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Last Days of the Rough Rider

By (April 1, 2011) No Comment

Colonel Roosevelt

By Edmund Morris
Random House, 2010

In Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt, the third volume of his trilogy biography of Theodore Roosevelt, the Colonel leads a year-long African safari – bagging 4,000 mammals and 3,300 birds – before the end of the prologue. Those who’ve read
the Pulitzer prize-winning Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and its successor Theodore Rex, will
know that this is not merely a biographer’s artifice
of frontloading a good yarn. Morris’ works are ploddingly chronological, and Roosevelt’s big-game hunt on behalf of the Smithsonian just happened to
be the very first thing he did after he left the White House.

Roosevelt’s intention with the African safari was to remove himself from American politics for a while.
He recognized that the cult of personality that had grown up around him was impeding the progress of the Republican party. He thought that his stepping out of the limelight would give his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, some time to advance Roosevelt’s trust-busting, pro-labor, environment-protecting progressive policies, without being overshadowed. While killing nine white rhinos in one day could be called some degree of “success,” the trip failed in its political aims. Taft just didn’t have the creative dynamism or political savvy to follow in TR’s footsteps, and the cult of personality around Roosevelt only grew stronger as newspapers reported on every anecdote of bloody danger and heroism that escaped down the African game trails.

The first third of Colonel Roosevelt deals with the run-up and results of the 1912 presidential election. The matrix of factors that led to Roosevelt’s decision to run for a third term in 1912 was complex and it requires that Morris get deeply wonky. The main obstacle to throwing his hat in the ring was the fact that the Republican party machine was controlled by the sitting president and, by the time Roosevelt finally acquiesced to his supporters’ demands and announced his candidacy, Taft had already secured the support of many of the party faithful. This led to a dramatic showdown at the GOP convention in Chicago, which was dominated by the question of the legitimacy of each candidate’s delegates. The story of the convention is so compelling, I was surprised to find myself asking, “Was I just kept on the edge of my seat by 50 pages of GOP nominational procedures and bylaws?” But the answer is yes, yes I was. Morris sets the scene for the approaching political convention fisticuffs with this opening to his vividly entitled chapter “Armageddon:”

The New York Tribune, a pro-administration paper, put [Roosevelt] ahead of Taft, at 469½ potential delegates to 454. Taft’s vaunted total of 583, or 43 more than necessary for a first-ballot win, presupposed winning virtually all of the seating contests. The New York Times allotted the Colonel only 355 delegates, 85 short of the number needed, and reported that Taft hoped to unseat a further twenty.

But all these calculations were little more than chalk on the blackboard due to be dusted, rewritten, and dusted again when the Republican National Committee began its convention eligibility hearings early in June. Only two figures could not be erased: 1,078, the legal number of seats available to delegates, and 540, the number needed to nominate.”

Dun dun dunnn! It is amazing that Morris can make this political wrangling as engaging as he does, especially when placed in such close proximity to Roosevelt’s day-to-day activities, which are objectively amazing. For example, after failing to secure the GOP nomination, Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party (aka the Bull Moose Party). Two weeks before the election, a deranged man with disconnected political ramblings taped to his apartment wall (think Jared Loughner) walked up to Roosevelt while en route to a campaign speech in Chicago and shot him point blank in the chest. Roosevelt had been on the campaign trail for months at that point and made hundreds of speeches in that period, but if you think a pesky thing like being shot in the chest would cause him to cancel a commitment, you have underestimated your man. “‘You get me to that speech,’ Roosevelt replied, with a savage rasp to his voice.”

Roosevelt took the stage and explained away the bloodstain actively spreading across his white shirt with, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” He then proceeded to read from his bullet-drilled speech for an hour and twenty minutes, all the while becoming progressively paler and weaker. When he finally finished the speech and allowed himself to be taken to the hospital, he requested that two telegrams be sent, one to his wife describing the wound as “trivial,” and one to Seth Bullock, his old friend and sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota (and eventually a character immortalized on the HBO show Deadwood), to let him know that he had been shot with “a thirty-eight on a forty-four frame.” How thoughtful. The bullet remained lodged in his chest for the remaining six-and-a-half years of his life.

