The Last Charge of the Rough Rider: Theodore Roosevelt's Final Days
“A compelling sequel to Forging a President for anyone following Hazelgrove's spirited and imaginative account of Roosevelt's myth-infused life."
One of the stranger episodes in the history of presidential biography began in 1981 when members of the Reagan administration sought to appoint Edmund Morris, who had just published the first installment of his brilliant Theodore Roosevelt trilogy, as newly inaugurated president Ronald Reagan’s official biographer. Morris never considered himself especially well-suited to the task. Later he said that he suspected Reagan staffers had tapped him because they were so pleasantly surprised that a legitimate historian had written a mostly favorable book about a Republican president. After a few unproductive meetings with Reagan over the next two years, he declined the offer.
Several months into Reagan’s second term, Morris returned to the White House, convinced that a momentous presidency was afoot. He took on a project that resulted 14 years later in the confounding Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, which deployed the peculiar approach of casting a fictional character named “Arthur Edmund Morris'' as an unseen observer of Reagan’s entire life.
The problem, Morris went on to explain, was that he’d gone in search of the “real” Reagan—just as he had with Roosevelt—and never could find him. He simply couldn’t penetrate the president’s layers of political masks and self-invented myth, either through his interviews with Reagan himself or with scores of aides, colleagues, and friends who might be presumed to know the president well but didn’t understand him either. Convinced that the former actor was perpetually in character, Morris later told 60 Minutes, “I could never figure him out.”
Perhaps the book might have gone smoothly with a more politically motivated or partisan biographer, or simply one more inclined to commit the mythical Reagan to the page and report legend as fact. (Even the best presidential biographies that begin as authorized are always tricky; Doris Kearns Goodwin has conceded that her career-making Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream began with endless sessions at the LBJ ranch in which the president told her one whopping lie after another, though he did in the process reveal much of his personality and humanity to her, as Reagan never did with Morris.) Whatever professional damage Dutch might have done to Edmund Morris, he soon returned to narrative terra firma to deliver the acclaimed Theodore Rex (2002) and Colonel Roosevelt (2010) in relatively short order.
Narrative historian William Elliott Hazelgrove, now the author of two enthralling and immensely readable Roosevelt books, has contributed to our understanding of the 26th president in ways that are somewhat harder to pin down than Morris’. But the way he engages with the self-invented and self-mythologizing TR suggests that he might have been a far better candidate than Morris to take on the elusive Reagan, simply because Hazelgrove might have settled more easily for the self-invented simulacrum of a human that Reagan revealed to his would-be biographer.
Hazelgrove is the author of a number of page-turning historical works including Madame President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson and Al Capone and the 1933 World’s Fair: The End of the Gangster Era in Chicago. In the last six years, he’s produced two titles that serve as bookends to Theodore Roosevelt’s remarkable career: Forging a President: How the Wild West Created Theodore Roosevelt (2017), which explores how wild western adventures as a hunter and rancher both restored the future president’s once-fragile mental and physical health and enabled a coddled and cloistered New Yorker to reinvent himself as a hero on horseback; and the just-published The Last Charge of the Rough Rider: Theodore Roosevelt’s Final Days, which chronicles Roosevelt’s quixotic quest at the end of his life to pressure then-President Woodrow Wilson into entering the Great War and allowing Roosevelt to lead the charge with an extra-military cavalry battalion like the gentleman cowboy volunteers he commanded nearly 20 years earlier in the Spanish Civil War.
Chronicling precisely the same period and clash of presidents current and former as David Pietrusza’s TR’s Last War: Theodore Roosevelt, the Great War, and a Journey of Triumph and Tragedy (2018), The Last Charge of the Rough Rider stirs up a comparable degree of drama and has complementary flaws. Both books make a convincing case that Wilson stonewalled Roosevelt’s appeals to let him lead a volunteer army into the war not just because it made little military sense, but also because of the political costs of allowing Roosevelt to reclaim the limelight.
To a greater degree than Pietrusza, Hazelgrove seems predisposed to printing the legend, which admittedly makes some sense in this context, since it was the mythical Roosevelt of San Juan Hill, not the greatly diminished, older-than-his-60-years ex-president, who maintained his hold on the public imagination in his final years. The fading Roosevelt improbably convinced admirers on two continents that he was not only capable of mounting a baldly anachronistic assault on German forces with 19th-century-style mounted war-making, but possibly the only man who could turn the tide.
There’s also practical value, particularly in Forging a President, to conveying Roosevelt’s self-image to a modern audience. Roosevelt wrote and published copiously throughout his life about his rugged travails in the Dakotas and elsewhere, but no one but scholars read his books anymore—even those written for popular audiences. Forging a President does a great service in condensing and preserving the best of Roosevelt’s western adventure writing for contemporary readers, even doing so in a throwback florid prose style that’s well-matched to the material.
