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Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
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May 07, 12

Read in April, 2012

This is the long-anticipated trilogy completion of Edmund Morris' masterful biography of Theodore Roosevelt. He wrote the first installment, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" in 1979; the story was continued with "Theodore Rex" in 2001.

"Colonel Roosevelt", reflecting the manner in which he preferred to refer to himself, starts when Theodore's life seems to be reaching its fulfillment, at age fifty, in 1909. Roosevelt had just handed the reigns of the United States government to his good friend William Howard Taft. Taft was pledged to continue the progressive Republican agenda the former President had established, involving regulation of businesses and natural resource conservation. Teddy's children were all growing, with the last of the brood preparing to enter Harvard. He and wife Edith were devoted to each other. As events would unfold in the book, Roosevelt was probably the best-known and admired man in the world, with the possible exception of the polar explorers who were in the news at that time.

The book begins with Roosevelt's post-presidential gift to himself, a months-long extravaganza of a safari in Africa accompanied by his son Kermit. Roosevelt had to be mindful by this time of protecting his reputation as a friend of the wilderness, so he had to subsume his passion for killing wildlife under the greater aims of scientific specimen-gathering. Part of this meant that the safari would travel with full-time taxidermists who would field-dress killed animals of every size, from monkeys and birds to lions, elephants and rhinos for shipment to the Smithsonian, while maintaining detailed records of animals and vegetation encountered on the trip. As Morris shows, Teddy alone tarried 296 "items" that he shot and killed, while Kermit almost matched his father with 216 killed animals (p. 26).

The safari extended into 1910. T.R. was joined by his wife at its completion, and she toured the Continent with him. He was treated by the crowned heads and chief executive officers of Europe as the celebrated recent, and very possibly future American president. There was no earthly reason Roosevelt should concern himself with trying to return to power, but he harbored intense ambitions and lust for power, and he was greatly disturbed by reports he received from his old political allies, as early as his stay in Africa, that his successor was allowing the Republican agenda to founder through his weak management of the government. Even after he returned to the United States months later, Roosevelt publicly emphasized his support of the administration, hoping to preserve the Republican party's strength through the mid-term elections. Taft's coattails proved to be elusive and the party lost hugely in the 1910 Congressional elections.

By that time, Roosevelt was a Republican in name only. He had been considering offers of leadership from the more radical, progressive members of his party, including the Pinchot brothers. He established progressivism with a capital "P' in his landmark 1910 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas in which he broke from his party's leadership, deriding the dominance of bosses in politics and dependence on direction from America's corporate elite. He announced his belief in the need for a "square deal." In language that would sound like it came from Mars, to the ears of any current Republican Congressman or Senator (or reactionary Supreme Court Justice), he made the distinction between our Constitutional protections to property and the spirit of "New Nationalism" (p. 109), which fostered a judiciary in favor of individual over property rights. Roosevelt flatly declared that there is no Constitutional right of suffrage granted to any corporation. He favored a law prohibiting the use of corporate funds for any political purpose, and declared that business executives, especially board members, should be legally responsible for any breaches of antitrust law. Where have we gone wrong in the last 100 years?

Other Rooseveltian square dealing included the prioritizing of natural resource conservation second only to national defense, graduated income and inheritance taxes on substantial fortunes, and workmen's compensation acts (p. 108). The public's fondness for seeing Teddy in power again, combined with the fracturing of the Republican party under the stresses induced by progressivism, brought Roosevelt into direct opposition with Taft during the 1912 Republican convention. Taft was able to prevail as the standard-bearer of a greatly weakened party. Teddy agreed to let the Progressives draft him as their standard-bearer in a three-party election which included the Democrats' fresh new face, Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt, the king of monosyllable speech, announced "My hat is in the ring. The fight is on and I am stripped to the buff." (p. 170). Thus, "Hat in the Ring" joined other Rooseveltian phrases as "The Big Stick", "The Strenuous Life", "Malefactors of Great Wealth" and others (p. 170).

My personal favorite Teddyism comes from his disparagement of Taft as a leader in 1911, when he called his successor "a flub dub with a streak of the second-rate and common in him" (p. 145). Take that, Taft!

All three of the party conventions were raucous affairs in 1912, with the Progressive conclave of August adding an aura of a religious revival. Roosevelt gave a two-hour acceptance speech which built on the Osawatomie blueprint and included an espousal of woman suffrage, a nationwide presidential primary system, popular election of senators, full disclosure of campaign funding and the triple progressive holy grail of the initiative, referendum and recall (p. 225). Much concern was directed to the plight of workers cast out of the workplace due to job-related injuries; the insecurities of old age; our country's depleted soils and stripped mountainsides. Minimum wages, workplace (safety) standards, even a system of "social insurance" (p. 226) to provide medical coverage for the poor were advocated.

