By Edmund Morris
Random House, $35, 800 pages
Reviewed by Claude R. Marx
Theodore Roosevelt - one of the few presidents to captivate people almost a century after his death - embodied the phrase "collection of contradictions." He was, for example, cerebral and athletic, as well as both radical and conservative. Edmund Morris has spent much of his professional career trying to figure out and explain this paradoxical president.
"Colonel Roosevelt," the third part of his three-volume biography of Roosevelt, is a worthy and extremely engaging culmination of Mr. Morris' work. It focuses on TR's post-presidential years, which were highlighted by an ill-fated presidential campaign and a legendary journey down the Amazon River. As in the other volumes, the tone is respectful, but not fawning.
However, Mr. Morris is a better verbal portrait painter and observer of human relations than a political analyst. The book sings when he puts a human face on political interactions, such as his description of Roosevelt's frustration with his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft:
"Actually Roosevelt was struggling, as throughout his life, between the need for power and the consequences of responsibility. It was a struggle he had never been able to wholly resolve: indeed, its contrary tensions held him together. He wanted to destroy Taft, because Taft had failed. He was determined that Taft should succeed because Taft was an extension of himself," Mr. Morris writes.
Roosevelt once described his successor as a "flubdub with a streak of the second rate and common in him, and has not the slightest idea of what is necessary if this country is to make social and industrial progress." TR's frustrations ultimately led him to make an ill-fated third-party run for the presidency in 1912, which did little else but help guarantee the election of New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson.
The Roosevelt platform - which included calls for more business regulation, greater conservation initiatives, lobbying reform and expanded public health - was by far the most progressive of the three parties. Mr. Morris spends a great deal of time discussing the campaign and makes extensive use of primary sources, including correspondence among many now-forgotten political figures of the time period.
His storytelling and descriptive skills are duly in evidence here, and the reader really feels as if he's watching events in person. It is popular history at its best. As in his other volumes, Mr. Morris makes frequent use of Latin and French phrases to make his point. For some writers, this tendency might have come across as intellectually pretentious, but in this case, it doesn't distract from the flow of the narrative.
One weakness of the book is that the analysis of the intellectual and personal tensions between Roosevelt and Wilson isn't as detailed as it could be. Mr. Morris scratches the surface, but doesn't spend enough time on the intellectual origins of their different worldviews. Readers looking for a first-rate account of that complicated relationship would do well to read John Milton Cooper Jr.'s "The Warrior and the Priest."
After losing the election, TR took his famous trip down the Amazon River. Mr. Morris' account conveys much of the drama and the great rewards and personal pain that resulted from the expedition. The book chronicles the highlights well, yet a better description of the historic episode can be found in Patricia O'Toole's "River of Doubt."
Once back in the United States, TR proved a frequent - and outspoken - critic of Wilson, especially on foreign policy. He felt that the president's pacifist views and his reluctance to enter World War I would do irreparable damage to the country. He described Wilson as an "absolutely selfish, cold-blooded and unpatriotic rhetorician." TR loved war and felt that military service was an important way to show both one's masculinity and one's love of country. When the war finally began, TR pleaded with the president to allow him to lead a regiment. The request was denied. All four of TR's sons saw action and his youngest, Quentin, was killed.
Mr. Morris' description of TR's psychological and physical pain is extraordinarily poignant and vivid. He writes, "Roosevelt had little physical resilience anymore. Cuban and Amazonian pathogens were rampant in his system, which had been further battered by erysipelas and a recent attack of ptomaine poisoning. But what made this [Quentin's] loss so devastating was the truth that it conveyed: that death in battle was no more glamorous than a death in an abattoir."
TR himself died in 1919, after a storied, successful and quite controversial life. The description "larger than life," is often overused, but quite apropos in this case. "The Colonel" depicts the final chapter of the TR story eloquently and dramatically.
Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively about history and politics.
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