We have become accustom to former presidents writing their memoirs, establishing the presidential library and undertaking a good cause here and there. That’s what ex-presidents do.
Jimmy Carter has led an exemplary post-presidential life and has, with single-minded determination, come close to eradicating a deadly disease in Africa. Bill Clinton’s Foundation has focused on AIDS and third-world development with considerable success. George W. Bush is still settling into the post-White House role and reportedly his recent book has become a best-seller on, of all places, college campuses.
As impressive as they have been, none of these recent ex-presidents come anywhere close to matching the life Theodore Roosevelt lived from 1909 to 1919. He packed a near lifetime of activity, scholarship, authorship and politics – including his own and many other campaigns – into the ten years after he left the White House.
This amazing Roosevelt history is superbly recounted in Edmund Morris’s new biography – The Colonel. The volume is the third in Morris’s life of T.R. and it will doubtless stand for a long, long time as the authoritative source on the larger-than-life personality who in his time was called “the most famous man in the world.”
One things our recent ex-presidents are loath to do is criticize their successors. Clinton and Bush 43 have been particularly careful – we can excuse Clinton’s role in stumping for his wife – not to mix their former status with current politics. Teddy had no such reservations. He literally sought every opportunity to bash his own hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and the man who wrenched the progressive label from him Woodrow Wilson.
Yet even without his deep and prolonged forays into partisan politics post-White House, Roosevelt would have been a world celebrity on the order of, say, Bono or Michael Jackson. The guy was a rock star before we had rock stars. He seemed to know everyone and write about everything.
The press of the day covered his African safari, his European tour, complete with marching in the funeral procession of England’s Edward VII, his near-death expedition into the Amazon jungle and, of course, his 1912 run for the presidency that included Roosevelt being shot in Milwaukee. Were this life a novel, it simply would not be believable.
We have certainly had supremely accomplished presidents since Theodore Roosevelt. Wilson earned a PhD, served as a university president and was a fine writer before the presidency. Herbert Hoover was a world-class engineer who also wrote well. John Kennedy won, with a little help from Ted Sorensen, the Pulitzer Prize. None could touch the breadth and depth of Roosevelt’s writing – books, hundreds of magazine pieces, essays, speeches and letters, thousand and thousands of letters.
This is a great book about a great man and, a little prediction, Morris will win another Pulitzer for producing what, as the New York Times said, “deserves to stand as the definitive study of its restless, mutable, ever-boyish, erudite and tirelessly energetic subject.”
In the end, as with much great literature, T.R. story is tragedy. Roosevelt’s enless agitating for American involvement in World War I served, in Morris’s telling, to glorify the tragic, wasteful, useless war that came to define the 20th Century. The senseless slaughter – only later did Roosevelt come to realize that war is not glory – also cost the life of the youngest Roosevelt, Quentin, who died flying over German lines in 1918.
Quentin’s father, worn out and dispirited, died the next year. Theodore Roosevelt was only 60; the youngest man to ever serve as president and still and forever one of the greatest.