There are multiple episodes of the larger-than-life Roosevelt in Colonel Roosevelt, with many entertaining side trips to open eponymous dams or to review the first major exhibit of expressionist art in the United States. However, covering Roosevelt’s final decade ensures that Colonel Roosevelt will never be quite as lovable as Morris’ first two volumes. Roosevelt has come a long ways from his days herding cattle in the Dakotas or charging up San Juan Hill, and many of the stories contained herein are tinged with Teddy’s inevitable physical decline.

Roosevelt lost the presidential election to Woodrow Wilson and, after visiting an extremely unsafe-sounding Snake Dance with the Hopi in the American southwest, Roosevelt decided to escape American politics again by fulfilling another boyhood dream: exploring South America. This is not exploring in the same way that you and I might decide to explore Europe for a summer. In 1914 there were still huge swaths of rainforest that were utterly unknown to the outside world, and Roosevelt set out from Buenos Aires to chart the course of a river rumored to be a tributary to the Amazon’s largest tributary, the Rio da Dúvida, or the River of Doubt. Although I said these stories were becoming tinged with evidence of “inevitable physical decline,” let’s just be clear: he set off at age 56 to chart the River of Doubt through unknown Brazilian rainforest. So far, that’s classic Roosevelt, but even he prefaced the trip with a nod to the passage of time:

“I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know. I have had my full share, and if it is necessary for me to leave my remains in South America, I am quite ready to do so.”

By the time he finished the 1,000 mile hike/canoe ride through the jungle, he could lay claim to having lived enough for at least an additional five to six men. Every imaginable clichéd jungle misfortune befell the expedition: there were hostile natives, killer (literally) rapids, surprise waterfalls, lost canoes, and one murderous traveling companion. Roosevelt himself was taxed to the limit. A cut on his leg became infected and the resulting fevers mingled with a flare-up of his chronic malaria. By the end of the journey, he was in rough shape:

Roosevelt ate little. The malaria had killed his appetite. In addition, dysentery was eroding his body, leading to a gauntness that renewed [his son’s] fears for him. His leg was so angry with what [another American expedition companion] called “oriental ulcers” that he was unable to get any exercise, except when forced to portage – which in turn placed a strain on his heart.

Only one month after Roosevelt’s return and convalescence from Brazil, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. America did not enter World War I for another three years. Roosevelt occupied himself during those years shrilly calling for the U.S. to get its army and navy prepared for any eventuality. The milquetoast Wilson and his pacifist Secretary of State, Williams Jennings Bryan, spent much of that time doing and saying things seemingly designed to infuriate the ex-President. Not only did Wilson refuse to hold Germany accountable for the loss of American lives stemming from their unrestricted submarine warfare, he poured salt in the wounds with off-the-cuff justifications like, “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.”


Roosevelt’s activities during this period were primarily confined to writing editorials on war preparedness for a variety of magazines. Accordingly, most of Morris’ task is to situate those thought pieces into their appropriate context. But he spends so much time analyzing the early developments of World War I and the Wilson administration – and his writing on presidential activities feels so familiar from Theodore Rex – that these sections of the book could be excerpts from an oxymoronically titled Woodrow Rex. Especially when compared to the first two volumes of Morris’ trilogy, Colonel Roosevelt allows its context-setting to extend all the way to a general U.S. history for stretches at a time. For fans of Theodore Roosevelt, offering too much context to his political writings is a faint criticism, but it underscores how little else he was doing in those years. With no campaign to run and needing some time to recover from Brazil, he let his anger at the administration mingle with his own growing sense of uselessness to chilling effect. The following speech was delivered eighteen months after the sinking of the Lusitania, and just after Germany conclusively proved that it planned to ignore Wilson’s latest ultimatum about not torpedoing American citizens:

Mr. Wilson now dwells at [his summer estate] Shadow Lawn. There should be shadows enough at Shadow Lawn: the shadows of men, women, and children who have risen from the ooze of the ocean bottom and from graves in foreign lands; the shadows of the helpless whom Mr. Wilson did not dare to protect lest he might have to face danger; the shadows of babies gasping pitifully as they sank under the waves; the shadows of women outraged and slain by bandits . . .
Those are the shadows proper for Shadow Lawn: the shadows of deeds that were never done; the shadows of lofty words that were followed by no action; the shadows of the tortured dead.

