cover image T.R.: A Life

T.R.: A Life

H. W. Brands. Basic Books, $35 (912pp) ISBN 978-0-465-06958-3

At 35, after failing at cattle ranching in the Dakotas and a career lagging in Washington in minor political office, Roosevelt (1858-1919) was offered an appointment by the mayor of New York City as commissioner of street cleaning. ""If the job had had a more illustrious title,"" speculates Brands (Reckless Decade), ""he might have accepted it. As it was, he nearly did."" A few years later--with no military experience--he was second in command of a volunteer cowboy cavalry unit in Cuba, ""The Rough Riders""; then governor of New York; McKinley's vice president; and, after a fortuitous assassination, U.S. president in 1901. The myopic, asthmatic, restless Roosevelt, with little but family connections and modest financial independence, as well as a bit of luck, had brazened his way to the White House. Although Edmund Morris (in 1979) and David McCullough (1981) have produced acclaimed biographies, neither was followed up by a life of T.R. at the top. Brands's narrative is lucid, fast-moving and unblinded by hero worship. In a single volume he has packed Roosevelt's 60 years of ambition, adventure, expediency, achievement and, finally, frustration at having peaked too soon. According to Brands, T.R. is more a romantic in his capacity for self-delusion than in his self-image as romantic hero, with rectitude as his ideal and a stableful of political and financial bosses as villains. As one Roosevelt watcher observed, ""You had to hate the Colonel a whole lot to keep from loving him."" (Dec.)