Making History

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Most biographers train the spotlight on their individual subject, and, in the course of the study, if that person changes and evolves, that’s what makes the story. The supporting characters, if you will, don’t change much at all. They are fixed entities. In Roosevelt’s case you usually have these other characters stamped out—the strong, supportive father, the decorative, indolent mother, the sweet, alcoholic brother, and so forth. They stay that way while TR grows. But it isn’t that way in life. They’re all changing. Elliott was not an alcoholic when he was twelve. The mother became a little eccentric and indolent later in life, but she wasn’t at all that way when Teddy was a little boy. So I have tried to show that all these people—all of them—are maturing. It’s been something of a challenge to keep all the balls in the air.

Speaking of changes in TR, you make a lot out of the fact that in 1884, unlike his fellow Republican silkstocking reformers, he supports the spoilsman James G. Blaine for President. Why is that so crucial?

I think it’s the turning point in his life. It isn’t simply party loyalty or expediency. By making that decision he embraces politics as a profession in the full sense of the word. He’s a regular. It’s a commitment. And it’s the first time he goes against his father, who is now dead. There he is turning away from people like Carl Schurz, with whom his father had joined in the anti-Grant Liberal Republican party in 1872. There’s no question his father wouldn’t have supported Blaine. So Theodore is really separating himself, saying, “I am a different person from my father.” And by the way, this is happening just after his first wife and his mother have died—within hours of each other—and the mother meant much, much more to him than he ever let on. So I see it as a point at which, aged twenty-five, he knows he’s a man.

 

You obviously found TR’s childhood asthma very significant. Should biographers know more medical history?

Absolutely. I think we should know much more about the impact of disease on history, and I personally find it fascinating. I did work on lockjaw and the bends for the bridge book, and on yellow fever and malaria for the canal book, and now on asthma for this one. One of the reasons asthma is so fascinating is that there’s so much that’s still not known about it that falls in the area of psychosomatic medicine. Why did TR have it? I think the answers may surprise some people. But whatever the reasons, the attacks did several things. His father would take him on long trips into the country to bring him out of an attack, and I think that gave him an even keener appreciation of the outdoors. They became associated with restorative forces, and with his father, and especially precious moments alone with his father. And it also impressed on him that life is literally a battle. It gave him a kind of power in the family, too. When the attacks came on, or when an attack threatened, it put him at center stage.

He needed a stage?

Yes, I think the lack of recognition would have killed him. You know the old joke that he wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

Victorian families went in for a lot of amateur tableaux, skits, and charades, didn’t they?

Exactly, one was made conscious of having to “play one’s part.” In TR’s case there’s an interesting story about that. He says somewhere that he read a book as a child, in which someone said that if you act as if you’re brave, it will come to be a habit and you will be brave. Well, it’s in Pilgrims Progress —a man who “so bravely played the man he made the fiend to fly.” TR was moved by that book. Someone said that if you boiled him down, what would be left is the preacher militant, the Puritan warrior. He wanted to play the part of the good man, courageous and kind, who goes forth to clear the way for the innocent, like his father.

Is there any one thing that ties your books together?

I don’t want this to sound like a sermon, but they are all about subjects that are symbols of affirmation, and I suspect I will always write about that. The canal, the bridge, the handicapped little boy who overcomes—these are aspects of the best that’s in us as human beings.