Review: Colonel Roosevelt

When I read Edmund Morris’s Theodore Rex, I found his treatment of Roosevelt’s presidency and the times surrounding them captivating.  I was happy to pick up where he left off with this final volume of Roosevelt biography.

Morris’s research and writing continue to be exemplary, finding the key facts and recollections that put the reader into the picture with Roosevelt.  It is difficult to imagine a better framing of a historical figure.

If the Roosevelt of Theodore Rex is puzzling collection of mismatched convictions that combine to be greater than their parts, the Roosevelt in Colonel Roosevelt shows how those internal contradictions take their toll.  This is the story of Roosevelt out of power, but not out of influence.  He remains a source of fascination to the country and the world, but with each turning page history seems to get further out in front of him.

History usually passes someone by because they ossify, but that’s not really Roosevelt’s problem.  He remains a source of dynamic shifting motivations.  He’s a man who knows that Presidents should step down before they become addicted to power, but cannot recognize the withdrawal symptoms in himself.  And even that simplifies the situation in that there are elements of a real desire to advance the progressive agenda that his successors are less aggressive in pushing.

Similarly one must respect his connection to the active life and principles of patriotism, but he seems to have no self-awareness of when to apply them.  It’s inspiring and amazing that he helped map a river in the Amazon between the 1912 and 1916 election cycles, putting himself at genuine risk of his life.  In fact, astonishing is probably a better word.  It’s a manly act in the best sense of that word; it’s balanced by how hard he pushes to get his sons fighting in World War I.  He works almost monomaniacly to get them into battle and basically all of them are badly injured or killed.  He’s consistent in that he did the same thing himself in the Spanish American War, but one has to wonder if the kind of fighting in WWI was the same test of individual mettle.

Virtually every major decision TR makes in this book invites the kind of searching questions that I allude to above, and Morris does an excellent job putting the reader into the situation and laying out Roosevelt’s thinking.  It invites thought, discussion, and argument at every turn.

The central character of all this – who is so much larger than life it is difficult to remember that he is not fictional – emerges as a brilliant, flawed, and perhaps tragic figure who shaped our times as much as his own.  He is an amazing individual and Morris’s presentation is everything he deserves.

Strongly recommended.

Comments are closed.