Sunday, June 02, 2013

He was a warmongering Nobel Peace Prize winner before warmongering Nobel Peace Prize winners were cool

recently finished: Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

This book, the third in Edmund Morris' fine trilogy depicting the life of Theodore Roosevelt, gives a reader the chance to ponder many important life questions, such as: Who have been the best among the 43 (yes, you read that right, 43) U.S. presidents? What makes a man or woman truly great?  and Why ever do we pronounce a word spelled co-lo-nel as "ker-nel"?

Well, like it or not, he is "the Colonel" through much of this third book, after the second volume about his presidency and the first about his pre-presidency life. Volume 1 won the Pulitzer and may be the best of the three in the eyes of many, but I think in the end I enjoyed Volume 3 as much if not more. Volume 2, oddly, was less interesting in a way. The actual stuff that went on during Theodore's (not Teddy!) presidency was fascinating, obviously, but it was as if Edmund had way too much source material to work with. He is at his best, I think, covering the less already documented portions of TR's life, because Edmund is a master of pulling together tidbits from the deepest archives and combining that with incredible feats of personal travel research to complete the portrait of his bio subject.

In Colonel Roosevelt, Theodore is out of the White House, where he has cajoled and coerced and manipulated my boy William H Taft into taking his place, although he ends up abandoning Taft in a totally rude and in my opinion avoidable falling out. Taft did not want to be there, and Theodore was an unnecessary jerk about it, and Taft even asked for TR's help, but Theodore was all high and mighty and hanging out with every king in Europe and, I daresay, realizing that he himself could in fact be president again in 1912, perhaps, and therefore he became unwilling to help Taft. So rude. Well, the plan failed. But it's a fascinating chapter in TR's life (and several chapters in the book).

The other highlights of Colonel Roosevelt are travel and war. Naturally, those are "highlights" in totally different ways, and only one because it happened. The other, clearly, is interesting to read about but in real life avoidable, although no one will ever learn, particularly not when they are giving the Nobel Peace Prize to warmongering presidents. This book starts with TR's amazing African safari hunt (the man is nothing if not bloodthirsty, despite his mid-life epiphany that he maybe shouldn't kill off all of the animals he would like to keep around for future generations) and I actually could have used a couple more of Edmund Morris' fabulously cute little maps that he (the author himself!) draws to show us TR's life journeys throughout the three volumes. Then, later in the book, we get yet another epic journey, again bringing his son along, this time to Brazil and uncharted areas of the Amazon rainforest to map a new river. (Not precisely "new" seeing as one of the animals in their party is felled by the arrows of Indians who may have never seen the white man before, but you know, new-to-the-Brazilian-English-Spanish-Portugese-United States-ian-etc.-maps kind of new. Unsurveyed.)  That there was one trip full of hardships, up to and including death, and also some of the most powerful bonding of human friendship to be found.

World War I is something I and many others should probably know more about. It was good to review the events leading up to it and the ways in which all of the parties (except Belgium! as TR rightly points out) were both partly justified and partly at fault in starting the giant, menacing debacle. There were some sane voices trying to solve problems in a better way, but there were also lots of voices like Theodore's, positively salivating to go to war (despite his being BFFs with the Kaiser and other Germans). Presidents Taft and  Woodrow Wilson both were interested in peace, and took major steps to try to have peace, but boy do I understand what a hard struggle that is in this violence-lusting world of ours. Quite honestly, Wilson might not have really taken the best approach, what with his whole kept-us-out-of-war being so U.S.-centered and all that it really doesn't help bring about world peace. I do wish Taft would have been able to get his world peace body of nations together, but alas, the world started slaughtering in new, ever more advanced technological ways, and TR packed off all of his sons to Europe to join the "fun." Or should I say doom?

As usual, a feeling of sadness came over me as I pushed through to the final chapters. All of my presidential bios end the same way! as I like to joke. I could see the end of TR's life approaching, so I poured a glass of wine to settle in for the demise. After three months and three books, I do know him well, and I commend Edmund for this remarkable achievement, although I still can't believe TR's sister got married in an endnote in volume 1 after her personal life, its intertwining with TR's, and her lack of marriage were major plot points for hundreds of pages before that. The endnotes are definitely something to grapple with in this bio series, almost at the Infinite Jest level. (OK, well, not quite.)  At any rate, if you're one of those who has often wondered just why the heck Theodore is carved on Mount Rushmore with those three other biggies, plunge into Edmund Morris' magnificent life's work about a life.  Overall: A -
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt: A -  Theodore Rex: B+  Colonel Roosevelt:

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