- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005


By Patricia O’Toole

Simon and Schuster, $30, 494 pages


At some point after Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 defeat H.L. Mencken came up with a novel idea for constitutional reform. Claiming to have the Bull Mooser on his oft-jaundiced mind, Mencken proposed the following ceremony. On inauguration day the defeated presidential candidate should be escorted to the top of the Washington Monument. There he would be promptly put out of his misery with the “carcass” then tossed into the Potomac (thereby sparing the country the public aftershocks of that misery).

As it was, TR did not live all that long following his losing Bull Moose campaign of 1912. Barely 60 when he died in early 1919, the advocate of the “strenuous life” had not quite a decade of self-appointed service as an ex-president. That may have been much too much for Mencken, but it was some 10 years. It was certainly more than enough for most lifetimes, not to mention plenty for this near-biography.

Patricia O’Toole may or may not share Mencken’s sentiments, but she has every reason to be thankful that her subject survived just about as long as he did — and probably not much longer. TR, wherever he is, might well agree. After all, as late as late 1918 this ex-president was contemplating yet another presidential run in 1920. One more run and yet another defeat might well have been too much for his reputation and the country to endure.

With or without that run, Roosevelt had an ex-presidency unlike any other in our history. And Patricia O’Toole manages just the right touch in chronicling it. At times amazed and at other moments horrified, she is always respectful of her not always respectable subject. She also knows Theodore Roosevelt very well. In fact, she probably knows him better than he knew himself. As such, she is not only able to capture his moods (whether of frustration or anger or exhilaration or all three at once), but she also seems to know just when to admonish him and just how to praise him. In sum, she is the mother that TR always seemed to need.

Roosevelt’s great friend (and best man at his second wedding) British Ambassador Cecil Spring Rice once said (no doubt out of his own frustration) that one always needed to remember that the “president is about six.” Though it hardly seems possible, ex-president Roosevelt only got younger as he got older. Forever careless about money, he was largely clueless about what others thought of him. Always ready for the next adventure, the ever impulsive TR never overcame his childlike (childish?) need to be the center at attention. He also was seldom able to leave well enough alone. The same might be said about a current ex-president. Jimmy Carter is still trying to create a post-presidential “bully pulpit” in his still vain attempt to make the country forget about his failed presidency.

Teddy Roosevelt had no similar need. In the first place, his presidency was not a failure. Secondly, the bully pulpit was his without really trying. Finally, he used that platform to assert American power, rather than complain about it. The two men did have at least one thing in common. Each won the Nobel Peace prize. But even here there is a telling difference. Mr. Carter lusted after this “honor;” TR was embarrassed by it.

Ms. O’Toole, to be sure, has confined her story to Roosevelt alone. But his last years compel us to think about the varying roles that ex-presidents have chosen to play in our national life. In TR’s case his initial act was to get out of the way so as to yield the stage to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. That decision took him all the way to Africa and a near year long safari of near biblical proportions. It also provided Ms. O’Toole with wonderful material for what has to be the best chapter in a very fine book. TR in Africa and later TR in Brazil (“it was my last chance to be a boy again”) make for marvelous reading. If the African adventure was exhilarating, its Brazilian counterpart harrowing, so harrowing in fact that it nearly killed TR and no doubt helped send him to an early grave.

But the really harrowing part of Ms. O’Toole’s story finds TR back on the American campaign trail stalking game big and small. Here Mr. Carter has one-upped Roosevelt, if only because the man who cannot resist offering himself to the world has at least had the good sense not to offer himself to American voters. So why was TR unable to leave well enough alone? Part of the answer is that Roosevelt continued to march leftward as his party drifted rightward. Most of us grow more conservative as we grow older, but not TR — and especially not when he was out of power and increasingly frustrated with judges who were gutting progressive reforms.

Another part of the answer is traceable to Roosevelt’s finely honed sense of betrayal. By 1912 the biggest game in his sites was President Taft, who (in TR’s mind) had betrayed his progressive movement. In truth, Taft had been poor presidential material all along, and no one should have realized this more than Theodore Roosevelt.

The larger truth of the matter here is that TR was a poor judge of political talent, whether the politician in question was a friend or an enemy — or himself. The man who understood so much about his country and the world never really understood himself, especially his need to hold and wield power. Anything but a simply cerebral fellow, TR was also capable of great loves. For example, he loved his country and his family dearly, though one suspects that he loved himself most of all.

When Roosevelt held power he put that knowledge and that love to good use. More than that, while president Roosevelt was generally able to keep the child in him in check. The result was a generally successful, if less than exhilarating, presidency. Once released from power, the child in Roosevelt was unleashed. The result was a genuine American tragedy, a tragedy cushioned by his long-suffering second wife. Still, Edith Carow Roosevelt (who also served as his surrogate mother) was seldom able to rein her husband in — or save him from himself — or convince him to leave well enough alone.

If only TR had stayed out of the 1912 race, perhaps the Republican party might have returned to him in 1916. If so, perhaps he might have defeated Woodrow Wilson. And if so, the country probably would have been in World War I sooner, and the GOP would surely have moved sharply to the left. But such was not to be.

Once the country was at war, “Colonel” Roosevelt sought to recapture his Rough Rider days by pleading with President Wilson to permit him to organize a volunteer regiment.

And once again he was rebuffed. Confined to the homefront, he had to be content with sending each of his four sons off to serve. Two were seriously wounded, and his youngest, Quentin, was killed. In the few months that remained to him, guilt and sorrow replaced frustration and anger as the driving forces of Roosevelt’s life.

Tragedy can make for a great story, and Patricia O’Toole has treated us to just that. It is the sometimes story of an aging child, who was reduced to watching his own boys become men under fire. It is the stirring story of a not yet old man, who could not help but respond when the “trumpets call.” Finally, it is the ever-striking story of that portion of Roosevelt’s life that Mr. Mencken unlovingly sought to spare him from living — and his countrymen from experiencing. Thanks to Patricia O’Toole, we can experience that life anew, even as we wonder what exactly should be done with — and to — our former presidents.

John C. “Chuck” Chalberg performs a one-man show as Theodore Roosevelt. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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