Rough Rider redux
Teddy Roosevelt tried to recapture power and glory in the years after his popular presidency.
Theodore Roosevelt completely dominated American politics during the 7-1/2 years that he served as the nation's 26th president. He was just 50 years old and very healthy at the end of his second term, but he honored the longstanding precedent and declined to run again. Instead, he used his great popularity to ensure that his friend William Howard Taft succeeded him.
Roosevelt's presidency, his accomplishments, and his larger-than-life personality have been thoroughly analyzed by historians and political scientists. With the exception of his 1912 campaign, however, few writers have examined the last years of his life in much detail. That historical gap has now been filled. In "When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House," Patricia O'Toole has focused entirely on his life after he left the presidency. In doing so, she adds greatly to our understanding of Theodore Roosevelt's character, values, and his legacy.
After Taft's inauguration, Roosevelt headed to Africa for a year-long safari. He hoped to disappear from public life and, at the same time, to advance science by collecting animal specimens.
When he emerged from the bush, Roosevelt soon learned that President Taft was aligning himself with the conservative wing of the Republican Party and undermining the progressive causes that were at the heart of Roosevelt's political vision. He soon adopted a policy of "neutrality" toward Taft, an approach that O'Toole labels a "veiled insult.... Withholding support from his chosen successor was tantamount to attacking him."
The rift between the two widened as the 1912 election approached. Roosevelt challenged Taft for the Republican nomination, and he was the choice of the party's rank and file. But in those days, political bosses picked the candidates behind closed doors, and their allegiance lay with Taft. When the smoke cleared at the convention, Taft had been nominated. Roosevelt and his supporters claimed - wrongly, asserts O'Toole - that the nomination had been stolen, and he bolted from the party.
A few weeks later, the newly formed National Progressive Party picked Roosevelt as its standard bearer. His acceptance speech conveys the messianic fervor that Roosevelt and the Progressive Party brought to the political world. "We stand at Armageddon," thundered Roosevelt, "and we battle for the Lord."
But Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, and both men were crushed in the fall election. Wilson garnered 435 electoral votes while Roosevelt won 88. Taft carried just two states with eight votes.
Roosevelt soon decided that Wilson was not much better than Taft. He was unhappy with Wilson's neutrality toward World War I and quickly became the administration's most outspoken critic. He quietly lobbied Republican friends in hopes of getting the Republican presidential nomination in 1916, but he'd burned far too many bridges. The Republicans went with former New York Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, who lost to Wilson in an extremely close election.
Once the United States entered World War I, Roosevelt personally asked Wilson for permission to raise two divisions of volunteers. Wilson, after years of withering criticism from Roosevelt, declined the request, claiming that the American forces would all be drawn from the regular Army. "This is a very exclusive war," said Roosevelt, "and I have been blackballed by the committee on admissions."
But all four of his sons saw action. Two were seriously wounded and the youngest, Quentin, died in a dogfight in June 1918. Roosevelt - brokenhearted that Quentin had made the ultimate sacrifice while he had been unable to serve - died just six months later.
Ultimately, this is a story of coping with the loss of political power. At one level, Roosevelt did very badly: He broke the Republican Party in two, delivered the White House to the Democrats, and never found the meaningful public role that he so desperately sought.
But in a far more important way, he triumphed. The progressive vision that drove him altered American politics, quickly and forever. During the 1912 campaign, he proposed such radical ideas as judicial recall, financial aid to workers injured on the job, abolition of child labor and the seven-day workweek, a living wage for workers, expanded access to credit for farmers, more protection for forests, and a broad program of social insurance for those unable to work.
Because Roosevelt was a visible and popular figure even out of power, the political parties had to address these ideas. Within a few years, the federal government would enact them all. O'Toole writes that "Roosevelt's rewards [for his activism] were defeat, blame and a painful case of envy, but the Progressive Party died triumphant."
O'Toole draws from a number of firsthand sources that have been largely overlooked and presents much new information. Her graceful prose richly brings the aging Rough Rider to life: plainspoken, idealistic, genial, energetic, and disciplined but, at the same time, headstrong, envious, egotistic, and averse to self-reflection.
She is simultaneously sympathetic to Roosevelt's unquenchable desire to contribute in the public arena and critical of his inability to understand the extent to which his personal ambition and ego needs drove his actions. Indeed, if there is a central theme to this rich and complex portrait, it is the extent to which the inability to reflect and to understand personal motivation can undermine even the most able political leaders.
Roosevelt was, above all, "a man of action." He prized deeds, not thoughtful contemplation. Such individuals may well fail to achieve their lofty goals, but at least they have the satisfaction of, in Roosevelt's words, "daring greatly." And Roosevelt, she concludes, "dared to be great to the last.... Great triumphs eluded him after the White House, but to say that he failed would be to miss the point of the man."
• Terry W. Hartle is a senior vice president with the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C.