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Constance M. McGovernApril 11, 2011
Colonel Rooseveltby Edmund MorrisRandom House. 784p $35

During the first year after Theodore Roosevelt left the White House, he hunted lions, ate elephant hearts, read dozens of pocket-size books especially packed for his safari, produced 11 installments of his adventures for Scribner’s and generally spent those months “daily risking death in Africa.” Before embarking upon his journey home in June of 1910, this “most famous man in the world” traveled and orated his way through Naples, Rome, Vienna, Budapest and Paris, with side trips to Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany. Representing the Taft administration at the funeral of Edward VII, he accepted an honorary degree from Cambridge and delivered an Oxford lecture critical of British policy in Egypt. Welcomed by a flotilla of ships in New York harbor and a ticker- tape parade of mounted police, Rough Riders, marching bands and thousands of onlookers, Roosevelt promised the crowds in Battery Park that he was “ready and eager” to do his part for his country.

None of Roosevelt’s intensity, pace or audacity would change significantly over the next eight years. Pulitzer prize-winning author Edmund Morris deftly and entertainingly captures it all in Colonel Roosevelt, just as he did in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979) and in Theodore Rex (2001). Any biographer (and there have been many of Roosevelt, even in his lifetime) is fortunate to have such a prolific and colorful subject. Morris, whose earlier volumes have been hailed as “stirring,” “dramatic,” “irresistible” and giving one the “persuasive sense that you, the reader, are there” makes full use of this man whom some called a demagogue and more disruptive than the anarchist Emma Goldman and others revered as “Teddy the loveable.”

Beloved, maligned, respected, feared, Teddy Roosevelt never stopped. Multi-state whistle stop campaigns during which he delivered 10 to 12 speeches a day were routine. So too were lecture tours on behalf of the National Geographic Society or in his role as president of the American Historical Society. He was on the road as well with his sons, in one instance taking part in a Hopi Snake Dance ritual that required Teddy to sit surrounded by undulating rattlesnakes pacified only by the Hopi priests’ soothing feather wands. In 1914 he was off again hunting jaguar, tapir and peccary, this time in the unexplored rivers and rainforests of Brazil. Rain, mud, rapids and “bloodthirsty pium flies” plagued the explorers, yet Roosevelt refused to give up his Gibbon, Sophocles or Goethe and continued to write daily for Scribner’s with gloved hands and head draped in cheesecloth.

His pen was never still. In addition to Scribner’s he wrote for Outlook and Metropolitan. When the Kansas City Star asked for war commentary, Roosevelt whipped off a couple of articles at lunch even before the ink was dry on their agreement. His Naval War of 1812 and Winning of the West had been best sellers. African Game Trails, America and the World and An Autobiography followed suit. Some 18 or more books he wrote in his post-presidential decade alone were less successful financially but typical of this indefatigable writer. Indeed, on the day of his death, he dictated an article on the League of Nations and another supporting women’s suffrage.

His reading habits were no less prolific. He consumed on average a book a day at the pace of two to three pages per minute. His secretary once found him in a railroad car lavatory poring over W. E. H. Lecky’s History of Rationalism in Europe; “he had chosen this peculiar reading room both because the white enamel reflected a brilliant light and he was pretty sure of uninterrupted quiet.” He could converse in three languages, read in four and cite verbatim from virtually anything he had ever read, Arabic text or obscure poetry.

Ever the politician, and despite his growing discontent with William Howard Taft, Roosevelt had stumped for Republican candidates in 1910, courted the new Progressives and bolted his party in 1912, handing the election to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats. Back in the battle by 1914, he became ever more vitriolic, believing one “must shake your fist” at your political enemy and “roar the Gospel of Righteousness in his deaf ear.” When Wilson clung to “armed neutrality” even in the face of the 1917 Zimmerman telegram, Roosevelt called him the “lily-livered skunk in the White House.” As war raged in Europe, he raised thousands of potential volunteers, sent his sons off to a preparedness camp in Plattsburg (and eventually to war) and grew in confidence that more Americans might place their hopes in a man who understood a world where “two oceans were mixing at Panama” and “Zeppelins floating across the English Channel to bomb Londoners” had to be aggressively confronted.

Edmund Morris so vividly captures the fervor and color of Teddy Roosevelt in his final years that the reader sometimes forgets the physical frailty of the man. While he may have been, as the dons of Oxford declared, “the most strenuous of men, most distiniguished of citizens, dominating today’s world scene,” Roosevelt in fact lived with a weakened heart, blindness in one eye, some deafness, frequent bouts of malaria, recurring skin abscesses, attacks of gout, bouts of laryngitis and considerable rheumatism. Not even an assassin’s bullet could stop him, however. Roosevelt, pressing his handkerchief to his chest to stem the bleeding, proceeded to deliver his nearly two-hour speech on labor policy before he consented to any medical care.

On January 6, 1919, the “arc of a great life” ended. This most cultured of American presidents, this largest of personalities, this lover of power, adulation and celebrity died at the age of 60, as he had predicted while a young man at Harvard. He had risen to power as the United States rose to world power, he had busted trusts, he had fashioned the progressive agenda, he had spearheaded the conservation movement and, from his “bully pulpit,” he had launched American imperialism. And he ever remained the conscience and critic of American democracy in action.

And thus, with Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris’s definitive study of Theodore Roosevelt comes to an end. Serendipitously for Morris, as he said in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Roosevelt “spilled his personality out onto every page he wrote.” But Morris is modest. He is a skilled and perceptive biographer. His turn of phrase rises to nearly Rooseveltian heights, his interweaving of the political, personal and literary finally does justice to Roosevelt’s “polygonal” personality, and his command of the sheer volume of sources (Roosevelt wrote over 40 books and boasted of writing 100,000 to 150,000 letters a year) astounds even the inveterate Roosevelt aficionado.

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