Magazine | December 31, 2010, Issue

The Man Out of the Arena

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris (Random House, 784 pp., $35)

It is easy to poke fun at the Teddy who exhibited himself, bodily and acrobatically, on the national stage, bagging big game in the Torrid Zone and (in his last years) bawling for a brigade to fight the Kaiser. The Harvard man whose father bought a substitute in the Civil War compensated for the stain on his family’s honor by making a cult of the warrior, the cowboy, and the blood-sportsman. Roosevelt wanted to revive the fighting and breeding man of the atavistic past, but his exaltation of the primitive virtues of the “strenuous life” appears in retrospect to be as much a hothouse growth of the 1890s as the foppery of the “mollycoddles” whose moral decay he sought to arrest. The hysterical masculinity of his “man in the arena” — the tormented gladiator whose face “is marred by dust and sweat and blood” — is as characteristic a specimen of fin-de-siècle over-ripeness as Beardsley’s drawings and Wilde’s epigrams; it is bathed in the violet glow of the Mauve Decade.

Give a man a mask, Wilde said, and he will tell you the truth. The truth about Roosevelt lies beneath the mask. It is the virtue of Colonel Roosevelt, the last volume of Edmund Morris’s three-part biography of the president, that it brings the reader into such intimacy with the hero that he soon forgives the poses of the mob-magician, or rather sees that the poses were not simple charlatanism but the expressions of a highly original character, one that was more interesting out of the arena than in it.

Everyone knows how the young Roosevelt, the asthmatic weakling, willed himself into courage. What is less understood is that even after he put on the mask of command, almost all of the nervous sensitivity of the scared boy remained. In his relations with those around him there is a delicacy, a modesty, a tenderness almost, that makes him different from the typical great man. In nine cases out of ten the great man has entered so fully into his masquerade that he cannot throw off the mask even if he would. Roosevelt was an exception. In spite of the flamboyant willfulness of his poses, he never became a poseur, and for all the bravado of his play-acting, he was not a fake.

The paradox is easily explained: The boy in him governed the man. The fact is too often attested by his contemporaries to admit of doubt. “Yes, he is a great big boy,” Woodrow Wilson said. “There is a sweetness about him that is very compelling. You can’t resist the man.” Roosevelt himself knew very well that in his case the child was not the father of the man, he was the man. He said that he undertook (at the age of 55) his nearly mortal trip to the Amazon basin because it might be his “last chance to be a boy.” Sonya Levien, a radical on the staff of Harry Payne Whitney’s Metropolitan magazine, for which Roosevelt wrote, was won over by the “magic and wild romance” in the former president. It was the exuberance of a man who had never forsaken the chivalrous fantasies that pleased his boyish thought.

#page#The boyishness in Roosevelt explains the lack of private pomp. “Good morning, little anarchist,” he said to Levien upon coming into the Metropolitan offices one day. “I understand you are cutting my copy.” He assured her that he viewed “with equanimity the mutilation of my bantlings.” It was on account of his boyishness that neither his good humor nor his natural vitality was ever abated by the adult’s morbid preoccupation with himself. He wrote voluminously, led men in battle, explored jungles, dispatched lions, reached the presidency. Art was “about the only subject,” he said, “of which I feel some uncertainty.” He wrote about it nonetheless.

Perpetually in motion though he was, he found time to be prodigiously well read. He brought Pascal’s Pensées on safari in Africa and Gibbon to Brazil. Visiting Al-Azhar in Cairo, he sought out the 14th-century Travels of Ibn Battuta, which he had read in a French translation. Dining with the Princess Royal of Serbia, he expatiated on Romanian folk songs. Gazing at Ethel Myers’s Fifth Avenue Gossips in the 1913 Armory Show, he was reminded of the 15th idyll of Theocritus. One is almost relieved to learn that his German was a little “rusty.”

