One of the most difficult challenges of the Presidency is being a former president. How does one move from occupying the most powerful position in the world to becoming just another citizen, albeit one who is a member of a small club of former presidents?
Edmund Morris’s third volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt covers the decade after Roosevelt was President. It seems to me a narrative of a man torn — torn between the love of exercising power with the thought that he might do so better than his rivals, and the recognition that his “crowded hour” for leadership had passed and that he was in a different season of life.
What Morris’s sparkling narrative reveals is that Roosevelt never resolved this underlying tension in his life. Even when he lay in the final health crisis that would end his life, he was still entertaining hopes of one more run at the Presidency in 1920.
He appears to leave office well, handing the reins of power to his old friend, William Howard Taft. Yet the differences between the two are evident even then and will become more pronounced in the coming years leading to an estrangement only partially healed that left Taft weeping at his grave. He embarks on a safari to Africa, once again the hunter. Then, he tours the capitals of Europe speaking in every place while recognizing the signs of the approaching global conflict. He speaks as one who recognizes that America might need to get into this war, putting off all the peace-lovers on both sides of the ocean.
On his return, he unsuccessfully seeks to contain himself as he sees the Taft White House undoing his reforms. He begins to speak out and maneuver within the Republican Party, finally openly opposing an incumbent who basically has the convention locked up even though the party knows it will lose to Wilson. He bolts, forms the Bull Moose party, survives an assassination attempt (carrying the bullet in his chest for the remainder of his life) only to come in second to Woodrow Wilson.
Once again he turns to the wilds for consolation, this time on an exploratory journey down the River of Doubt, the longest unexplored river in South America. It is a harrowing journey that nearly costs him his life and does cost him his health. Morris’s chronicle of this journey helps us see and imagine what a “near run” thing this was.
He returns to once again take up the cudgels against Wilson as well as the Republican Party, entangling himself in a costly libel suit he eventually wins. He is vociferous in his criticism of Wilson’s efforts to keep the U.S. out of the war and the lack of military preparedness that accompanies this. He sets up his own training camp in which two of his sons participate. Spurned once again in 1916, he watches as Wilson finally embraces the reality he had seen long before that Germany would need to be fought.
His own offers to join the fight and raise a division denied, he sends his four sons as proxies, with two wounded, all decorated, and Quentin lost in aerial combat. He presses on yet Morris chronicles that with Quentin’s death, something broke in Roosevelt. Within two months of war’s end, he is dead.
One of the spiritual writers I respect, Richard Rohr, talks about the life journey of men as broken into two parts, a heroic journey followed by either a journey into wisdom or becoming an old fool by trying to continue the heroic journey of youth. The tale Morris tells seems to describe a figure who, despite the urgings of his wife, could never give up on the heroic journey — the adventures, the relentless speech-making, the prodigious writing, the hunger for power, as well as his relentless physical appetites that ultimately broke his body.
Roosevelt himself never thought he’d live beyond sixty and never seemed to learn to live a life not filled with manic “crowded hours”. It seems to me that all Roosevelt knew was the heroic journey. It was one that left a profound legacy to this day in his prolific writing, his progressive politics, and his sense of both American greatness, and the great potentials of presidential power. Yet one wonders what might have been if Roosevelt’s greatness had been tempered with a wisdom of mind, body and spirit.
I find myself with feelings of both wonder and sadness as I to come to the end of this trilogy. In Roosevelt, Morris tells the tale of one of our greatest presidents, and with it the tale of both human greatness and limits with which each of us must come to terms.