in greater detail several years ago, but the account here stints none of the drama.

The expedition savaged Roosevelt’s health. That did not stop him from stumping for American intervention into World War I and, when the country did enter, trying to get back into uniform himself. He did not succeed, but all four of his sons served and one, Quentin, was killed.

The worldwide outpouring of sorrow upon the news of his death Jan. 6, 1919, was immediate and much of it was genuine. His reputation has fluctuated in the nine decades since, but Morris, after more than 30 years of studying him, thinks that nothing comes closer to the truth than the words of a Long Island schoolboy in 1922: “He was a fulfiller of good intentions.”
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