Friday, January 21, 2011

Colonel Roosevelt

I'm hip-deep in Edmund Morris's Colonel Roosevelt (2010), the third and final volume in his biographical portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, which began all the way back in 1980 with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. The first volume is absolutely stunning, with scene after scene that had me gasping aloud at Roosevelt's audacity, vivacity, and strangeness, while the second volume flagged a bit; the presidential years simply can't compare to Roosevelt's racketing about the Wild West and clawing for power back in Albany. But this volume--despite its being the third I've read on Roosevelt's post-presidential years (including Candice Millard's gripping tight-focus account of an Amazonian adventure, River of Doubt, and Patricia O'Toole's empathetic and detailed account of the period from 1909 on, When Trumpets Call)--has been a treat from the start.

It's full of scenes like this one, from a 1912 convention to nominate Republican delegates in Oklahoma:
The local committee chairman, Edward Perry, was a Roosevelt man who hoped to create a progressive stampede for the Colonel. A letter from Gifford Pinchot reminded him that, as yet, La Follette was Taft's only official challenger. Perry read the letter to the convention, but made plain that he still favored Roosevelt. This infuriated the rank and file supporting Taft. Pandemonium ensued, with Perry roaring "Slap Roosevelt in the face if you dare!" over contrary shrieks and howls. A posse of fake Rough Riders invaded the hall. For fifteen minutes they tried to storm the stage, but found it harder to take than the Heights of San Juan. Cigar-smoking Taft forces repelled them. One cavalryman got through on a miniature pony: the young son of Jack "Catch-'em-Alive" Abernathy, a friend of Roosevelt's famous for seizing wolves by the tongue. The boy shrilled "I want Teddy!" to the crowd, touching off further furor. But then the organization men suppressed him, and the convention endorsed Taft over La Follette by a vote of 118 to 32. Perry, locally known as "Dynamite Ed," showed his displeasure by going outside and detonating five hundred pounds of explosives.
The scene brings to mind the great moment in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence when a horseman mounts the stage at the nominating convention and proceeds to do lariat tricks, to the loud (and drunken) approbation of the assembled.

And there are countless other vividly described moments worth sharing. Like this one, in which the national nominating convention in Chicago proves that it can be just as rambunctious as Oklahoma's:
But then rhythmic cries of "Teddy, Teddy--we want Teddy!" developed in the uproar, like the drumbeat of a coming fanfare. Attention began to divert from Hadley on the floor to a pretty woman sitting in a high gallery. She wore a white dress, with a bunch of pinks at her waist. Whatever mysterious force focused fourteen thousand pairs of eyes on her, she was thespian enough to revel in it. She blew kisses at the crowd, then, leaning over the balustrade, unrolled a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt. The noise became deafening. Unfazed, she began to yell, and proved to have the lungs of a Valkyrie. "Boys--give three cheers for Teddy!"

A golden bear materialized beneath her, in the shape of the mascot of the California delegation. She reached out and cuddled it as it rose on the top of a proffered totem, whereupon the poles of other Roosevelt delegations joined in and jiggled up and down in phallic rivalry. The woman in white vanished for a minute. When she reappeared on the floor, it seemed improbable that the Coliseum could contain more sound. She marched up the main aisle, flushed with excitement, followed by stampeding delegates in an unconscious parody of Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People. . . . [S]he was hoisted giggling onto a shelf of shoulder and carried to the rostrum. Elihu Root tolerantly let her take control of the proceedings.
Then there's this moment, which makes my ears hurt just to read about--it would almost make a person wish for vuvuzelas:
One of the strangest [sounds in the hall], accompanied by whistles and screams of "Toot, toot!" was the spine-stiffening hiss of sheets of sandpaper scraped together. It was meant to express the conviction among Roosevelt Republicans that an organization "steamroller" was under way, intent on flattening their spirit of revolt.
But I find myself partial to this moment, when Roosevelt, newly arrived in Chicago to try to manhandle the convention, greets the crowd on Michigan Avenue from his hotel balcony:
Far to his left and right, a flotsam of faces swirled. The smoky, coppery sky seemed to press down on the city, concentrating its heat and noise. Waving his hat for quiet, he yelled in his high voice, "Chicago is a mighty poor place in which to try and steal anything."
Really? I'm disappointed to learn that our reputation hadn't already been properly established by 1912.

1 comment:

  1. Three big volumes is probably a little much for a non-American like myself to take on, but this does sound good. It also reminds me of the study in John Maxwell Hamilton's 'Casanova was a Book-Lover' which compares presidents' literary skills with their presidential record, and finds Roosevelt as about the only one to do well in both departments (in almost every other case, the better the writer, the worse the president, though the converse doesn't hold true).