- A Remarkable Retirement:Theodore Roosevelt's Post-Presidential Decade
Edmund Morris has spent nearly half his life and the majority of his career devoted to Theodore Roosevelt, beginning with the Pulitzer Prize-winning first installment of a trilogy devoted to the former president, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), continuing with Theodore Rex (2001), a chronicle of Roosevelt's presidency, and concluding with the recently published Colonel Roosevelt, which examines the last decade of his life, a period when Roosevelt preferred the honorary "Colonel." Given the common tendency of biographies to ebb and flow in excitement with the trajectory of the subject's life, the success of Rise speaks both to Morris's extreme talent and the incomparable complexity of Roosevelt's life. In concluding the trilogy, Morris delivers a similarly compelling work, gracefully unraveling an action-packed narrative while evoking Roosevelt's oversized character.
While less talented biographers might be tempted to skip over the less dramatic details of their subjects' lives, Morris seizes on these (albeit few) moments to convey what one can only imagine was an excruciating descent into old age for Roosevelt, a man who demonstrated unparalleled skills as president in an eight-year period that, while formative, only foreshadowed the grave decade to come, when Roosevelt felt an even stronger call to public service. How could a man like this, one so universally respected even by his worst enemies, sit on the sidelines without crippling angst? Morris shows how Roosevelt's manic adventures abroad and his prolific writing career helped fill this void after he left office, and in the process illuminates the great struggle in Roosevelt's spirit until his death.
Beginning shortly after the end of his presidency in April 1909, Colonel Roosevelt devotes nearly its first hundred pages to Roosevelt's thrilling African safari and subsequent European tour, which was sponsored by the Smithsonian Museum and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. For the Smithsonian, the naturalist Roosevelt would collect a large variety of samples of African wildlife [End Page 137] and fauna. Carnegie had more abstract goals for the European tour's major speeches in Paris, Berlin, and London, at which Carnegie hoped statesman Roosevelt would strongly endorse the cause of world peace.1 A third sponsor, Charles Scribner's Sons had commissioned the writer Roosevelt to chronicle his safari, to be published first as a series of articles in Scribner's Magazine. As Morris skillfully paints a vivid picture of Roosevelt's developing adventure, he reintroduces readers to Roosevelt the man of many talents, and the rest of his days would indeed be spent moving between the professions of naturalist, politician, and writer.
Morris's account of Roosevelt's tour of the European capitals demonstrates the unique status of Roosevelt the ex-president: "Evidently he was to be treated everywhere as if he were a head of state." As Morris quotes one correspondent, "[w]hen he appears, the windows shake for three miles around. . . . He has the gift, nay the genius of being sensational."2 Capitalizing on rapt audiences, Roosevelt spoke with confidence, warning the French of the dangers of pacifism, the Germans of shortsighted racial phobias, the British of half-hearted colonialism, in each case driving to the very heart of national anxieties (and foreshadowing the coming Great War). When England's King Edward VII died during the trip, Roosevelt even served as Special Ambassador of the United States to the royal funeral, or as he jokingly calls it, "a wake at Buckingham Palace!"3 Europe would arguably not embrace an unofficial U.S. statesman so excitedly for another century, when then-candidate Barack Obama drew 100,000 Germans for a major campaign speech in Berlin in 2008.
While Colonel Roosevelt begins with the great momentum of Roosevelt's post-presidential year, return to the United States brings its subject back into the domestic spotlight and the incessant political dabbling that would characterize the rest of his life. Morris's account is painful at times, rehashing old anxieties and dilemmas ever-present in Roosevelt's post-presidency career: a desire to serve, an intolerance for...