BOOKENDS: 'When Trumpets Call' Tells Tale of TR's Twilight Years

From the Progressive Party to the Porcellian Club, book tracks TR's post-presidency

Although John F. Kennedy ’40 is often remembered as the youngest to serve as president, he was only—to be completely precise—the youngest elected president, winning election when he was 43. The distinction of youngest to be president actually belongs to Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, who ascended to the most powerful position in the country at the tender age of 42 after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. Eight years later, at the time in their lives when most politicians are just beginning to hit their peak, Roosevelt was already a former president and embarking on the most fascinating and tumultuous leg of his colorful career.

Biographer Patricia O’Toole tells the story of Roosevelt’s twilight in the concise, smooth prose that one would expect from the Columbia University writing teacher that she is. In When Trumpets Call, released by Simon & Schuster last month, O’Toole draws upon a wealth of primary sources—including several collections of letters of Roosevelt’s family members that are stashed away in Harvard’s Houghton Library—to offer the reader a glimpse into TR’s most private thoughts.

Roosevelt emerges as a tender-hearted father and husband, as well as a fierce, uninhibited politician who “needed power in order to feel fully engaged.” Roosevelt was convinced that his drive to return to the White House did not stem from within, but from without. If he were given the 1912 Republican presidential nomination, he fantasized, “I should feel that there was a duty to the people which I could not shirk.”

Roosevelt was firm in his convictions, but he was also a man of puzzling contradictions. An avid conservationist who added national forests and wildlife refuges, Roosevelt’s first act after his chosen successor William Howard Taft took office was to embark on a safari to shoot lions, giraffes, and other exotic creatures. In total, Roosevelt and his entourage killed 512 animals, the majority of which were stuffed and sent to the Smithsonian Institution.

This expedition, which is recounted in the early chapters, is the first illustration of O’Toole’s overriding theme: that “Roosevelt often mistook the sirens of personal ambition for the trumpets of public duty.” The safari, Roosevelt explained unconvincingly, achieved important public ends. Science, for one, and pest control too. He even portrayed hunting as “a humane alternative to a cruel death in the jaw of a predator or the prolonged agony of starvation.”

But upon returning from his African sojourn, Roosevelt found that his presidential legacy was unravelling. Taft failed to maintain the pace of reform that Roosevelt had set. Indecisive—and overweight—Taft lacked the firmness to be a strong leader and dreamed only of becoming Supreme Court chief justice (a dream that would be realized in 1921).

Roosevelt wrote columns and delivered speeches sharply chastising Taft, accusing him of violating “every canon of ordinary decency and fair dealing.” O’Toole’s narrative of the ruined friendship paints Roosevelt as the pigheaded party who refused Taft’s peace gestures. Taft is the far more sympathetic figure. For instance, while on the stump, Taft broke into tears, lamenting that “Roosevelt was my closest friend.”

The conservatives wanted nothing to do with Roosevelt’s progressive policies. After a dispute over the allocation of delegates, the 1912 GOP national convention nominated Taft, prompting Roosevelt to form his own Bull Moose Party and run anyway. “Roosevelt had loved the presidency for the power it gave him to play the hero, and when it ended, he was as wounded and blind as a husband who loses an adored wife to another man,” O’Toole writes. The two candidates split the Republican ballots, and a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, won with 42 percent of the vote.

Two years later, Roosevelt struck out for South America, which promised the “adulation and contest” that he sorely lacked in the U.S. where Wilson ignored him. Always eager for an adventure, Roosevelt and an entourage that included his son Kermit—Class of 1912—sailed down a Brazilian waterway. The Roosevelts’ crew members dropped like flies: one drowned when Kermit’s canoe was swept over a waterfall. And the crew’s sergeant was murdered by an angry boatman.

TR himself nearly became a casualty on the expedition. Four weeks into the journey, he injured his left leg and lapsed into a high-fevered delirium. During his illness, Roosevelt, in a strange choice of literature, kept reciting the opening line of a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree.” When the team returned safely to civilization, they realized that they had discovered a 1,500-kilometer river that was later named “Teodoro.”

COLOR HIM CRIMSON

Harvard played a significant role in the Roosevelt family. Theodore enjoyed dining at the Porcellian, a final club on Mass Ave., and O’Toole writes that the Porc “ranked close behind the Rough Riders [Roosevelt’s Spanish-American War regiment] in TR’s affections.” All four of his sons studied at the College.

The second youngest son, Archie—Class of 1917—was every roommate’s worst nightmare. “[At Harvard] he was a prude and a snitch, notorious for turning in students who enlivened their quarters with strong drink and sportive women,” O’Toole writes.

Two years before the U.S. entered World War I, the hawkish Archie already had begun conducting military drills in Harvard Yard—much to the chagrin of then-University President A. Lawrence Lowell, who hoped that the country could stay out of the conflict. TR feared that his son might be expelled, but “Lowell, besieged by alumni with a Rooseveltian view of preparedness, backed down.”

The war, and America’s refusal to participate, prompted Roosevelt to excoriate Wilson in newspaper columns. He railed against “ultrapacifists” who spoke “with the shrill clamor of eunuchs.” Germany had precipitated the war, so failure to respond was doing “positive service to wrongdoers,” he wrote. These calls for war (not to mention Roosevelt’s military history with the Rough Riders) seem to be a contradiction for the president who won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

After Congress declared war in 1917, Roosevelt decried the War Department’s lack of preparation. He had already started to think about the 1920 nomination when his youngest son, Quentin, a pilot, was killed during an aerial fight with the Germans. Six months later, Roosevelt himself suffered a fatal blood clot. He never regained the coveted office that he left in 1909.

His last decade, however, is engrossing enough. Still relatively young, Roosevelt had the luxury to satisfy his lust for adventure and attention, and he did not disappoint. Now, with Bill Clinton, America has for the first time since TR a former president who left the White House before age 55. One can only wonder whether Clinton’s post-presidency will produce such fascinating fodder for future biographers.