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By (November 1, 2007) No Comment

It’s hardly surprising to walk into a bustling bookstore and find a new biography of Theodore Roosevelt. This season features Lion on the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt, Aida D. Donald’s quick and amiable account of the man, but virtually every season since he was first catapulted onto the national stage has featured at least one such book about Roosevelt. The reasons for this are not far to seek: he’s as perennially fascinating to later biographers as he was to the chroniclers of his own time. The books began cropping up as soon as he became president, and there’s every reason to believe they’ll continue to do so.

When Ira Smith, peevish and pleasure-loving White House Chief of Mails, retired and wrote his memoirs of fifty years in the White House mailroom, he set out his best anecdotes and most vivid memories of all the various administrations he’d served. At one point, when a new victor enters the White House, Smith writes:

When [the President] arrived at the White House, he asked us to carry on as we had been doing. That, however, was a mere figure of speech, because the pace was immediately stepped up. He usually got to his desk at 9 a.m., and expected everything to go into high gear at once. That meant I had to get to work at least an hour earlier in order to have everything ready. Then the whirlwind would begin.

Then the whirlwind would begin…at the time, and ever since, Smith could only have been writing about one man.

Theodore Roosevelt, the 20th century’s first president and its youngest up to that point, came to power through an act of chaos. Until an assassin shot President William McKinley, Roosevelt was sequestered in the office of Vice President—a position his enemies chortled over, since it was historically a place of little real power. The chortling stopped abruptly when McKinley died and Roosevelt became the nation’s 26th President.
He was born in 1858 in New York, and long before he became McKinley’s vice president, he was already famous for the charge of his ‘Rough Riders’ up San Juan Hill in 1898. He’d been educated at Harvard, become leader of the New York legislature in 1884, ran the New York police board from 1895-1897, was Assistant Secretary of the Navy, all the while churning out books and articles in such quantity that another man would have considered it work enough for one lifetime. San Juan Hill led to the governorship of the state of New York, and from there it was a short step to the McKinley ticket, with a possible run for the presidency himself in distant 1905.

As things happened, he was running for ‘re’ election in 1905, and he was voted in by an ovation-level majority, a public affirmation for which he felt singular honor.

When he moved his wife and brood of high-spirited children into the White House, those who had known him in his previous years and previous occupations had cause to collectively hold their breath. The man had always been explosively active, and now the leadership of the country was his.

What followed in the next nine years was a performance like none the country had ever seen. Roosevelt had the vigorous popularism of Andrew Jackson, the intellectual acumen of John Adams, and the moral rectitude of Abraham Lincoln, and he combined them all with an unfailing sense of showmanship. The effect was virtually hypnotic, as arresting a spectacle as the country had yet witnessed. So much so, in fact, that even while it was happening it was taking on something of a sui generis character—reasonable, level-headed men (reporters, a great many of them) encountered this show and were entirely overcome by it. Whirlwinds and the like start to come into their prose. Arthur Wallace Dunn, for instance, writing in 1922, conducts an even-handed survey of presidents from Harrison to Harding. And slipped right into the middle of the proceedings is this, served up without a twinge of self-consciousness:

Had Mr. Taft succeeded a man like President Arthur, President Harrison, or President Cleveland, his Administration might have been a success. But he was handicapped by succeeding the most marvelous man of the age.

Likewise the famous anecdote of British statesman John Morley upon visiting America: “I have seen two tremendous works of nature. One is Niagara Falls, and the other is the President of the United States.”

Everywhere in contemporary reactions there’s this element of abandon, the feeling of those watching it all that they were witnessing something revelatory, something very pointedly new. This phenomenon was not new to the White House, far from it: even as an undergraduate at Harvard, he had a way of striking everyone around him as something they’d never seen before. He was indomitable in the face of stronger peers (in the redoubtable Class of 1880, virtually everybody qualified as stronger than this particular freshman), and yet he won their loyalty almost instantly and kept it forever.

A large part of it was motion. He’d been a sickly child, and he’d changed that fact by a studied act of will easily as impressive as anything managed by his more illustrious great grand-nephew in the face of polio. From that most inert of starting-points, he worked himself into a pattern of constant motion that he never afterwards abandoned, so that at the end of his life he could say, “I have kept the promise that I made to myself when I was 21. That promise was to live my life to the hilt until I was 60, and I have kept that promise.”

Jacob Riis, author of the still thrillingly relevant poverty study How the Other Half Lives, was working for the New York City police board when Roosevelt took over. Outgoing Chief Byrnes had told him about the entrenched political system: “It will break you. You will yield. You are but human.”

It was dark-eyed graft, talking to a field of chain-lightning; anyone (except perhaps for the two men involved) watching would have seen only the most serious comedy imaginable.

