Associated Press/Photo by Louis Lanzano

Better than bullets

2011 Books Issue | Biographers tell the amazing stories of two pivotal presidents

Issue: "2011 Books of the Year," July 2, 2011

Comic book and movie super heroes are often bulletproof, and two excellent, 700-plus-page biographies of two former presidents hint that they were as well.

Ron Chernow's George Washington: A Life (Penguin Press), winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for biography, tells the familiar but good story of 23-year-old George Washington surviving a 1755 French and Indian War battle despite having two horses shot out from under him and four bullet holes through his hat and uniform. "I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved (Washington) in so signal a manner for some important service to his country," said a Presbyterian minister at the time.

Edmund Morris' Colonel Roosevelt (Random House) is the final volume of the historian's Theodore Roosevelt trilogy: Modern Library listed the first in its top 100 nonfiction books of the 20th century. Colonel Roosevelt chronicles TR's post-White House decade, including the time in 1912 he was on his way to give a speech in Milwaukee and a gunman fired a bullet from point-blank range into his right breast. Roosevelt's 50-page speech (folded in half) and his eyeglasses case slowed down the bullet enough for TR to stride into the auditorium, unbutton his vest to reveal to a stunned audience of 10,000 his bloodied shirt, and speak for 80 minutes. Then he headed to the hospital.

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Chernow calls Washington "a remote, enigmatic personage more revered than truly loved" and sets out to humanize him. Washington did not chop down a cherry tree when young or wear wooden teeth when old. He did love dancing and musical theater and he liked to leave his carriage on the outskirts of a town and ride in on a white horse. He struggled with debt and was a demanding perfectionist, issuing orders for the exact height of his personal guard.

Chernow also presents an inner Washington who endured an overbearing mother, struggled with a temper that lurked behind his marble façade, and believed that Providence "directed my steps and shielded me in various changes and chances through which I have passed." An active member of two churches, Washington's placid outward demeanor kept him from using his faith as a spectacle, Chernow argues. He depicts Washington as having a simple faith, and quotes numerous contemporaries who saw Washington engaged in regular private prayer and devotions.

Theodore Roosevelt also prayed to a great God and played on a large stage. He once boasted that he had "lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know," and it's hard to argue his point. At age 50 he left office, embarked on a yearlong African hunting safari, and returned to civilization having personally killed 296 animals-a zoo-like menagerie of lions, elephants, buffalo, rhino, giraffe, hippos, ostriches, and zebras.

This was not even TR's biggest post-presidential adventure. In 1914 he led a two-month expedition to map an unknown river in Brazil called the River of Doubt. Roosevelt and his crew braved cannibals, whitewater rapids, diseases, and dwindling food supplies. Men died, and the almost-1,000-mile trek nearly cost Roosevelt his own life. "I had to go," TR said. "It was my last chance to be a boy."

Morris details Roosevelt's stubborn attempt to regain the White House in 1912 and his romanticizing of combat. He spent three years trying to bully President Woodrow Wilson to bring the United States into Europe's great war, and when he did so TR, now 58, begged Wilson to give him a battlefield command. Wilson said no, so Roosevelt sent his four sons to fight in his place. The consequences gave TR a shocking education in war's brute realities-a lesson, Morris argues, that literally broke Roosevelt's heart.

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Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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