T.R.: THE LAST ROMANTIC
By H.W. Brands
897 pp., $35
Like the Cheshire cat, most of the image of Theodore Roosevelt has faded from the public mind, leaving only the huge, toothy smile and wire-rimmed glasses.
This year marks a century since T.R. charged up San Juan Hill - the subject of endless parodies, but also an act of true physical courage - and into the hearts of Americans. What may be less remembered now is that by the time he left the White House a decade later this ebullient New Yorker was arguably the most famous man on earth.
In his new biography, "T.R.: The Last Romantic," H.W. Brands reveals no hidden dark side of the Rough Rider. But he does suggest that T.R.'s "romantic" views, shaped by childhood reading and the loss of his idealized and beloved father, let him see his life as a clear-cut battle between good and evil, a struggle of light and order against darkness and chaos.
Author, adventurer, explorer, hunter (the "teddy bear" was named for him when he spared a cub), conservationist, Nobel Peace Prize-winner, political reformer, and youngest president of the United States, T.R. burst on the scene like a force of nature, with enough energy and interests for several men or lifetimes.
"Pure act," the opposite of pure thought, Henry Adams called him. Although beset by tragedies - including the untimely deaths of his father, mother, first wife, and a son - Roosevelt often remarked that he'd had the happiest of lives. Physical and political challenges that would have defeated many others, Roosevelt attacked enthusiastically, calling them "great fun." This optimistic outlook won him respect and even love, perhaps because people saw in him their own best selves - the best of what it meant to be an American.
"Repeatedly and in diverse circumstances, he cast himself as the romantic hero, battling natural and human odds in pursuit of noble and glorious goals," Brands writes. "When he spied a wrong, he sprang into action, rarely pausing to think that in this imperfect world, precipitate measures might merely replace the old evil with a new one."
Unfortunately, T.R. came to see nearly anyone who opposed him as an agent of evil. He also had a knack for finding the confluence of public interest and self-promotion, though he would rarely admit to the latter. And Brand suggests that Roosevelt's cruel turning on his friend and successor as president, William Howard Taft, and his attacks on President Woodrow Wilson for failing to enter World War I quickly, appear to have been motivated as much by envy and jealousy as high-minded principle. Yet even Wilson, who had every reason to hate Roosevelt, was among those that succumbed to his charms.
Despite having 800-plus pages, Brands is still taxed to touch on the many facets of so full a life. Had Roosevelt arrived a generation earlier, Brands writes, he might have been lost among the many Civil War and Wild West heroes. Had he come later, his moral absolutism might have been seen as naive, his reforming crusades as buffoonery.
T.R. attributed his defeat of childhood illnesses to vigorous physical exercise, which along with his love of adventure made him more than a little reckless, a precursor of those who thrive on "extreme" sports today. Roosevelt tested himself physically, whether it was climbing the Matterhorn, taking 40-mile excursions in a rowboat, or boxing in the White House.
Today the face of the man who offered all Americans, capitalist or laborer, a "Square Deal," who made sure America's two coasts were linked by the Panama Canal, and who prodded America onto the world stage as a great power, is carved on Mt. Rushmore. It gazes directly into the face of Lincoln, the savior of the union and his personal hero. To his left are Founding Fathers Jefferson and Washington.
He still belongs in that august company, as Brand's engaging book amply shows.
* Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.