Riis didn’t meet his new boss on the first day, but he did receive his card, on the back of which was written in pencil: “I have read your book, and I have come to help.”

“His plain performance of a plain duty,” Riis wrote,

the doing of the right because it was the right, taught us a lesson we stood in greater need of than of any other. Roosevelt’s campaign for the reform of the police force became the moral issue of the day. It swept the cobwebs out of our civic brains, and blew the dust from our eyes, so we saw clearly where all had been confusion before: saw straight, rather.

Roosevelt studied every issue he approached, in any personal or official capacity he ever held. He read vastly and ferociously (the extent of his preparation for these issues was often underestimated), and then he consulted everyone from whose opinion he thought he might learn something. But when those two steps were over, Roosevelt always did the same thing: he acted.

He could scarcely help it; as Henry Adams and a number of other Washington wits had been saying for years, Roosevelt was at heart a child, and children find it hard to wait.

He said so himself, for instance, when he was once discussing an important matter with some conferees when a group of boys burst into the room, boisterously reminding the President that he’d promised his time to them. According to George William Douglas, the scene went this way:

Then he turned to his guests and added, “I must ask you to excuse me. We’ll talk this out some other time. I promised the boys I’d go shooting with them after four o’clock, and I never keep boys waiting. It’s a hard trial for a boy to wait.”

Certainly he had no cause for waiting. McKinley had been an amiable enough man entirely reposed on the bed of 19th century American politics-as-usual, a sort of Tammany Hall writ large, in which influences were quietly and consistently pedaled and in which justice for the sake of justice seldom made an appearance. The South was a backward morass of post-Reconstruction graft and bigotry; the burgeoning business and railroad trusts wove greater and greater monopolies in the full light of day; federal and civil service systems had degenerated into pickings-baskets of nepotism and insider jobbing; the American armed forces were being outbuilt by half a dozen smaller nations; and the country had been rocked to its roots by the assassination of the president.

Into this tangled and stagnant state of affairs Theodore Roosevelt fell like a thunderbolt.

He achieved his rise without compromise, a thing unheard of in his age. And if that weren’t bad enough for the entrenched interests of the day, he combined personal incorruptibility with something even more singular: the mantle of popular heroism laid on him at San Juan Hill. A man larger than life entered the governor’s mansion and taught himself how to conduct business in a larger than life way. This is not as simple as it sounds at first; people who decide to live their lives by principle and energy can be hampered all around by dealing with people who are still living timidly; the problem is steepened if the former fail to realize that the latter aren’t necessarily evil or corrupt. Tact is called for, and yet tact is so seldom used! Alexander the Great dispensed with tact in favor of pansexual seduction. Henry II dispensed with tact in favor of overlordly intimidation. And Theodore Roosevelt dispensed with tact in favor of simply believing in everyone he knew the full extent of what he believed in himself. Virtually nobody so treated buckled under this unexpected load; most people glowed, glowed like they’d never felt such an honor and never would again. Newspaperman Henry Stoddard, writing years later, began his Roosevelt chapter this way:

To have known Theodore Roosevelt well and to have enjoyed his confidence is a proud privilege for an American to claim. That privilege is mine—I rank it among the richest of my life.

He galvanized people, because he himself was fearless of future contradiction. The Roosevelt dogma, as much as it could be summarized, could be summarized so: do your work, consult your experts, and then do what you decide is right, and damn the consequences.

Since the days of Andrew Jackson and beyond, nobody had ever seen such a leader, and that’s exactly what he was: not a backroom schemer, not a Senate floor consensus-maker, not even as a Republican Party standard-bearer—he lead men, and at times he scarcely cared about their predispositions or party affiliations…he aimed for doing the right thing on behalf of the people, who he quickly came to consider his ultimate constituents.

Pundits—not to mention quite a few career politicians—in his own time wondered about this, and later historians have echoed the caution, as Howard Beale does in his largely excellent 1956 study of Roosevelt’s international policy:

In other hands his ability, his understanding of international problems, his interest in power, his desire to be strong enough to settle questions by might, his secret, highly personal handling of foreign affairs might have become dangerous to democracy and to the peace of the world.

