Had TR won his historic "Bull Moose" campaign in 1912 (when he outpolled the sitting president, William Howard Taft), he might have averted World War I, so great was his international influence. Had he not died in 1919, at the early age of sixty, he would unquestionably have been reelected to a third term in the White House and completed the work he began in 1901 of establishing the United States as a model democracy, militarily strong and socially just.
This biography by Edmund Morris, the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, is itself the completion of a trilogy sure to stand as definitive. Packed with more adventure, variety, drama, humor, and tragedy than a big novel, yet documented down to the smallest fact, it recounts the last decade of perhaps the most amazing life in American history. What other president has written forty books, hunted lions, founded a third political party, survived an assassin's bullet, and explored an unknown river longer than the Rhine?
Colonel Roosevelt begins with a prologue recounting what TR called his "journey into the Pleistocene"--a yearlong safari through East Africa, collecting specimens for the Smithsonian. Some readers will be repulsed by TR's bloodlust, which this book does not prettify, yet there can be no denying that the Colonel passionately loved and understood every living thing that came his way: The text is rich in quotations from his marvelous nature writing.
Although TR intended to remain out of politics when he returned home in 1910, a fateful decision that spring drew him back into public life. By the end of the summer, in his famous "New Nationalism" speech, he was the guiding spirit of the Progressive movement, which inspired much of the social agenda of the future New Deal. (TR's fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt acknowledged that debt, adding that the Colonel "was the greatest man I ever knew.")
Then follows a detailed account of TR's reluctant yet almost successful campaign for the White House in 1912. But unlike other biographers, Edmund Morris does not treat TR mainly as a politician. This volume gives as much consideration to TR's literary achievements and epic expedition to Brazil in 1913-1914 as to his fatherhood of six astonishingly different children, his spiritual and aesthetic beliefs, and his eager embrace of other cultures--from Arab and Magyar to German and American Indian. It is impossible to read Colonel Roosevelt and not be awed by the man's universality. The Colonel himself remarked, "I have enjoyed life as much as any nine men I know."
Morris does not hesitate, however, to show how pathologically TR turned upon those who inherited the power he craved--the hapless Taft, the adroit Woodrow Wilson. When Wilson declined to bring the United States into World War I in 1915 and 1916, the Colonel blasted him with some of the worst abuse ever uttered by a former chief executive. Yet even Wilson had to admit that behind the Rooseveltian will to rule lay a winning idealism and decency. "He is just like a big boy--there is a sweetness about him that you can't resist." That makes the story of TR's last year, when the "boy" in him died, all the sadder in the telling: the conclusion of a life of Aristotelian grandeur.
A "bully" look at a popular president's last decade
Theodore Roosevelt said, with good reason, “I have enjoyed life as much as any nine men I know.” When he died in 1919, he was only 60 years old and probably could have been elected again to the presidency. In the superb Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris guides readers through the last 10 years of TR’s life—a period that was packed with as many challenges and adventures as he had known earlier.
It was during this time that TR traveled on an African safari to pursue his interests as an amateur zoologist and headed an expedition to South America, where he wanted “to be the first to go down the unknown river,” a tributary of the Amazon. He almost died in the process. His gifts as a writer and his stature as perhaps the best-known man in the world enabled Roosevelt to become a popular magazine and newspaper essayist and best-selling author; he was much in demand as a public speaker, and he founded the Progressive Party, which garnered more votes for him than for the incumbent president in 1912.
Morris shows that TR struggled throughout his life to balance the need for power and the consequences of responsibility. Like others of his privileged class with a social conscience, TR believed that he empathized with the poor. “He was democratic in a detached, affable way,” Morris says, but he had little prolonged contact with those who had not known the perks of money and social status.
The book includes much detailed and fascinating narrative about TR’s political exploits as ex-president and as an experienced world statesman. But much attention is also given to other aspects of his life, such as his relationship with his wife, Edith, and his six quite distinctive children. His literary life is explored in detail, including the writing of his autobiography, which is shown to have serious omissions. Morris also includes a vivid account of the assassination attempt on his life, when, despite bleeding and a bullet in his chest, TR spoke to a public gathering for over an hour before going for medical attention.
Morris’ The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt received the Pulitzer Prize in 1980, and his Theodore Rex, published in 2001, was widely praised; however, it is certainly not necessary to have read those first two volumes in order to enjoy Colonel Roosevelt. One of TR’s favorite adjectives was “masterful”—a word that well describes this book.