His slogan was "Speak softly and carry a big stick," but Theodore Roosevelt is now remembered mostly for the stick and almost not at all for any softness of speech. And yet it is in his quieter moments that the former president emerges in the last volume of Edmund Morris' TR trilogy, Colonel Roosevelt (Random House, 766 pages, $35), as a figure of towering intellect, perhaps the closest thing the United States ever had to a Winston Churchill. Both men were well read in the classics, authored shelves of books on history and other subjects, and harbored a lifelong warrior instinct that left unchecked could lead to triumph or disaster.
Colonel Roosevelt picks up right after TR leaves the White House in 1909 and embarks on a yearlong safari in East Africa. Morris recounts the expedition in a ripping prologue written in present tense before shifting to past tense, as if to warn readers of the long slog ahead, as the ex-president begins his celebrity tour of Europe in 1910.
Morris' only weakness is his tendency to fall for Roosevelt's own self-propaganda. The author accepts at face value, for instance, Roosevelt's repeated accounts of his receptions by European royalty as an exhausting ordeal when, in fact, a former statesman of his outsize personality probably relished every minute. Likewise, Teddy is portrayed as the reluctant politician drafted into running again for president in 1912, a pose Roosevelt himself cultivated in all his correspondence when, if truth be told, he had always regretted not running in 1908 and no doubt welcomed the chance to rectify the biggest mistake of his political life.
Colonel Roosevelt also reminds us there was once a time when the words "progressive" and "Republican" could be used in the same sentence with a straight face, although it resulted in a GOP schism that would put only the second Democrat in the White House since the Civil War. And yet Morris presents Roosevelt as a politician of staggering contradictions—a hawk whose militaristic views would make Dick Cheney blush but a progressive reformer such as Obama Democrats' dreams are made of.
Roosevelt was still a young man when he left the White House, the youngest in fact to serve two terms. But he had only a decade to live—10 years that Morris reminds us were packed with a bitterly contested second run at the White House, a failed assassination attempt that left a bullet in his chest, a near-lethal expedition through the Brazilian wilderness, two libel suits for which Roosevelt served as the plaintiff and the defendant, respectively, and a world war the onetime Rough Rider had long seen coming but was, in the event, powerless to influence.
Colonel Roosevelt cements Morris' reputation as Roosevelt's premier biographer, but his best writing traces how the 26th president's ideas earned him a place on Mount Rushmore as surely as his actions.
Edmund Morris appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 226-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Dec. 9. Free.