In other words, words Beale is just a bit too nice to use, Roosevelt’s presidential behavior looked a lot like a Roman emperor in action—and more than one political cartoonist of the day caught the same idea with glee. Roosevelt saw all these cartoons and more besides—after witnessing the way the President went through his morning papers every day at breakfast, one White House guest compared it to “a raccoon left unsupervised with a with a wheel of cheese”—but it little bothered him. Because he had never been required to pander to the baser instincts in men (or voters), he felt free in his days of power to believe everyone free of such taint until they proved him otherwise. It was a simplistic approach, but only on the surface: the transmission of such a profound moral weight has a frequent and unlooked-for effect on those who receive it. Such people, confronted with someone who believes in the very best idea of themselves, often strive to be that idea, and quite apart from their eventual success or failure in that regard, they often give their challenger lifelong, unquestioning loyalty. No one laughed louder than Roosevelt at the fun poked at him in the press, and no president has ever had so thorough a control over that same press. This was important to his idea of executive function, since most of the time the press was his easiest means of communicating directly with the people. Samuel Hays drew an accurate picture of this in an essay from nearly half a century ago:

As his administration encountered difficulty with Congress, Roosevelt relied more and more on executive commissions, and on action based on the theory that the executive was the ‘steward’ of the public interest. Feeling that he, rather than Congress, voiced more accurately the popular will, he advocated direct as opposed to representative government. Unable to adjust to a Congress which rejected his gospel of efficiency, Roosevelt took his case to the ‘people.’

Contemporary parallels, of course, beckon. The opening of the 21st century, like the opening of the 20th, again sees a single-minded broadening of the executive branch’s power, in violation of both the spirit and the letter of the law. Roosevelt numbered among his friends some of the finest legal minds in the country, and not one of them could tell him that his executive commissions were constitutional, any more than presidential ‘signing statements’ are a legitimate exercise of executive authority. Both subvert the law by sidestepping it, and in both cases the heart of the matter is the nature of the man doing the subverting, his motives for doing it.

This is where Theodore Roosevelt the man traditionally becomes Theodore Roosevelt the moral, at the hands of those who write about him in modern times. In his own day, the fierce vigor with which he wielded the power of his office was offset by the only thing that could offset it: he was known to his friends and enemies as being personally incorruptible. The power to bypass Congress, to move the military as almost a private army, to manipulate the press—these things in Roosevelt’s time could only be frightening as precedents; the man himself was complete and transparent in the high-minded nobility of his intentions. This led contemporary writers to pen tributes that very pointedly sting in our smaller, more venal age:

…to him life is duty first, always, because it gave him certain advantages of birth, of education, of early associations for which he owes a return to his day and to his people. I wish to God more of us felt like that; for until we do our Republic will be more of a name and an empty boast than we have any right to let it be.

That was Jacob Riis again, echoing a sentiment widely held about Roosevelt’s sense of civic obligation, and laying the groundwork for the oddly frustrating task present-day biographers face when writing about Roosevelt. The man himself was complete—he said what he thought, he did what he said, he never lied, and he was right far more often than he was wrong. He’s on Mount Rushmore, but he’s the only one up there who has no dark side, who confounded critics and delighted the country by his pure, limitless energy. Such a man will always attract biographers, but he will also almost always confound them, exhaust them, and reduce them to parable. It might be argued that Theodore Roosevelt in power was some kind of paragon; it can be stated with dead certainty, however, that no other has since ruled in the White House. This creates a temptation to use him rather than to chronicle him—as admonition, as blueprint, as symbol of a lost golden age. In the last century, only Edmund Morris has managed to write magnificently on Roosevelt without succumbing to this temptation, and the effort has the look of exhausting him.

It was not a golden age, of course, and Roosevelt was human, for all his ardent excesses. After his 1905 election, he rashly declared that he would not seek reelection—a declaration he almost immediately regretted and could not possibly have kept, as he himself should have known better than anyone. In 1910 he split the Republican Party by forming a Progressive party of his own in a bid for the White House, thereby handing the race to Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Had he won in 1912, who can say the First World War would have happened at all, or what shape it would have taken if it did? One of his most trusted advisors, Elihu Root, was to win a Nobel Prize in that year, largely for his work in the field of arbitration—and Roosevelt enjoyed extremely convivial personal relations with several key players on the international stage. It’s entirely possible that as president he might have avoided the war which as a citizen cost him a son.

He died just after the war’s end, in 1919, and at his funeral an old colleague spoke thus:

What explains his power? Life is the answer. Life at its warmest and fullest and freest, at its utmost in vigor, at its sanest in purpose and restraint. At its cleanest and clearest, life tremendous in volume, unbounded in scope, yet controlled and guided with a disciplined power which made him, as few men have ever been, the captain of his soul. Alert, glad, without meanness and without fear, free from arrogance and affectation, with few hesitations and few regrets, slow to promise but ardent to perform, delighting in difficulties, welcoming danger, sensitive to the touch of every phase of human existence, yet dominated by standards more severely set for himself than for any others, sustained by a breadth of knowledge and of sympathy and by an endurance, both physical and mental, which belonged to him alone, Roosevelt lived with a completeness that lesser men can never know.

