Before embarking on a dangerous Brazilian expedition in 1914, Theodore Roosevelt expressed no fear of dying.
“I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know,” he wrote in a letter to Frank Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History. “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.”
No U.S. president ever led a more action-packed life than Roosevelt -- and much of it took place after his 7 1/2 years in the White House following the 1901 assassination of William McKinley.
In “Colonel Roosevelt,” the third and final volume of Edmund Morris’s magnificent biography, Roosevelt spends his post-presidential years shooting lions in Africa, exploring an uncharted river that flows into the Amazon, making a grand tour of Europe, delivering a speech with a bullet in his chest and founding the most successful third party in U.S. history. That’s when he’s not writing books, articles and newspaper editorials, giving speeches or penning letters to his six children.
Morris has completed a biography worthy of its boisterous, inquisitive, peripatetic subject. Like the two previous volumes, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt,” “Colonel Roosevelt” is exhaustively researched and gracefully written.
Bull Moose Party
While Morris clearly admires Roosevelt, he doesn’t hesitate to point out his faults and contradictions. On the domestic front, Roosevelt was a progressive who campaigned for many of the social programs later adopted by his cousin Franklin. In foreign affairs, however, he was a militarist who thought war was the true test of manhood. (All four of his sons fought in World War I; two were wounded and one, Quentin, was killed.)
Roosevelt could be a generous friend and a vicious enemy. William Howard Taft, his hand-picked successor as president, saw both sides. When Roosevelt felt betrayed by Taft’s policies, he criticized the president and formed the Bull Moose Party to challenge his re-election bid in 1912. (Roosevelt finished ahead of Republican Taft, but Democrat Woodrow Wilson beat them both.)
The book opens in 1909 -- less than two months after Roosevelt left the White House -- with his arrival in Africa for a yearlong safari with his son Kermit and a huge entourage. The expedition, funded primarily by steel titan Andrew Carnegie, was designed to bring back exotic animals for display in U.S. museums. Roosevelt succeeded on a grand scale, bagging hundreds of big-game species, including lions, elephants and giraffes.
South America Trip
Roosevelt almost died from an infected leg wound and high fever on his later trip to South America. He also had a close call during the 1912 campaign, when he was shot in Milwaukee by a deranged former saloon-keeper. Undeterred by the bullet, which was slowed by a steel eyeglass case and a folded 50-page speech in his breast pocket, Roosevelt went on to deliver the 90-minute speech before heading to the hospital.
At the time, Roosevelt was considered one of America’s greatest presidents, a status reflected by his inclusion on Mount Rushmore with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. While his reputation has fluctuated over the years, Morris’s biography reminds us why he was once, in the author’s words, “the most famous man in the world.”
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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