Edmund Morris, 2010
Taken together, Edmund Morris's first two books about Theodore Roosevelt present the inspiring story of a man who develops and overcomes some significant personal limitations. For instance, Roosevelt was a sickly boy who worked tirelessly to make himself into an athlete and adventurer. That's not the "overcoming limitations" part. In the process of remaking himself, Roosevelt came to value masculinity above all else, and viewing the willingness to use physical force as masculine, became an unapologetic warmonger. But after personally fighting in the Spanish-American War he had helped to bring about, Roosevelt seemed to have gotten the bloodlust out of his system, and wound up winning the Nobel Peace Prize as president. That's the "overcoming limitations" part. Similarly, Roosevelt came from an aristocratic family and initially argued that measures such as a $2/day minimum wage were dangerous exercises in rewarding failure. He was one of the Republicans' chief attack dogs against William Jennings Bryan, whose populist economic proposals struck Roosevelt as demagoguery catering to envious losers. But after encountering hysterical pushback from the robber barons when he attempted to implement even the slightest check on corporate power, Roosevelt realized that the most dangerous threats to the nation were "malefactors of great wealth", winning Bryan's approval. The last pop-up note in my writeup of Theodore Rex noted that towards the end of his presidency, Roosevelt met with Bryan and deemed him "a wonderful man". "People change," I wrote.
But do they?
Colonel Roosevelt covers the period from the end of Roosevelt's presidency in 1909 to his death ten years later. It falls considerably short of the standard set by its predecessors; a lot of it consists of passages in which Morris will spend twenty pages writing about World War I and then add something to the effect of, "Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt was still alive." It makes sense: Roosevelt was no longer at the center of events, nor even moving toward them, but rather drifting away from them. He also apparently drifted back into being the man he'd been before his epiphanies and transformative experiences — if he'd ever really changed at all. Morris refers to this at one point as "Rooseveltian recidivism". I was surprised to learn about this, because my understanding had always been that Roosevelt's personal trajectory had continued once his presidency was over. After all, in 1912, Roosevelt had run for president again, and come in second, as the standard bearer of the new Progressive Party. But Morris's account suggests that this was not a matter of Roosevelt growing steadily more enlightened as the years passed.
After leaving office, Roosevelt went on safari in Africa and slaughtered over 10,000 exotic animals, then proceeded to Europe, where the fact that he was not technically the leader of the United States at that moment was treated as an odd and not particularly meaningful quirk of the American system (much as Putin was treated during the four years that Medvedev was technically the president of Russia). He returned to the U.S. to find that his handpicked successor, his former war secretary William Howard Taft, was widely viewed as a failure. "I do not know that I have had harder luck than most presidents," Taft explained to Roosevelt, "but I do know that thus far I have succeeded far less than have others. I have been conscientiously trying to carry out your policies but my method of doing so has not worked smoothly." Roosevelt's diagnosis was that Taft was insufficiently masculine: too much of a whiner, not enough of a fighter. Taft was "a flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him," Roosevelt sneered. "He means well, but he means well feebly." Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican nomination, and came very close to sweeping the primaries — but only a few states held primaries in 1912, and party apparatchiks were able to swing the nomination to Taft at the convention. At which point Roosevelt, feeling he'd been cheated, bolted to form the Progressive Party, knowing full well that he had no hope of winning, but intent on getting his revenge on Taft by throwing the election to the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. In this he succeeded. Perhaps Roosevelt would have been less sanguine about this result had he known that Wilson had privately chalked up Roosevelt's crusade to an "insane distemper of egotism."
Roosevelt turned his ire upon Wilson soon enough, though he first undertook an expedition to explore the course of an uncharted river through the Brazilian jungle, and nearly died from the combination of multiple tropical diseases and an overtaxed heart. He had just arrived back home when World War I broke out, and Roosevelt went into conniptions as Wilson and his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, committed themselves to keeping the U.S. out of the war. Roosevelt dedicated much of the rest of his life to getting the U.S. in. "No nation ever amounted to anything if its population was composed of pacifists and poltroons," the Nobel Peace Prize winner thundered, reverting to his rhetoric of two decades earlier. Wilson and Bryan were "weak and timid but shifty creatures" — Wilson a "shifty, adroit, and selfish logothete", Bryan no longer "a wonderful man" but "a professional yodeler" and "a human trombone" — who were supported by "every soft creature, every coward and weakling", in particular "all the male shrieking sisterhood" who chose "to rely upon high-sounding words unbacked by deeds". Roosevelt began to be talked up as a possible Republican nominee in 1916 — not by the progressives this time, but by the conservatives, for Roosevelt's disdain of corporate America melted away when he discovered that the financial and industrial sectors were solidly in favor of intervention. What Roosevelt really wanted to do was to serve as a field commander as he had in Cuba. As he was now in his late 50s and obese, this assignment seemed likely to have only one possible conclusion, but much as he had earlier insisted that "if it is necessary for me to leave my remains in South America, I am quite ready to do so," Roosevelt now seemed positively eager to die in battle in Europe and thereby prove himself a manly man right to the very end. But though he repeatedly petitioned the government for permission to raise and lead an expeditionary force, he was repeatedly denied. Instead, when America finally did enter the war, all four of Roosevelt's sons went overseas to fight. One was killed, two were crippled, and the fourth developed depression and eventually committed suicide. The next year Roosevelt died of heart failure, substantially the same masculinity-obsessed conservative he had been in his youth, as if none of the personal progress he had made in his 40s had ever happened.
Which, again, raises the question of how real that progress had ever been. The year Roosevelt died, one critic argued that the lesson of Roosevelt's later years was that this supposedly progressive president had never really been interested in fighting for social justice. Or, rather, he had been, but it wasn't the social justice he'd been interested in. What he'd been interested in was the fighting. The nation had simply been lucky that it had been the forces of injustice that had made themselves targets by getting in his way.