Like Forging a President, The Last Charge of the Rough Rider takes a threaded narrative approach, jumping around in time to demonstrate how past events forged the man who manifested himself on the public stage many years later, usually to convincing effect. The downside of this technique of interpolating relevant older tales into the story each book ostensibly tells is that it lends itself to much repetition between Hazelgrove's two books. One particularly memorable twice-told tale is the heartrending story of Roosevelt’s father, desperate to counteract his young son’s nearly fatal asthma, driving a carriage at top speed through city streets with young Theodore “hanging off the side with his mouth wide open, gulping air like a fish.”
Hazelgrove, like Pietrusza, does an excellent job of portraying the simmering rivalry between Wilson and Roosevelt, which never really abated after Wilson defeated Roosevelt in the 1912 presidential election (although it was in fact a bitterly split Republican party that scuttled the former president’s third-party re-election bid).
Even as his health and energy began to crater in the fading years of his “magic life,” Roosevelt maintained a sense of himself as a hard-charging Rough Rider committed to adventure, “the strenuous life,” and confronting every possible challenge. In his final days this self-image fueled an all-consuming obsession with achieving a glorious battlefield death, and contrasted sharply with TR’s impression (publicly expressed) of Wilson as a coward and an egghead. Unlike Wilson, Hazelgrove writes, “Roosevelt didn’t give a fig about making the world safe for democracy; what he did give a fig about was getting into the fight.”
The Roosevelt character Hazelgrove constructs in Forging a President remains largely consistent with the TR we meet in The Last Charge of the Rough Rider, even as we encounter the ascendant Roosevelt of the first book in physical and psychological freefall in the second.
As in Forging a President and his other works, in The Last Charge of the Roughrider Hazelgrove’s writing never lacks drama. He reimagines historical scenes with precision, clarity, and energy, as in this description of the sinking of the Lusitania: “Passengers on board looked up from shuffleboard games or their books and saw a long white streak growing toward the ship like an underwater chalk line. The torpedo was running only ten feet below the surface and when it came closer, the long silvery fish-like torpedo was visible and the word was passed in stupefaction that this was the dreaded murdering torpedo the voyagers had been obsessed with and was the topic of discussion over many dinners and lunches. The Germans had made it clear that passengers traveled at their own risk and here was this risk in the long dying trail running up to the ship like a phantom from the deep.”
Old school purplish prose is not to every reader’s taste, but Hazelgrove retains his mastery of the form.
Much as The Last Charge of the Rough Rider frequently circles back to incidents described in Forging a President, so does it repeat a number of scenes from the courtship, marriage, and working relationship of Woodrow and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson recounted in Madame President. That earlier book covers much of the same territory in Wilson’s efforts to fend off Roosevelt’s attacks before devoting the larger share of its narrative to Edith’s 16 months as de facto president following her husband's severe stroke in September 1919.
Ultimately it’s The Last Charge of the Rough Rider’s many points of overlap with two other recent, vibrant narrative histories, TR’s Last War and Neil Lanctot’s more ambitious and commanding The Approaching Storm: Roosevelt, Wilson, Addams, and Their Clash Over America's Future, that limit its ability to break new ground. Still it’s a compelling sequel to Forging a President for anyone following Hazelgrove's spirited and imaginative account of Roosevelt's myth-infused life.
Much like TR’s Last War, The Last Charge of the Rough Rider concludes in bizarre fashion. TR’s Last War devotes a lengthy epilogue to Pietrusza’s theory that Roosevelt died by assisted suicide, choosing his moment of departure on the night of September 3, 1919, by instructing his wife Edith to administer a lethal dose of morphine. While well-argued and far from implausible, this theory is delivered so thoroughly and loudly as to drown out the book’s preceding chapters.
Hazelgrove, by contrast, presents an arguably more admiring portrait of Roosevelt than any other recent biographer through nearly two complete books until one of Last Charge’s later chapters when he follows Roosevelt to a weight loss facility, and devotes the better part of eight pages to fat-shaming the former president. In this section Hazelgrove goes to great lengths to render Roosevelt as a comic figure. “Roosevelt was now on the Reducycle,” he writes, “breathing like an asthmatic (he was), his heart pounding like a heart patient (he was), his face cherry-red like someone who was hypertensive (he was), his left leg aching, and his joints on fire like someone who had rheumatoid arthritis (he was), squinting like a man who could barely see (he couldn’t).”
Even more strangely, The Last Charge of the Rough Rider culminates in a final imagined “crowded hour” like the one the former president has been chasing the entire book: a glorious dream in which Roosevelt, on horseback, confronts the Huns in their trenches, draws them out to fight Rough Rider style, dies in glorious battle, and ascends to Valhalla. This, Hazelgrove writes, “was the last charge of the Rough Rider."
What's one more Rough Rider myth among TR-admiring friends?