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A somber finale for Theodore Roosevelt

In the final instalment of an expansive biographical trilogy, Edmund Morris reveals the sad truth about the former US president.

The cover illustration of Edmund Morris's Colonel Roosevelt, the concluding volume to his three-part biography of Theodore Roosevelt, features a rough charcoal sketch of the former president in 1918, a year before his death. He looks stern and palpably sad. His moustache is thick, his mouth heavy, his expression sombre. Yet there is more than seriousness in Roosevelt's face. There is also a deep sense of regret. One understands that this is a defeated man.

Roosevelt was unwell towards the end of his life, and in fact some of the best detective work in this volume concerns the question of which illness he was suffering from. Gout? Malaria? Endocarditis? All the same, his demeanour in the illustration suggests that his pain runs deeper than that. Two of his sons had been wounded in the First World War and one had been killed. Roosevelt had urged them to enlist and pulled strings to ensure they saw combat, so the injuries of Archie and Ted and the death of young Quentin had an extra twist of bitterness. But even that doesn't fully explain the bleak expression he wears in this and most other late-period portraits.

For that complete explanation it is necessary to look back to 1904, when Roosevelt, victorious in that year's presidential election, abruptly announced that "under no circumstances" would he run for president again. This astounding declaration was more bravado than anything else. Having inherited higher office when President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, Roosevelt had liked the grand gesture of adhering to the custom of serving a maximum of two terms.

That custom, like everything else about the young nation, was hardly carved in stone, and Roosevelt was wildly popular as president. Had he run for office in 1908 he would certainly have won. He might even, foreshadowing the feat of his cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt a generation later, have won in 1912 as well.

This is the subtext in every third-act biography of Roosevelt (most especially Patricia O'Toole's excellent 2005 book When Trumpets Call). Morris's assured volume is no different: the look on the Colonel's face in all those late portraits is the one of a man who made a bad decision and then had to live with its consequences for years afterwards. If it's too much to say that all of 20th-century history would have been different if he'd changed his mind, it's certainly not too much to say that the last two decades of his life would have been happier.

As it happened, he bowed out of the race in 1908 with every show of support for his chosen Republican Party successor William Howard Taft, and as soon as he could escape the untimely snowstorm that descended on the capital for Taft's inauguration, he took a steamer for Africa to embark on an epic safari far from the cares of politics.

Morris is the most robust of writers; every sentence of his biographies crackle like poplar knots in the fire, and he rises to the occasion of a Boy's Own adventure in grand style. When Roosevelt goes to Africa, Morris decamps with him, in prose most biographers couldn't match on their least inhibited day:

Blood, nakedness, fleshy festoons, music, noon, and fire, and his mouth full of cardiac meat: after four months he had arrived at the heart of darkness. He is at one with the mightiest of animals, its life juices mingling with his own, at one with all nature, with the primeval past.

Of course, the oneness he most craved was no longer his: another man was making headlines in the White House. Roosevelt eventually ended his safari, represented the United States at the funeral of England's King Edward VII, got an honorary degree from Oxford, and made his way home, where disappointment awaited him.

President Taft was no grandstanding crusader in Roosevelt's mould. When the former president settled himself back home at Oyster Bay, it immediately seemed to him that his old lieutenant had gone soft on the big business "trusts" that had been the subject of his own unremitting attacks while in office.

According to Morris, this disappointment masked a deeper struggle between "desire for power and the ethics of responsibility". He wanted to destroy Taft because Taft had failed. He wanted Taft to succeed because Taft was an extension of himself. President Taft in 1912 declined to see himself as an extension of anybody, and so Roosevelt eventually felt compelled to run as a third party "Bull Moose" ticket, splitting the Republican vote, rupturing his long friendship with Taft, and handing the White House to Woodrow Wilson.

Morris assures us that the Roosevelt of the campaign trail was different to the private man, that "the way he had of charging argument with more passion than it needed, would prevent persons of colder blood from understanding that he was actually a thoughtful man". Despite Morris's best efforts, however, the Roosevelt of that contest doesn't seem particularly thoughtful: he seems crazed, as if making up for lost time. Famously, during this last pursuit of the presidency, he was shot point-blank before a speaking engagement and insisted on giving his talk before getting medical attention.

In the end, all his efforts came to nothing. Morris has no affection for Wilson and little for Taft, whereas his devotion to Roosevelt has been obvious for three long volumes of biography. And yet Colonel Roosevelt is not nearly as biased a book as it appears at first reading.

Perhaps it can't help but be a little partial: the rancorous split between Roosevelt and Taft during the 1912 election has divided the two men's respective biographers ever since. A truly disinterested (bipartisan, as it were) account is something we may have to wait another century to see.

In the meantime, if Morris makes one too many observations about Taft's weight or pretends not to see some of Roosevelt's more conniving moments, that's his privilege as a great, living romantic biographer. The sweep and strength of narrative this partiality permits is the reason to read this book. On page after page, irrespective of subject matter, there are passages of prose that snap with pith.

Morris has forced himself to read everything Roosevelt wrote, for instance, and his verdicts are not always laudatory:

Roosevelt had always excused his habit of saying everything three or thirty-three times with the rationale that it was the only way to drum certain basic truths into the public mind. But America and the World War took repetition to the point of pugilism…

The predominant tone of this concluding volume necessarily flows from that one supremely mistaken decision made in 1904, but there is still heroism, idealism, and greatness. "[T]he shifting sands of historiography seem to have allowed the monolith of Theodore Roosevelt to settle," Morris tells us, and here, at least, he's being modest. If Roosevelt's reputation rests secure in the 21st century (Morris warns us that, "sand being sand," nothing is guaranteed), it does so in large part because of this trilogy - including this sad, valiant conclusion.

 

Steve Donoghue's work has appeared in The Columbia Journal of American Studies, The Historical Novel Review and Kirkus. He is the managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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