'Colonel Roosevelt': A smooth bio on a Rough Rider

COLONEL ROOSEVELT, by Edmund Morris. Random House, 766 pp., $35.

Theodore Roosevelt, the big-game hunter of American politics, has collected a very elusive trophy: a great biographer.

"Colonel Roosevelt" is the concluding volume of Edmund Morris' sweeping trilogy. Morris chronicles the last decade of Roosevelt's restless life, which unfolds like a widescreen adventure in brilliant color.

Roosevelt had become "the most famous man in the world," as magnetic out of the White House as he was in it. This was no lion-in-winter period for the Colonel - the form of address the Rough Rider preferred to Mr. President, but not quite as much as he would have liked "Major General in the U.S. Army in active service."

During these remarkable years, he'd go on a long expedition to Africa, collecting and cataloging specimens for the Smithsonian, only to return home to bag elephants in the Republican Party, too.

He'd explore the Brazilian wilderness, with the writings of Marcus Aurelius and Thomas More in tow. Delirious with malaria, he'd recite Coleridge. A remote river would be named for him. He'd catch record-weight devilfish. Roosevelt could be equally at ease addressing the National Geographic Society as he would making pronouncements to leaders abroad.

And he'd be the candidate of the newly formed Bull Moose Party, leading the progressive movement that upended William Howard Taft and battled Woodrow Wilson with the same intensity that propelled him to finish a campaign speech with a would-be assassin's bullet in his chest. He detested the plodding Taft for ineptitude; the professorial Wilson for passivity. Roosevelt lost to Wilson but did get more votes than Taft.

Roosevelt would embody "the man in the arena" immortalized in the classic speech delivered at the Sorbonne: the individual "who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."

Morris keeps pace with Roosevelt in muscular prose, amply documented. He makes a long book seem short. In recent years, the only comparison can be with Robert Caro's monumental work-in-progress on Lyndon Johnson, with three volumes in and a fourth on the way.

"Colonel Roosevelt" follows "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" (1980), a Pulitzer Prize-winning start that, not surprisingly, began as a screenplay; and the powerful "Theodore Rex" (2001). Morris also wrote "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan" (1999), an audacious, ironic portrait that didn't quite unveil the 40th president.

The 26th, however, comes across vividly. Roosevelt's combative life went beyond advocating military power and social justice. He definitely had a taste for blood, whether on safari or on the campaign trail. If he could kill one more lion or hippo with the "most magnificent rifle ever made," he would, carrying Pascal's "Pensées" along for the trip.

While overseas, letting all know what they were missing, he'd receive a telegram from a press agency in the United States advising that a friend, Gifford Pinchot, had been fired from a conservation post in the Taft Administration. Pinchot wrote to him, "We have fallen back down the hill you have led us up." The Republican Party, now under the conservative Taft, was divided.

Returning home to Oyster Bay, Roosevelt would tell a reporter he wanted only privacy: "to close up like a native oyster." It wouldn't last long. "Roosevelt Clubs" began to grow, and the last campaign would begin.

Morris details Roosevelt's private as well as public life, including the death of son Quentin Roosevelt in World War I - a conflict that some believe the persuasive former president could have prevented. The loss devastated "a father who had always romanticized war."

Roosevelt suffered from rheumatism and lumbago, sciatica and gout. But "power deprivation" might have been the worst affliction. He'd be hospitalized, ostensibly for lumbago.

Back home, Roosevelt received many letters, particularly since there was gossip about another presidential run. Despite pain, he dictated one more editorial about the League of Nations to the Kansas City Star; and an article for the publication Metropolitan favoring a constitutional amendment for women's voting rights.

Roosevelt died at Sagamore Hill. He was buried in Youngs Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay. Of all the words about Roosevelt since then, Morris writes, those of a boy at Cove Neck School resonate: "He was a fulfiller of good intentions."

Few presidents receive the biographies they deserve. Theodore Roosevelt earned this one.

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