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When Theodore Roosevelt left office in 1909 and sailed off to his African safari, his legacy seemed utterly secure. He scored so many triumphs as president that he made the job look easy. That’s why Theodore Rex (2001), the second installment of Edmund Morris’ projected Roosevelt trilogy, was somewhat less satisfying than the first, the Pulitzer-winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979). Rex is the narrative of a successful presidency, which (absent a war) is inherently less dramatic than the story of the person’s climb to power. The good news for Rise fans is that Teddy is about to tumble off the mountaintop. Volume III, at which Morris is hard at work, will cover Roosevelt’s last 10 years, which comprise his decline and fall. Patricia O’Toole skillfully covers the same ground in When Trumpets Call, her absorbing recent study of Roosevelt as a lion in winter. Yet O’Toole, like most Roosevelt biographers, shrinks from doing full justice to the personal tragedy at the heart of her story. Roosevelt, measured against his talent and his opportunity, was in the end an underachiever who missed his chance at top-tier presidential greatness. He knew it, and died unhappy.
The protean Roosevelt touched so many worlds that publishers profitably slice his career into ever-smaller chunks to give us books on TR the Amazon Basin explorer, the New York police commissioner, the Civil Service reformer, etc. (Thus far we have been spared Theodore Roosevelt: Boy Taxidermist, but it’s just a matter of time.) Oddly, this vast outpouring of Rooseveltiana includes relatively few books like O’Toole’s that focus on his fascinating King Lear period. These were the problematic post-White House years, when he split the Republican Party by turning on his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and then split the nation by spewing unseemly (and nearly seditious) venom at Woodrow Wilson throughout World War I.
Posterity soured a bit on Roosevelt in the wake of the Great War, partly due to his intemperate attacks on Wilson, but mostly because the horrors of trench warfare had made his Spanish-American War exploits look like mere comic-opera hijinks. In 1940, when Hermann Hagedorn issued a ringing defense of Roosevelt’s last years ( The Bugle That Woke America), he couldn’t help noting that his hero was slipping toward presidential obscurity: “To most people under forty today, TR is only a name out of the school books, associated with an ailing childhood, the Big Stick, the Rough Riders, and the Panama Canal.” A year later, Broadway audiences were snickering at the antics of Teddy Brewster, the addled character in the hit play Arsenic and Old Lace, who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt and yells “Charge!” every time he runs upstairs. Frank Capra made the play into a popular 1944 movie starring Cary Grant.
Roosevelt’s reputation had sagged further by 1973, when Joseph Gardner produced Departing Glory. Roosevelt’s tragic flaw, according to Gardner, was his ego. The ex-president concluded in 1912 that neither Taft nor Wilson could possibly measure up to himself, and that
the times called for the sort of vigorous leadership only he could provide—or at least Roosevelt convinced himself of these things. And he was not a man accustomed to acknowledging mistakes or changing his mind. Such a rigid attitude, in the final decade of his life, led TR down some devious paths and ultimately proved fatal to any hope of an enduring high reputation. The admired, respected, even loved Theodore Roosevelt had become, over time, the faintly ludicrous Teddy.
In fact, Roosevelt was on the verge of a comeback, propelled by Morris’ Rise and David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback (1981). Three decades after Gardner, O’Toole in When Trumpets Call is more sanguine: “Theodore Roosevelt dared greatly to the last, contending against grief and pain, contending for the fair treatment of all Americans, and contending for a return to power. Great triumph eluded him after the White House, but to say that he failed would be to miss the point of the man.” Exactly so; but not to take the full measure of his disappointment at the end of his life would be to miss the full poignancy of that moment, and to deprive ourselves of an intriguing game of “what if.”
Only 50 when he left the White House after two terms, Roosevelt simply could not remain on the sidelines. In 1912, he tried to unseat Taft. “Had the charismatic Roosevelt received the Republican nomination, he almost surely would have won,” James Chace wrote last year in his book 1912. But when the party’s old guard re-nominated Taft, the impetuous Roosevelt ran as the Progressive Party candidate. The Republicans were generally the dominant party between 1896 and 1932, but they were vulnerable in 1912, and Roosevelt’s defection guaranteed Wilson’s victory. When TR sought to return to the fold in 1916, the still-bitter party leaders nominated the pallid Charles Evans Hughes instead. Even so, Hughes, “the bearded iceberg,” came within a whisker of beating Wilson. Hughes lost California by fewer than 4,000 votes, on a day when TR’s GOP ally Hiram Johnson was winning his California senatorial race by 300,000. Had Roosevelt been on the ballot that day, California would have been his, and with it an Electoral College victory. “This was my year to run,” he said glumly after Wilson’s re-election. “I did not want to run in 1912. Circumstances compelled me to run then. This year it was different.”
In his heart of hearts he knew that hubris, not circumstances, had compelled the 1912 run. What if he had waited until 1916? He could have led a united party to victory on a “preparedness” platform. It would have been Roosevelt, not Wilson, as the hero-president of World War I; Roosevelt shaping the peace terms; Roosevelt the all-around titan of 1918, bestriding the transatlantic world like a colossus. Then he would have died right on cue on the eve of the Paris Peace Conference, preserved like Lincoln in the perfection of his victory. That would have capped a far more astonishing career than the one Roosevelt actually had, impressive as it was. Instead, he died knowing he had overreached and cost himself the extraordinary triumph he saw Wilson enjoying. Plus, after a lifetime extolling the martial virtues, Roosevelt in his last months was further chastened by the knowledge that his youngest son had been killed on the Western front in ardent pursuit of the strenuous life TR preached. Suddenly old at 60, Roosevelt expired in his sleep on Jan. 6, 1919, while Wilson was en route to Versailles.
Roosevelt lived his life with such infectious zest that his admirers (I’m one of them) hate to think of it ending on a down note. That’s why, for example, the official White House Web site ends its online Roosevelt biography with an uplifting comment he made in 1912, rather than with a bittersweet quotation from his final weeks. “While campaigning in Milwaukee,” the bio concludes, “he was shot in the chest by a fanatic. Roosevelt soon recovered, but his words at the time would have been applicable at the time of his death in 1919: ‘No man has had a happier life than I have led; a happier life in every way.’ ” But when he made that statement, he was still contending in the arena. By 1919 he was only a spectator. Worse, he had missed his chance to play a leading role in the greatest conflict of his time.
“No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war,” Roosevelt had famously declared. Alas, he had a point. Washington won the War of Independence. Lincoln directed the armies that preserved the Union. FDR led the nation to victory over Hitler. TR’s charge up San Juan Hill doesn’t quite measure up. Winning the Great War would at least have put him in the running to be considered among the very greatest presidents. The opportunity was in his grasp; he had only himself to blame for having thrown it away. His life, of course, was not a failure, but to Roosevelt himself, at the end, it must have felt that way.