The Lions In Winter

The Argument

Private papers reveal fresh glimpses of two American presidents after they left the White House.

March 06, 2005|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House

By Patricia O'Toole. Simon & Schuster. 494 pages. $30.

Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello

By Andrew Burstein. Basic Books. 351 pages. $25.

Patricia O'Toole is a respected author who wanted to tackle a new biography of a much chronicled president, hoping to offer fresh interpretations for a new century.

The president is Theodore Roosevelt. O'Toole has been fascinated by his life for decades, but rightly wondered if new material could be found, if already mined material could be reinterpreted in responsible, significant ways.

O'Toole had reason for her anxiety: Most U.S. presidents have been the subjects of multiple biographies, and lots of those biographies do little to advance knowledge. Call them exercises in authorial vanity and publisher excess.

O'Toole, whose books include the masterpiece The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918, had eschewed writing presidential biographies until now. In a way, she has continued to avoid presidential biographies, because almost all of this book covers the decade between Roosevelt's exit from the White House until his death.

Why approach his legacy that way? Because, while researching The Five of Hearts, O'Toole realized Roosevelt's youthfulness at the time he left the presidency. He was only 50. That tidbit would not leave her. As O'Toole turned 50, she found herself not only indulging "in the usual reflections on things done and not done," but also remembering the factoid about TR's age upon vacating the White House. "He had loved being president," she writes, "and after nearly eight years of relishing the great power of his office, had been obliged by custom to give it up. What had that been like? I wondered. What had happened to this powerful man once his power was gone?"

When O'Toole's preliminary research indicated that there had been a lack of careful attention by previous biographers to Roosevelt's final decade, she couldn't resist. And the resources she used led to a fuller picture of the former president than had existed before.

O'Toole's research technique ought to serve as a model for biographers, especially those of presidents, kings, queens and other powerful figures who leave behind voluminous "official records." Those documents are important for biographers to read and quote. But frequently they are unrevealing or downright misleading, having been sanitized before release. Unguarded moments of revelation are excised. Embarrassing or criminal acts are hidden. But if the powerful figure lives longer than his or her reign, records may become available that are indeed revealing, and less guarded.

In approaching her post-presidential TR book, O'Toole moved beyond the voluminous official correspondence. Lots of biographers examine letters from a president and to a president. Not enough biographers leave that comfort zone to mine correspondence that omits the president from the loop, as those who know him write one another candidly. "Times had changed but humans had not," O'Toole reasoned, "so it stood to reason that Roosevelt's friends, like the rest of us, would often share their concerns about a friend more freely among themselves than with the friend himself. My guess proved correct, and I benefited greatly from the thoughts shared by Roosevelt's friends, particularly their thoughts about the wrenching events of 1912, when he persuaded himself that the trumpets of patriotic duty" called him to run for president, despite his pledge upon departing the White House four years earlier that he would never again seek that office.

The excitement of that unexpected attempt to reoccupy the White House is vivid in O'Toole's retelling. So is an extended African safari in which Roosevelt traveled with son Kermit, the former president's noisy criticism about Woodrow Wilson's handling of American entry in World War I, and much more.

The happy result of O'Toole's unconventionally focused presidential biography is a much more nuanced portrait of a U.S. president than anything based primarily on the official record of the White House years. It breaks new ground even after acclaimed biographies by David McCullough (Mornings on Horseback, 1981) and Edmund Morris (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, 1980; Theodore Rex, 2001), which don't deal with the post-presidential years (though Morris plans to address that period in a third volume.)

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