I have now journeyed with Theodore Roosevelt through two thousand, four hundred and eight pages in three volumes of Edmund Morris’ great masterpiece. The third volume is no less extraordinary than the first two, and in some respects deals with the most complex and difficult part of Roosevelt’s career. He did not adjust well to loosing a job he liked exceedingly well, and very quickly came to regret having followed the two-term tradition and so given up a third term which would have been his for the asking.
After briefly enjoying respite from the cares of office on an African safari with his son Kermit, he found himself increasingly frustrated over what he perceived to be the presidential ineptitude of the man he had handpicked for his successor, William Howard Taft. And when the GOP under Taft’s leadership lost the midterm elections of 1910, Roosevelt’s emberous desire to return to power was stoked to furnace-flame.
He would never have expressed the idea, in as many words, that he was the one and only man who could lead the nation, but it is clear that that is what he had come to think. And this is a very dangerous conceit for any man, even – or especially – for the greatest and most naturally gifted leaders. By 1911 he had become openly hostile to Taft and actively campaigned against him for the nomination. The 1912 Convention was rancorous even by today’s standards (barbed wire was strung over bunting to keep insurgent Republicans from rushing the stage). The final count was for Taft. Roosevelt believed the nomination had been stolen from him. In fact, while there was plenty of thievery and horsetrading among the various delegations, it was practiced by both sides fairly evenly. There is no doubt that Roosevelt had antagonized too many former supporters with his radical rhetoric to overcome the additional impediment of unseating a current President.
Roosevelt’s subsequent acceptance of a third-party nomination (officially the “Progressive Party,” popularly the “Bull-Moose Party”) did incalculable damage, giving the presidency to the academic Woodrow Wilson, who otherwise would have stood no chance of election. (Wilson was similar in temperament, outlook and effect to the eventual Neville Chamberlain. I recently heard George Will describe Wilson as the man who “ruined the twentieth century” and Roosevelt’s opinion of him was no higher.)
It is a shame that Roosevelt’s health and life did not hold out for the campaign of 1920, by which time, with the coming of war and the death of his beloved youngest son Quentin in air combat in France, his megalomaniacal tendencies were subsided. The end of his life was infused with a new maturity which would likely have made him a great president again. When I reached the end of the last chapter, I felt as though I were saying goodbye to a friend; this is certainly presumptuous on my part, but it is a testament to Morris’ achievement in biography, and to a man who, with his faults, was a great American, a great president, and one of the most remarkable personalities of modern history.
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8/10
Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. Random House, New York, 2010. 766 pages.