Wilson of course won the election with a minority of votes against the combined Republican and Progressive totals. Roosevelt hedged on whether he would be available for nomination in 1916, and went home to nurse his wounds while planning a Brazilian river exploration expedition for the following year. Roosevelt's advancing age made the arduous trek through the Amazonian jungle an almost unsurmountable obstacle. He would continue to show depletion of his physical condition for the rest of his life, due to the effects of living an active, strenuous life in defiance of earlier medical warnings to refrain from taxing his Rhuematic-fever damaged heart; the trauma of surviving a 1912 assassination attempt and the effects of continuing to carry the non-removable bullet in his body; and the lingering, worsening effects of malaria, renewed in his trip to Brazil.

Not that Teddy ever planned to stop working as a magazine correspondent, and planning to renew his past Rough Rider glory by leading American soldiers in any foreign threat that occurred. He had a letter of intent placed on file at the War Department to raise and lead an army division since the two Moroccan crises, in which German encroachment on France's Moroccan colony prior to World War I created a potential flash point for hostilities. As the teen years of the new century approached, it was becoming more evident every day that serious trouble was brewing in Europe. One of the great joys of reading this book was following Morris' unraveling detail on the antecedents of World War I, and of the events that weighed on American politics after the German-Austrian Teutonic crackdown on Slavic societies resulted in a Serbian military threat which enveloped the whole world.

Morris provides very interesting detail of the lobbying that influential friends of Roosevelt conducted to get him into the war when America became involved. Wilson and his Secretary of War Newton D. Baker were able to outmaneuver this pressure, and Teddy had to be content to watch his four sons go into uniform, and serve in the worst of the fighting with the American forces in 1918. He would have to endure hearing of the serious battlefield injuries suffered by Theodore Jr. and Archie, but most dreadfully, had to join Edith in facing the loss of their son Quentin after his airplane was shot down. Roosevelt's health had already been declining and the heartache of this last piece of news was devastating.

Roosevelt lived long enough to see the worst war in history end. He had to endure reading the news accounts of how President Wilson, who never heeded Teddy's warnings to engage in military preparedness while the early years of the war raged, was now touring European capitals, drawing unprecedented throngs of admiring Parisions and Londoners. Wilson had wowed his wartime allies with a post-war "Fourteen Points" plan to maintain peace in Europe by employing the rule of law to keep aggressors from starting future wars. Roosevelt saw this as an idealistic farce which would reward powerful nations while leaving ethnic minorities in the dust, while the recent aggressor, Germany, would be accorded equal status with the other world powers.

Theodore Roosevelt became very ill at the end of 1918, and died a few days after the new year of 1919 at age 60. He had become civil, even friendly, to old political allies who had been estranged from him over his progressive third party bid for the presidency. He never stopped condemning Woodrow Wilson, however. While, as Morris points out, both Roosevelt and Wilson professed a belief in a world government based on "democratic imperialism" (p. 564), they viewed the preeminence of the United States on the world stage after World War I in opposite ways. Roosevelt believed in an organized peace keeping force for keeping order in the world, in which armed force could be brought to bear, with the knowledge that the United States would remain as the prime example of world policeman. Wilson saw world peace post-World War I being guaranteed by nations working together through legal means, with the United States, and its leader Wilson, being held in esteem as models of democracy. Wilson got the upper hand by living longer, but this victory would be very short lived. Wilson became very ill and finished his last year in office as a "peevish recluse" (p. 562).

His vision of a post-war Europe had been turned upside down by England's Lloyd George and France's Clemenceau, who wanted the victorious powers to grind the economies of Germany and Austria into the dust. Roosevelt's old political and personal friend Henry Cabot Lodge, and other Republican Senators shot down Wilson's League of Nations treaty, presaging a fall in Wilson's popularity which, as Morris notes, was as precipitous as Napoleon's fall from power. By the time the new decade of the nineteen-twenties started, Republicans were beginning a long domination of the presidency (Morris bluntly attributes Warren Harding's 1920 landslide victory to the voters' memory of the late candidate they would have preferred to place in office again) and Theodore Roosevelt was being lionized by biographers as the greatest president since Washington and Lincoln.

This has been a great biography of a man which I don't think I could ever read enough about. As with most books, or series of books on a subject, which are so well written, it is a joy to devour the pages while being conscious that this particular reading enjoyment will end. Nevertheless, this has been a great three-book adventure.

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