A kaleidoscopic personality is describedagain

January 03, 1993|By Stuart Rochester

THEODORE ROOSEVELT:

A LIFE.

Nathan Miller.

Morrow.

` 624 pages. $27.50.

This would be a bully good story -- if we hadn't heard it so many times before. A sickly asthmatic child with poor eyesight immerses himself in a life of physical culture and competition, becomes a compulsive achiever who takes on party bosses, barroom toughs and Wall Street titans, and ultimately becomes a Rushmore-sized president of the United States.

It is no wonder that Theodore Roosevelt has been blessed with so many marvelous biographies. (His early life was ably chronicled in David McCullough's 1981 "Mornings on Horseback" and in Edmund Morris' "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," which won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1980; William Harbaugh's 1961 "The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt" is an excellent one-volume biography.) His life was an American classic -- filled with joy and tragedy, triumph and failure, and so chock-full of colorful episodes, both trivial and grand, that few authors have even attempted to capture its perpetually careening path in a single volume.

Roosevelt's real-life experiences were not merely the stuff of fiction; they were in many instances so extravagantly heroic, at times outlandish, that we have to pinch ourselves to realize the man was not some cartoon creation but a modern-day occupant of the White House.

Nathan Miller's contribution to the lore is neither the best nor the worst rendering of this complex "bee in a bottle." Pleasingly readable and well-documented, it is a creditable addition to the literature, yet adds little not already known or said about the 26th president -- this although Mr. Miller makes much of using a cache of recently discovered letters of Roosevelt's daughter, Alice, that had been overlooked by previous chroniclers. It is a commentary on the profusion of Roosevelt biographies that Mr. Miller's account, lively and authoritative though it is, seems more derivative than original.

Roosevelt's "life," of course, was really many lives, laced with arresting counterpoints and paradoxes. The New York society dude became a Western rancher. The country squire became a Rough Rider. The big-game hunter was a pioneering conservationist. The man who surrounded himself with the paraphernalia of the strenuous life -- dumbbells, boxing gloves and the like -- was a voracious reader, thoughtful writer and serious historian. The practitioner of a "big stick" foreign policy won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The key to understanding Roosevelt's kaleidoscopic interests, and to resolving his many apparent contradictions, is to recognize, as Mr. Miller does throughout, that TR relished adventure and experience for its own sake, seldom looking back and rarely operating from any coherent philosophy or ideology. He was deeply committed to public service but in a consummately pragmatic and highly personal way: The only thread that linked his disparate activities was the boundless zest with which he pursued them.

His sister, Corinne, said that Teddy "loved to row in the hottest sun, over the roughest water, in the smallest boat." A classmate at Harvard remarked that he "ate chicken as though he wanted to grind the bones." The "perennial volunteer" was the first American president to go down in a submarine and (after leaving the White House) to go up in an airplane.

For all his gusto, Roosevelt was not always a happy warrior. Indeed, as Mr. Miller reminds us, Teddy's exuberance was occasionally punctuated with "black fits" -- extended bouts of melancholy and introspection. Psycho-historians have made much of his mercurial temperament, usually attributing his mood swings to residual adolescent insecurities. In fact, he suffered wrenching and frequent adversity, beginning with chronic illness a child and continuing throughout his life. His idolized father died at 46, his younger brother succumbed to alcoholism at 34, and his beloved first wife, Alice, passed away shortly after giving birth (incredibly, his mother died the same day). That he survived and bounced back from such trials attested to the uncommon courage and spirit that would become his hallmark.

Not the least of Roosevelt's special qualities, Mr. Miller observes, was that "he was essentially a moral man" in a world that was becoming increasingly amoral. The patrician with a heart and soul to match his prodigious energies was a sharp contrast to the Jay Goulds, Pierpont Morgans and Mark Hannas of his day, and to the succession of self-aggrandizing politicians and businessmen who would dominate the 20th century landscape. No wonder what H.G. Wells called that "friendly, peering snarl of a face" captivated so many of his contemporaries and still has magical resonance for his countrymen today.

Mr. Rochester, a historian with the Department of Defense, has written two books on American history.

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