Colonel Roosevelt

By Edmund Morris

Random House. 766. pp. $35

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Reviewed by Chris Patsilelis


Right in front of me, thirty yards off, there appeared . . . the tawny, galloping form of a big maneless lion. Crack! the Winchester spoke . . . the soft-nosed bullet ploughed forward through his flank . . . but my third bullet went through the spine and forward into his chest. Down he came . . . jaws open . . . lips drawn up in a prodigious snarl. . . . His head sank, and he died.

- Theodore Roosevelt, on safari in British East Africa, 1909

During that safari and seven others, former President Theodore Roosevelt, leading a specimen-hunting expedition for the Smithsonian Institution and fulfilling the obligations of a lucrative publishing contract with Scribner's Magazine, hunted relentlessly.

He shot a bull rhino as it bore down on him, its body skidding "to only thirteen paces away, plowing a long furrow with its horn," writes his biographer Edmund Morris. Coming closer to death than he did in the Spanish-American War in 1898, he killed several elephants too, Morris tells us.

At night, around a flickering campfire, Roosevelt "toasted slices of elephant's heart on a pronged stick . . . and found it delicious. . . ."

Colonel Roosevelt is the third and final volume of Morris' biography of Roosevelt, following The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), which won a Pulitzer Prize, and the best-selling Theodore Rex (2001). Morris is also the author of biographies of Ronald Reagan (Dutch, 1999) and Beethoven (Beethoven: The Universal Composer, 2005).

Roosevelt was president from September 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley, until March 1909. "Colonel Roosevelt," the post-presidential title by which TR preferred to be called because it reminded him of his Spanish-American War days, covers the period between 1909 until his death from severe pulmonary and rheumatoid problems on Jan. 6, 1919.

Those post-White House years, as Morris illustrates, were even more active and exciting than his presidential ones. For after his wildly adventurous 1909-10 series of safaris for the Smithsonian, in which he bagged almost 4,000 mammals, 3,379 birds, and 1,500 reptiles, TR visited the royalty of many of the Middle Eastern countries and virtually all the kings and queens of Europe on his way back to America.

Stopping at Cairo University, Roosevelt called for mutual respect between Islam and Christianity, Morris writes. In Rome he openly exulted that both the mayor of Rome and the prime minister of Italy were Jews. TR could speak four languages; he spoke French and easily hobnobbed with Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph.

He gave a powerful speech at the Sorbonne in Paris alluding to France's low birth rate in 1910 while a highly militaristic Germany threatened the country. TR's rather unsubtle solution was for France to breed more soldiers, Morris tells us.

Roosevelt's European tour ended with the funeral procession of King Edward VII on May 20, 1910. Morris vividly describes the magnificent parade. And there, marching in the morning's pageantry - among monarchs in their brilliant finery, epaulettes, medals, sashes, and swords - was the democratic, tuxedoed figure of Colonel Roosevelt.

On the transatlantic trip to New York City, Morris points out, TR visited the German emigrants on the third-class level and told them "how earnestly he wished . . . that they might find . . . their dreams" when they arrived in America. Many wept; "a girl seized his hand and kissed it," Morris writes. "Others followed by the dozen," kissing the skirts of his coat.

This scene is reminiscent of a previous one in which Morris depicts TR's sympathetic concern for natives in colonial British East Africa. In a speech before a dinner in his honor at the Railway Institute in Nairobi, TR said: "In making this a white man's country, remember that . . . the black man be treated with justice . . . and not pressed downward."

By the time he reached New York on June 18, 1910, TR had become, literally, the most famous man in the world. Hysterical throngs greeted him; "a huge shout went up from the crowd waiting in Battery Park and ran echoing up Broadway."

Much of Colonel Roosevelt is concerned with the labyrinthine political maneuvering surrounding TR's 1912 bid for the presidency at the head of the newly formed Progressive ("Bull Moose") Party. Basically, he believed in the rights of man over the rights of money and property.

On Oct. 14, 1912, TR was shot in the chest by a would-be assassin and, though bleeding, bravely continued with his speech - for 80 minutes! He survived, but it was Democrat Woodrow Wilson who won the White House.

The rest of Morris' fascinating biography is taken up with TR's breathtaking 1914 exploration of Brazil's unexplored 932-mile River of Doubt (renamed Rio Roosevelt), where he again, as in Africa, faced deadly dangers. Snakes, piranhas, jaguars, wild pigs, poisonous frogs, insatiable insects, malaria, yellow fever: All this greeted him as he traveled upriver with the intrepid Brazilian explorer Col. Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon.

Morris goes into TR's extensive literary career (The Winning of the West), his aggressive support of U.S. involvement in World War I, and his unfathomable anguish over his beloved son Quentin's death in that war.

Besides being the definitive biography of TR (along with the two previous volumes), Edmund Morris' capstone Colonel Roosevelt is an engrossing, full-throated drama, keenly revealing the human condition in all its passion and complexity.

Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.