In 1979 an unknown writer named Edmund Morris published a book on Theodore Roosevelt's early life: the part where he goes to Harvard, woos and wins a dazzling Boston debutante, loses her and his mother on the same godforsaken day, goes to disappear in Dakota Territory and find himself as a man, and returns to New York to reignite a political career that puts him in the White House at 42.
The book was a signal triumph for Morris, who won a Pulitzer Prize. Readers impatient for the next installment had to endure a long detour for his unorthodox "memoir" of Ronald Reagan before getting his fine chronicle of Roosevelt's presidency in 2001.
Now we have TR's last 10 tumultuous years in an elegantly written page-turner called "Colonel Roosevelt," the personal title (from his Spanish-American War days) he preferred in later life.
It was worth the wait. The final volume in Morris' trilogy, brimming with foreign adventure, political betrayal, love and war and heart-rending loss, is the most rousing and affecting treatment ever given TR's post-White House years. It's the fitting capstone to a great biography of an astonishing American.
More than just the presidential mustache on Mount Rushmore, Roosevelt was a world-class authority on birds and mammals, wrote three dozen books of history and commentary, studied judo and quoted from memory obscure poets he had read 20 years before. And that was just before breakfast.
The book is full of finely textured chapters, especially the accounts of Roosevelt's daring African and Brazilian expeditions. Morris focuses more attention than before on the six Roosevelt children, who in these years were leaving the family home on Long Island to marry and begin lives of their own.
But this is a book that also pulsates with the ache that accompanied TR's political and physical decline. A cool and skillful wielder of power for nearly two terms in the White House, he grew increasingly cranky and eccentric out of office. What he could never quite admit to himself was that he missed his old job -- badly.
Convinced that his hand-picked presidential successor, William Howard Taft, was too conservative, TR tried to wrest the 1912 GOP nomination from his old friend. Failing that, he launched a third-party campaign. There were moments of high drama -- after getting shot in Milwaukee, Roosevelt bled on stage for 80 minutes while making a speech before finally going to the hospital -- but his candidacy split Republicans and handed the victory to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
He spent his final years goading Wilson to get the United States into World War I and, when that happened, trying in vain to get sent to Europe himself to lead a division. But the glory of war turned to ashes when 20-year-old pilot Quentin, one of his four sons who served with distinction, was shot down over France. When no one was looking, TR sobbed "Poor Quentyquee!" into the mane of the boy's pony.
Roosevelt believed that the best and truest history is written with color and romance. "Very accurate, very real and vivid, presentation of the past can come only from one in whom the imaginative gift is strong," he told a convention of historians in 1912.
The colonel probably had someone like Edmund Morris in mind.
Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455