Thursday, October 29, 2015
Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris
To assist Taft's presidency, Roosevelt decided to take a retirement safari in Africa, hunting specimens for the Smithsonian, followed by a whirlwind tour of Europe. The problem, of course, was even in retirement TR was far more of a fascinating figure than Taft, who Morris portrays as a very sleepy and ineffective president. But more on that later. The simple fact of the matter is that Roosevelt made good copy wherever he went, and was almost universally hailed by people in Europe wherever he went. TR also spoke very strongly about the importance of imperialism and the duty of the white man to civilize and enlighten the savage, statements which I found most distressing. Roosevelt certainly had an imperialistic streak, his buildup of the American navy and construction of the Panama Canal are evidence of that, but they seem to come to the fore more than they ever had before during this time in Roosevelt's life. But this should unfortunately be expected by a rich, white man raised in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Upon TR's return to the United States he almost immediately becomes displeased with Taft's policies and although maintaining a political silence for some time he comes out very strongly against Taft's administration. This couples with a growing split within the Republican party between the progressives who seek to expand TR's regulatory and reform initiatives, and the more conservative business wing which seeks to maintain the laissez faire policies of the past. TR, despite his privileged background, sides strongly with the progressives and seeks to keep the Republican party moving forward. Morris depicts Taft as more aligned with the establishment and the business interests. This in turn leads to the dramatic split of the Republican Party in 1912 with Taft's nomination on the Republican ticket, and Roosevelt's nomination on the Progressive ticket.
Morris writes very much from TR's corner and I would call some Morris's accusations against Taft as too much, at one point he goes so far as to describe the president as a hippo. I counter with the fact Taft did not desire the job of president in the first place and was really pushed into it by Roosevelt, his mentor, and his wife, Helen. This of course begs the question why Taft even sought a second term as president, rather than bowing out to his far more popular predecessor who probably could have won with the Republican nomination in 1912. Morris offers no reason beyond perhaps spite and a vague belief that TR shouldn't pursue a third term. Goodwin, by contrast, provides at least a very personal reason for Taft to run, the matter of judicial recall. Morris vaguely touches upon this issue, but does not go into depth how Taft believed in the importance of the courts and feared the potential disaster that overturning judicial decisions could cause, something Roosevelt seemed blithely unaware of. I think Morris is rather unfair to Taft, as was Roosevelt at the time, who lashed out at everyone who "stole" the election from him. It makes TR seem far more unstable and potentially even dangerous.
After his defeat in the 1912 election, TR takes a second trip to explore an unknown river in Brazil. This was the part of the book that dragged the most for me. I'm sure that Roosevelt's accounts of struggling for weeks down an unknown river, unsure that he'd ever make it back to the United States, is all very interesting. But Morris somehow manages to make it more of an ordeal than anything else and he also almost seems bored with this chapter of TR's life. It really just amounts to a lot of getting sick in the rainforest and hauling canoes past rapids so they can continue downriver. And perhaps it's hindsight considering TR almost dies because of this adventure, but considering he was in his fifties when he decided to go explore an uncharted river in Brazil it kind of seems like it was a bad idea. Perhaps it was bravado and lust for adventure on Roosevelt's part, but he was really getting to old for that sort of thing.
After World War I breaks out, Roosevelt becomes probably the loudest voice in favor of American involvement in the war, especially after word of atrocities committed by Germans in Belgium gets out. However Roosevelt's bloodthirsty streak also comes out and for many Americans who see no need to get involved in what amounts to a European family squabble he comes across as a sabre-rattler. And considering a significant portion of the American population, including in my hometown somewhere around fifty percent, claimed German heritage there were many not unsympathetic to the German cause. (Although Woodrow Wilson's neutrality more amounted to Allies-friendly neutrality.) There is a certain irony that Roosevelt seeks for himself a glorious death in battle at the head of a cavalry charge and makes sure that all four of his sons enlist in the military when America finally joins the Allied side, but his extreme grief at the death of his youngest son, Quentin, and considerably less warlike tone after the wounding of his sons Theodore, Jr. and Archie. It seems almost like TR didn't believe that the worst could happen to his sons and was unsure how to respond when it did. However even at the conclusion of hostilities in late 1918 TR still advocated strong military assets to protect American interests.
Overall, this book seems to be about a man in decline. TR is certainly past his prime by this point, his health fails with repeated bouts of malaria he originally caught from his time in Cuba. After being president of the United States it's hard to find a career after that, and TR is no individual to stay still and enjoy his golden years. Unfortunately it comes across like an old man desperately trying to grasp at his youth long gone. While there are some good parts of TR, I feel like more of the bad came out in his later years as well.