Boast­ful and bul­ly­ing to the end

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY FRED KAPLAN

COLONEL ROO­SEVELT By Ed­mund Mor­ris Ran­dom House. 766 pp. $35

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 Bull­Moose 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, whereMor­ris be­gins.

By Au­gust 1914, theWestern 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’mnot 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 neardeath 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.



Theodore Roo­sevelt pos­ing tri­umphantly over a dead lion in Africa in 1909.

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