The Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt

Article excerpt

The Legacy of Theodore Roosevelt Colonel Roosevelt. Edmund Morris. Random House. 784 pages; black-and-white photographs; index; $35.

Theodore Roosevelt is a man difficult to categorize. There is the Mount Rushmore version, set in granite alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, where he seems out of place; the cartoonists' caricature of pince-nez, moustache and toothy grin; the man behind the Great White Fleet, the Panama Canal, speaking softly and carrying a big stick; and, recently, the silly version found in those "Night at the Museum" films. Even "colonel," his preferred honorific from the Spanish- American War, seems risible. But Edmund Morris, his longtime biographer, corrects the stereotypes and misconceptions most Americans have about this most complex of Presidents in Colonel Roosevelt. In this third and final volume of his biography, he accounts for the short decade of Roosevelt's life after he left office, from 1909-1919. By the end, most readers will agree with Morris that Roosevelt deserves a larger space in our national consciousness.

Roosevelt left office as a relatively young man, only 50, and immediately embarked on a months-long African safari, where he collected specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History. This trip ended in Europe, where he spoke to learned societies in public and to political figures in private. These two worlds, the scholarly and the political, become the twin stages of his life until his death shortly after the 1918 armistice.

The jingoistic caricature crowds out Roosevelt's scholarly side - his many books and articles, his wide academic interests. One small incident stands out as a corrective: on a stop in Cairo, he spent a day at the Al-Azhar Mosque's library, looking at manuscripts of an Arab writer whom he had only read before in translation, and left with a Quran, the first ever given to a non-Muslim by the mosque.

Upon Roosevelt's return to the United States, however, he became as much a politician as he had ever been, dissatisfied with his chosen successor President William Howard Taft's management of his legacy - including restrictions on business trusts, tariff reduction and progressive labor law-and perhaps most of all, dissatisfied with Taft as a man.

This disaffection, coupled with the extraordinary public popularity he retained, led him to break away from the Republican party and form his own Progressive ("Bull Moose") party, challenging Taft in the 1912 election. Alas for Roosevelt, he lost; the split among Republicans led to the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt did not like Wilson, who apparently reciprocated.

This electoral loss freed Roosevelt to pursue once again his zest for exploration, traveling to South America in late 1913, where he spent months exploring the River of Doubt in the Amazon basin. This trip almost killed him, and it certainly affected his health for the rest of his life. Morris renders this expedition in minute detail, highlighting its difficulties to the point where the reader truly comprehends the exhaustion of Roosevelt and his companions. …