The mere possibility that such hyperbole might be more true than false—the chance that such a portrait might not, in fact, contain much exaggeration, has been the despair of many an historian, confronted in later days by inevitably lesser men. This despair is incalculably deepened by familiarity with Roosevelt’s own writings, which display the thing itself for any reader to see. When Roosevelt left office, he conceived a grand hunting expedition to Africa (in order to relax, he claimed, although more than one critic noticed that such an outsized activity would also serve quite well in keeping the spotlight focused on him even after he left the White House). The idea gave Roosevelt’s friend Sir Cecil Spring Rice grave misgivings, which he communicated in a letter he sent to Mrs. Roosevelt. This letter of course drew a prompt response from Roosevelt himself, a letter which opens like this:

Dear Cecil,
Oh! You beloved Mrs. Gummidge! If you feel as melancholy over my trip to Africa as you do over the future of the race generally, at least you must not share the feeling too fully with Mrs. Roosevelt. I laughed until I almost cried over your sending her the pamphlet upon the ‘sleeping sickness,’ and explaining in your letter that it was perfectly possible that I would not die of that, because (in the event of my not previously being eaten by a lion or crocodile, or killed by an infuriated elephant or buffalo) malarial fever or a tribe of enraged savages might take me off before the sleeping sickness got at me! I am bound to say, however, that the letter gave Mrs. Roosevelt a keen though melancholy enjoyment, and she will now have the feeling that she is justified in the Roman matron-like attitude of heroically bidding me go to my death when I sail in a well-equipped steamer for an entirely comfortable and mild little hunting trip.

No other public figure of the day could strike that exact tone, that remarkable admixture of childlike humor and larger-than-life exploits. The combination is so nearly cartoonish in its uniqueness that for a moment it almost wants to soothe, to alleviate the oppressive comparativeness of his memory. But the same letter ends like this:

I am intensely interested in the Liberal movement in the Moslem world…of course, one of the things I fear is their [the various Middle Eastern factions] being misled by false analogies. For instance, the fact that reform is necessary in Turkey does not in the least mean that it is now to the advantage of Egypt to have a parliament, and the fact that the Duma would do good in Persia does not mean that there ought to be a great legislative body at this time in Hindustan.

  In 2007, that “intensely interested” alone is heartbreaking. H.W. Brands, in his yearning and winningly sentimental biography of Roosevelt, says he came along at just the right moment in American history, a moment when the population was beginning to forget the heroisms of the Civil War and was consequently hungry for living heroes, a need Roosevelt more than met. Even here, even invoking an already outdated idea of heroism, the comparison bug manages to bite: the so-called “greatest generation,” the Americans who fought against the comfortably condemnable out-and-out evil of Hitler’s Axis, are slowly dying off, and there is as yet no untarnishable group to take their place. If Brands is right, a corresponding hunger for heroes is besetting the American people right now.

It may or may not be so. The times themselves are always poor indicators of such things, where hindsight is at its most limited. But if it is so, we can only hope the same remedy is somewhere at hand. One weird, tireless, utterly unique individual helped the 20th century to be born. Who will render such aid to the 21st century remains to be seen. If he—or she—would wear a prince-nez and grin a lot, so much the easier for a weary posterity to spot their helpmeet.

Works Consulted:

Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt
By Aida D. Donald
Perseus Publishing, 2007

George Van Langerke Meyer: His Life and Public Services
By W.A. DeWolfe Howe
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920

From Harding to Harrison
By Arthur Wallace Dunn
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1922

As I Knew Them
By Henry Stoddard
Harper & Brother, 1927

Theodore Roosevelt the Citizen
By Jacob Riis
The Outlook Company, 1904

Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power
By Howard Beale
Johns Hopkins Press, 1956

Theodore Roosevelt the Man, as I Knew Him
By Ferdinand Iglehart
The Christian Herald, 1919

‘Dear Mr. President…’
By Ira R.T. Smith
Julian Messner Inc, 1949

Theodore Roosevelt and the Politics of Power
By G. Wallace Chessman
Little, Brown, 1969

The Many-Sided Roosevelt
By George William Douglas
Dodd, Mead & Company, 1907

Theodore Roosevelt and Reform Politics
Edited by Richard H. Collin
DC Heath & Company, 1972

TR: the Last Romantic
By H.W. Brands
Basic Books, 1997

Theodore Rex
By Edmund Morris
Modern Library, 2001

Steve Donoghue went to Nevada as a silver prospector in 1859, made a fast fortune from the Comstock Lode, and promptly retired to remote mansion in Big Sur. When the Internet connection works from there, he hosts the literary blog Stevereads.