Teddy Roosevelt’s Last Gallop

21 May

Buy at Amazon!Buy at Amazon! Colonel Roosevelt is the first book I read on a Kindle, and the saddest. I awaited Edmund Morris’ account of TR’s famed third-party – under the “Bull Moose” banner – presidential campaign in 1912. The rest of the tome was an unexpected bonus. It was also quite painful to read as the narrative wound down to its inevitable conclusion.

Morris quips that TR quite literally died of a “broken heart”. Medically, childhood rheumatism, combined with malaria contracted in Cuba, the bullet lodged in his chest from John Schrank’s attempted assassination in 1912, and the complications created by an infected leg wound from his Amazon expedition in 1913, slowed him down until the age of sixty. But, TR also suffered from a deeper malaise, that Morris depicts in this final volume. It begins with TR’s disenchantment with the his chosen successor, President William Howard Taft, as TR carefully observes the foibles of European leaders on the eve of the Great War in 1912 and predicts the looming disaster. Not only is TR defeated both for a Republican nomination and a third party run, but then he has to endure the disappointing spectacle of a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, in the White House, refusing to declare war on Germany and its allies, to save France.

PBDTHRO-CS006.jpg It’s that ideological reproach that is the mostly timely aspect of this installment in the three-volume biography. Morris’ account of TR’s relationship with a cast of progressive rivals and loyal lieutenants becomes rather sordid and serpentine, deeply personal in the worst sense. The force of nature that was TR, in all its affectations, unspools into vituperative attacks requiring ever longer periods of recuperation. Morris’ account loses some of its gravitas in the process, and it’s a missed opportunity, to point out the virtues of TR’s “conservative” progressivism. TR was a realist, not a liberal, like Wilson. His appreciation of a world of nations included both a sober acceptance of the value of power abroad and an ideological critique of social injustice at home. Unless one comes to grips with Rooseveltian realism, one cannot put its “imperialism” and butchery, directly as in The Philippines, or indirectly, as in Japan’s conquest of Korea and Manchuria. And, that reluctance also surrenders the field far too complacently to Wilsonian liberalism and its limitations and failures. The “New Nationalism” looks progressive nationally and conservative in the world, but Wilson’s “New Freedom” is just compromise and interest-group politics clean through. How Roosevelt could have conducted both the United States’ in the Great War and at the peace conferences is a subject ripe for counter-factuals.Theodore_Roosevelt_by_John_Singer_Sargent,_1903.jpg

The bonuses of this volume came in the wake of the downturns. As a fainter facsimile of the locomotive scene propelling Vice President Roosevelt to the capital in the wake of President William McKinley’s assassination in 1901 in the second volume, the Africa safari of 1909 is one long catalog of butchery and bizarre scientific revelry. Who would have known, that giraffe tastes so delicious? Still, the entire expedition was a managerial success, a huge enterprise, involving hired laborers, trains, schedules, research, and inventory on a continental scale. The Amazon expedition of 1913 is similarly stimulating, but more because of the perils. TR’s impending demise is foreshadowed. And, so understated, the 1912 assassination attempt reveals the Roosevelt affectation at its most incredulous. What candidate today could receive a near-mortal wound and deliver a speech for 90 minutes, a reduction in his usual regimen for which TR apologized.

In the quieter moments, the reader sees TR in his intellectual affectation, still as elemental as his man of action pose. The political and scientific opinions are bitterer, but also honest in their naivete and ignorance. No one would mistake TR for a first-rate intellectual, but his sheer output and discipline is awe-inspiring. His quietest moments alone on the porch reveal his poetic talents and sincerity. His wife endures his absences, which TR himself grows to regret. His children struggle to honor and emulate him. Again, how many politicians today would compel his four sons to serve in war, and how many sons would comply so enthusiastically? TR sacrificed a son in the fledgling Army Air Corps, but he never sacrificed his role as father and husband to his ambition.

I would recommend all three volumes of this biography. But, I have to warn readers, that the book acted more on me like an extended eulogy for a “fulfiller of good intentions” and for a republic coming into its imperial flower.

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