Like a boy, Roosevelt was able to live in the moment, an ability that enhanced his life but detracted from his works. His books are not much read today, and although essays like “Dante and the Bowery” and “The World Movement” have a surface brilliance and originality, he rarely went deeply into a subject. The effort would have required a suspension of doing, and he had a superstitious dread of relaxing the sinews of action. “There is not one among us,” he told the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, “in whom a devil does not dwell.” But introspective devil-hunting was not his forte. It takes time to be Ahab or Hamlet, or to make books that reveal their depths. There is something morbid in all high intellectual achievement, and works that last commonly bear the stigmata of patience and solitude. Roosevelt could not stop, and neither could he withdraw. Like Wilde, he put his genius into his life; into his works he put only his talent.

The talent, certainly, was real. Some of his most memorable phrases were borrowed; the image of “men with muck-rakes,” for instance, comes from Bunyan. But whatever their ultimate derivation, sayings like the “man in the arena,” the “big stick,” and the “lunatic fringe” live as Roosevelt’s own children. He excelled in what we now call the sound-bite, and was impatient of the sustained intellectual effort. Robert La Follette said that Roosevelt was the “keenest and ablest living interpreter of what I would call the superficial public sentiment of a given time” and was “spontaneous in his response to it.” The superficiality showed; in embracing the Progressive idée du jour, a regulatory superstate, Roosevelt did not much bother about the details, and he overlooked the way in which regulatory bodies are apt to stifle competitiveness by becoming crony-clubs for industry. In 1912 he abruptly turned away from anti-monopoly law — even though it could foster competition, by preventing concentrations of power — and dropped antitrust language from the Bull Moose platform. He did so partly on the advice of Morgan banker George Perkins, who believed that “competition in the marketplace was a waste of energy.” Perkins and Roosevelt favored instead a form of state capitalism, what Morris calls “an entente between socially responsible entrepreneurs and a powerful, yet non-prosecutorial, government.”

#page#The truth is that economic policy bored Roosevelt; only when great matters of state — the destinies of nations and empires, the decisions of war and peace — hung in the balance did his imagination come fully alive. He was enchanted by the sweeping vistas of the past, and he lived, much as Churchill did, in the romantic glow of history. Henry Kissinger has said that his statecraft was exquisite. Roosevelt, he wrote in Diplomacy, “approached the global balance of power with a sophistication matched by no other American president.” Even at the end of his life, when his health was broken, Roosevelt saw at once that Wilson, the “Byzantine logothete,” had created in the Fourteen Points a visionary muddle, couched “in such vague language that many” of the pronouncements “may mean anything or nothing . . . while others are absolutely mischievous.”

Morris is one of the best writers of narrative history at work today. This may seem faint praise when one reflects how far the narrative art has fallen since the golden age of Gibbon and Macaulay, but Morris knows how to tell his story, and he is never more skillful than in his handling of the coda. Not even Roosevelt could be boy eternal, and at last the boy in him vanished, leaving behind only an old man with a white moustache. In July 1918, an AP reporter showed Roosevelt a cable from Paris. “watch sagamore hill in event of [deleted by censor].” “Something has happened to one of the boys,” Roosevelt said. His son Quentin, a lieutenant in the Flying Corps, had been shot down over France. “Now, Colonel,” an acquaintance said, “you know it may not be true.” “No, it is true,” Roosevelt replied. “Quentin is dead.” After Quentin’s death, the writer Hermann Hagedorn remarked, the “old side” of Roosevelt was “gone . . . the boy in him has died.”

Roosevelt covered his sorrow with his customary fighter-breeder rhetoric; he evoked the warrior who has “dared the Great Adventure of Death” and has drunk “the dark drink proffered by the Death Angel.” But Morris rightly observes that the Edwardian poetry “did not work.” He finds more expressive the words his hero “was heard sobbing in the stable at Sagamore Hill, with his face buried in the mane of his son’s pony: ‘Poor Quentyquee!’” Six months later, in January 1919, Roosevelt himself was laid in his grave.

– Mr. Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the new book Pathology of the Elites.

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