When the U.S. finally declared war on Germany in 1917, Roosevelt became desperate to raise a troop of soldiers to lead under his own command just as he had done in Cuba in 1898. For a variety of reasons, Wilson forbade his political adversary from pursuing this avenue to glory. Roosevelt’s formal appeal to command a regiment of volunteers was probably not helped by an earlier appeal that he be allowed to raise a cavalry regiment (cavalry regiments did exist in World War I, but performed extremely poorly in the teeth of machine gun fire). Wilson’s ostensible reason for the denial was unassailable: the Army was going to be led by professional soldiers and, despite his heroics in Cuba, Roosevelt had spent very little time being a professional soldier. If Wilson had known the Colonel’s true aim, however, his political sensibilities might have won out and granted him a trans-Atlantic ticket:

For a day or two more, Roosevelt hoped that some serious intervention, such as an appeal from the French government, would make Wilson grant his desperate desire. That was nothing less than death in battle: he knew he would not come back. Denied the consummation, he would have to cede it to one or more of his sons. “I don’t care a continental whether they fight in Yankee uniforms or British uniforms or in their undershirts, so long as they’re fighting.”

With Roosevelt’s advancing age, Morris’ claim that Roosevelt hoped to go out in a blaze of glory is reasonable. But the attribution of a deathwish on his sons is decidedly out-of-character, and is contradicted several pages later by some private correspondence between Roosevelt and his ill-fated son Quentin, who was then working in the unbelievably dangerous new Aero Squadron of the Army. “My disappointment at not going myself was down at bottom chiefly reluctance to see you four, in whom my heart was wrapped, exposed to danger while I stayed at home in do-nothing ease and safety.” When Roosevelt received word that Quentin was finally being sent to the front lines, he wrote to him, “My joy for you and pride in you drown my anxiety.” Later, when he heard that Quentin had been in action, he wrote to his wife using his favorite phrase, originally coined to describe his own action on San Juan Hill, “Whatever now befalls Quentin, he has had his crowded hour, and his day of honor and triumph.” It is this, not death, that is the core reason he wanted to see his sons in action. Roosevelt’s own crowded hour was a perpetual wellspring of personal pride he wore on his sleeve his entire life; his pride in that hour was the reason he preferred people call him Colonel instead of Mr. President later in life. Gaining that self-respect was his true goal for his sons.

Not six days later after writing glowingly about Quentin’s action, Quentin was killed in a dogfight. Roosevelt’s official statement to the press on his son’s death sounds honestly grief-stricken, and also acknowledges the potential price that comes with gaining that precious crowded hour: “Quentin’s mother and I are very glad that he got to the Front and had a chance to render some service to his country, and to show the stuff there was in him before his fate befell him.”

When Roosevelt died two months after the end of World War I, it was in his bed at age 60 and of rheumatic heart disease. That seems quite young, until one remembers exactly how fully Roosevelt lived (enough for 15 men, by my and the Colonel’s count). And even then, it seems the world could not have enough Theodore Roosevelt. Just after the armistice was declared, “Messianic as ever, [President Wilson] announced that he would personally represent the United States at a postwar peace conference scheduled to begin in the new year of 1919.” The opinion of statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic was that Roosevelt, if he had been in the peak of health and not bedridden with myriad ailments, would have been the best person to represent the U.S. at Versailles, having personal relationships with all of the key players and diplomats. Wilson would never have allowed any such thing, but Roosevelt’s warning that the nation should prepare for war had been borne out. Roosevelt was right all along, and Wilson’s 1916 campaign slogan that “he kept us out of the war” was now a liability. Roosevelt died at the beginning of 1919, and the election of 1920 carried Warren ‘make no enemies’ Harding into office, a clear repudiation of Wilson’s failure to enter the war soon enough and his poor showing at Versailles. Had Roosevelt been alive and physically able, there is little doubt he would have been swept back into office, sparing us the universally disdained Harding administration. But it’s too much to ask what else the Bull Moose could have done for us. As Edmund Morris’ massive trilogy shows us, Roosevelt’s larger-than-life personality and square deal sense of fairness accomplished tremendous feats of will while he was alive. He would be welcome among us at any time.

Jeffrey Eaton is a fundraiser, amateur photographer, and Open Letters editor-at-large. He lives in Washington, D.C.