Post Presidency, Roosevelt's Life Still Bully

Theodore Roosevelt is widely regarded and one of the finest and most memorable American presidents. Edmund Morris offers a detailed portrait of Roosevelt in his post-presidential years. It is Morris' third and final volume about Roosevelt, and he talks to Steve Inskeep about the book. 

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Theodore Roosevelt's life reads like the fantasy of a 10-year-old boy. He was a cowboy, a big game hunter, a police commissioner, a writer, a war hero, and eventually, president of the United States.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If anything, Theodore Roosevelt's life became even more interesting after he left the presidency in 1909. His later years are the focus of a new book by Edmund Morris called "Colonel Roosevelt."

Mr. EDMUND MORRIS (Author, "Colonel Roosevelt"): He went to Africa within three weeks of leaving the White House in 1909, and he stayed there for over a year; hunting in behalf of the Smithsonian Museum, collecting specimens. When he came back, coming down the Nile in the spring of 1910, he was surprised to find that during this year in the wilderness he'd become the most famous man in the world.

INSKEEP: He was honored by kings. He was courted by book publishers. And he was also slowly drawn back into politics. Roosevelt eventually ran for a third presidential term in 1912. He did it as a third party candidate for the Progressive party. And although he lost that campaign, he captured millions of votes. This morning we'll hear about the most dramatic event in that campaign.

Mr. MORRIS: He was traveling through Wisconsin, pretty exhausted with all of the marathon campaigning he'd been going through. His voice was hoarse and he arrived in Milwaukee for a very important speech, so tired that his doctors who were traveling with him asked if he could be relieved from a civic reception.

INSKEEP: What was it like, in general terms, when Theodore Roosevelt walked into a room, worked a room, stood up and began speaking?

Mr. MORRIS: He had the theatrical gift, as most really substantial leaders do. I'm thinking of Ronald Reagan and Charles De Gaulle and Winston Churchill. They all had this power of walking into a room and somehow seizing attention: the gift of theater.

However, here he was, in Milwaukee and he had to give a speech at 8:00 in the evening. So he went to his hotel for dinner and collecting his thoughts. And when he came down from the hotel, into the street outside, there was his car waiting with a fairly large crowd standing in the street in the gathering darkness. And as he settled into this open limo, the crowd pressed around, cheering. So he stood up to wave his hat at them. And as he stood up, a little blond guy pulled out a gun and shot him point blank in the chest. And T.R. dropped back into the limo not realizing how - that he'd been shot at first.

And the man was taken away by police and then T.R. surprised everybody by insisting on going through with his speaking engagement.

INSKEEP: He said I'm going to get in the car, I'm going to go, and I'm going to talk?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah, he refused to be taken to hospital. And by then it was obvious from the spreading bloodstain on his shirt front that he had been winged. But he insisted on being taken to the Milwaukee Auditorium, strode out on stage, and here's the gift of theater coming. He yanked open his shirt front, told the crowd that he'd been shot, and he said it takes more than this to kill a Bull Moose.

INSKEEP: That was one of his symbols as well, the Bull Moose.

Mr. MORRIS: The Bull Moose party, yes. And he then proceeded to speak for almost two hours, sometimes tottering, aides were terrified he was going to fall off of the platform, gray in the face, blood seeping into his shirt front, but he completed his speech, and then allowed them to take him to hospital.

INSKEEP: Why did he do that?

Mr. MORRIS: It was his character. He was supremely macho and he believed that all shocks to the body should be transcended and ignored. And also, I think, the instinct of an actor is to make the most of any dramatic or melodramatic situation.

So he made enormous drama out of it, which had these weird religious overtones when you come to think about it. The whole Progressive campaign was infused with Christian imagery. They kept singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "We Battle At Armageddon For the Lord," stuff like that. And here was T.R. bleeding, this is my body that has been broken for you, it was a climax of all the religious imagery of the campaign.

INSKEEP: You know, this episode of being shot and continuing right on to deliver the speech, and going right through a campaign that would be beyond the means of most people, seems to underline the unbelievable energy of this man that you've written about for years and years now.

Mr. MORRIS: The energy was intellectual as much as physical. I must say, the intellectual side of the later Theodore Roosevelt is what fascinates me most. I didn't realize the richness of his mind.

He was - for example, in his year off in 1911, writing deeply cerebral essays on the conflict between evolutionary science and religion, reading books in three languages, writing astonishing pieces on natural history. If you see the manuscripts of his autobiography and some of his nature writing, those manuscripts are as dense as Tolstoy's, with crossings-out and second thoughts and balloons. He really worked like a trooper on his prose.

INSKEEP: What drove him?

Mr. MORRIS: It's inexplicable; I mean everybody who met him was aware of this quite phenomenal energy. He was constantly compared to radium, radioactivity; these images come again and again. It just pulsated from him and it's inexplicable. I think he was born with it.

INSKEEP: When you go through the decade or more, a little more than a decade of his life that came after his time in the White House, how does that change - if at all - your understanding of that guy on Mount Rushmore?

Mr. MORRIS: I expected the book to be rather more negative than it's turned out, because his love of warfare and his desperate desire to get into World War I, to get the United States into that war, to fight in it himself at the head of a division, to have his four sons go and fight in the war, and this quite palpable desire to be killed in war, which he figured out was glorious. This has always repulsed me.

And when I began the book I thought that in representing him to be war-mad, and bellicose and bloodthirsty, the book would end up being a negative assessment. But as I wrote it, I found that he was really a magnificent person. And although he was indeed shattered right at the end by the death of his son Quentin in battle and...

INSKEEP: Because his son went to World War I, even though in the end, Theodore Roosevelt, not being healthy or young enough, could not.

Mr. MORRIS: Yes, Woodrow Wilson would not allow Theodore Roosevelt to lead a division into France, even though the French were begging for him. And he therefore had to watch his four sons go off. And when the youngest and brightest of those sons, Quentin, the one most like himself - when he was killed in a dogfight in July of 1918...

INSEEP: He was a pilot?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah, a fighter pilot - it was almost as though T.R. had been killed himself. He lost all his romantic notions of war at that moment, and died himself just a few months later.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's a connection between his desire to go to war, to be killed in battle, his desire to hunt and kill, and even this incident in 1912 in which someone hunted and shot him, and yet he insisted on going ahead with the speech.

Mr. MORRIS: I've never thought of that before. But 'tis a deep irony, isn't it? He was hunted himself.

INSKEEP: And he was determined to go through with that contest. He didn't want to be defeated in that exchange.

Mr. MORRIS: Indeed, it was another situation of rule of tooth and claw and somebody had to prevail.

INSKEEP: Edmund Morris is the author of "Colonel Roosevelt." It's the last of his three-volume biography of a gigantic life that takes at least three books to tell, the life of Theodore Roosevelt.

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