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Review: In 'Colonel Roosevelt,' Edmund Morris details Theodore Roosevelt's adventurous post-presidency

Theodore Roosevelt is shown in 1917, two years before his death. “I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know,” he wrote in 1914. A new book covers his 1909 White House departure to his death.

Associated Press/Brown Brothers

Theodore Roosevelt is shown in 1917, two years before his death. “I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know,” he wrote in 1914. A new book covers his 1909 White House departure to his death.

By all accounts, Theodore Roosevelt enjoyed the wildest post-presidency in American history. • Just weeks out of office in 1909, Roosevelt went on an African safari, bagging nearly 300 antelope, lions, rhinos and other big game. In the 10 years remaining to him, TR then ran for a third term, survived an assassination attempt, explored an uncharted river, hiked the Grand Canyon, sent his sons off to World War I and, after an uncanny prediction about his own longevity, died at age 60. • Roosevelt's "strenuous life" has exhausted many a biographer, but Edmund Morris has proved equal to the task. In the 30 years since his Pulitzer-winning classic The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris has seen his own star sink and rise again. He was blasted for making himself a character in his biography of Ronald Reagan, Dutch, but rebounded with Theodore Rex, hailed as the best single volume on TR's presidency.

Now comes Colonel Roosevelt, and readers who enjoyed the first two volumes will dive into this conclusion of Morris' epic trilogy. Few will be disappointed. Applying a scholar's research, a biographer's detail and a novelist's phrasing, Morris again brings Roosevelt to life.

And what a life! "I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know," TR wrote in 1914, just before setting out for the Amazon, from which he barely came back alive.

While Theodore Rex occasionally bogged down in presidential politics, Colonel Roosevelt is nearly as spry and surprising as Morris' first volume. Those who think they know Roosevelt — as trustbuster, GOP stalwart or just "that damned cowboy" — will be stunned by the leftward turn of his post-presidency.

In 1912, when he challenged President William Howard Taft, Roosevelt was attacked for seeking an unprecedented third term. Yet it was his ultraprogressive platform, advocating a minimum wage, female suffrage, campaign finance reform and health care for the poor, that led the press to call him a socialist, a revolutionist and "a virtual traitor to American institutions." When the GOP denied him a candidacy he had earned with a plurality of primary votes, Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket, splitting the Republican vote and putting Woodrow Wilson in the White House. Morris devotes 100 pages to this saga, and it makes our current political dramas seem petty.

Though defeated in 1912, Roosevelt continued to write, speak out and even consider another candidacy. Ever the soldier and former Rough Rider, he also volunteered for a budding war against Mexico in 1915. Yet Morris is at his best when describing Roosevelt's adventures in jungles other than those of war and politics.

Morris' chronicle of TR's disastrous journey through the Amazon is hair-raising. The story of how Roosevelt, shot in the chest in 1912, rose to deliver his campaign speech remains awe-inspiring. Colonel Roosevelt also poignantly describes Roosevelt's later losses, including the death of a son in World War I, and his own death from a pulmonary embolism in 1919.

Morris seems to have read every letter, every memo, every article by or about his subject. Such mastery enables readers to see through Roosevelt's wire-rim glasses as he careens across four continents, down rushing rivers and into the palaces of Europe's crowned heads.

Yet just as Roosevelt saw the world with one eye — a boxing match in the White House blinded his left eye — Morris occasionally suffers from tunnel vision. Colonel Roosevelt is sadly lacking in context. While he sketchily outlines World War I, Morris says nothing about America's tumultuous 1910s, when labor unrest, radicalism, and renegade artists and writers were challenging timeworn certainties. One will look in vain here for Roosevelt contemporaries such as John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford or "Big Bill" Haywood. For Morris, it's all Roosevelt all the time, and although he dominated his time as few figures have before or since, he would have stood out more if silhouetted against a more variegated background.

Fascinated by TR, Morris also falls into the biographer's trap of leaving nothing on the cutting-room floor. Thus he too often recites lists — of TR's current reading, of dinner guests, of forgotten politicos.

But these are minor flaws in an otherwise sprawling and splendid account. While not recommended for the casual reader unfamiliar with Morris' previous volumes, Colonel Roosevelt is a worthy close to a trilogy sure to be regarded as one of the best studies not just of any president, but of any American. Upon Roosevelt's death, the populist editor William Allen White wrote, "The man was gigantic." So, too, is Morris' trilogy, brought to fruition in Colonel Roosevelt.

Colonel Roosevelt

By Edmund Morris

Random House, 766 pages, $35

Review: In 'Colonel Roosevelt,' Edmund Morris details Theodore Roosevelt's adventurous post-presidency

12/25/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:43pm]

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