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Edmund Morris: Colonel Roosevelt

Edmund Morris’ three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt is one of the great biographies of the last half-century. He solidifies its position with the final book in the trilogy, Colonel Roosevelt, which follows the man post-presidency, as he struggles to find his place in a world where he’s legitimately the most famous man alive, but has limited power. Though Colonel lacks focus in places, it’s a rewarding end for readers who’ve followed the story so far, and it makes the great man’s death powerfully moving.

Morris’ Roosevelt is torn between his more-than-healthy ego and the public adulation that feeds it and his sense of duty and honor. As such, the book’s first half is its best, as Roosevelt struggles over what to do after his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft, utterly fails as a president. It starts off a bit scattered, as Roosevelt’s world travels bring him into contact with various European powers and principalities (though all that legwork pays off in the book’s back half, when World War I explodes), but once he arrives back on American soil, the book takes off.


Roosevelt pretends he won’t run again for president in 1912, but he clearly doesn’t mean it. Morris nicely portrays the way Roosevelt tries to maneuver to make it seem as though he’s been enlisted by the people, rather than pushed by his own ego to try to right everything Taft has gotten wrong. But it’s evident from moment one that Roosevelt sees himself as the cure for America’s ills. The only thing that gives him hesitation about running is the fact that Taft and the press are eminently aware of this fact, even as they can’t help being charmed by the ex-president.

The build-up to the 1912 election, which split the Republican Party in two and provided for the rise of a renewed Democratic Party, is the book’s best section, as the showdown between Roosevelt and Taft eventually acquires almost apocalyptic traits. The circle of men Roosevelt drew tightly around him in the series’ first two books splinters in the face of Roosevelt’s demands that the party move in a more progressive direction, while Taft aims to simply stay the course and appease the party’s wealthy backers. (Roosevelt isn’t without sin in this regard either, as Morris points out several times.) The two men are drawn so perfectly in opposition to each other that the book can’t help but deflate somewhat once that central conflict is no longer in place. In particular, Morris has very little idea what to do with the eventual victor of the election, Woodrow Wilson, who flits around the edges of the book and is hard to pin down.

While Morris suggests that crisis of the build-up to World War I might have been averted had Roosevelt been the United States’ diplomatic leader, that crisis is a pale copy of the build-up to the 1912 conflagration. Still, it provides a spine for the last few years of Roosevelt’s life. There are other flaws in Colonel—Morris can never figure out how to best portray the fact that Roosevelt was fairly racist, even if he was less so than other men of his time—but the overall effect is a book that fills in all the telling private detail around one of America’s most outsized public lives.

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