Theodore Roosevelt, President

PrintPrintEmailEmailIf Theodore Roosevelt seems to push his way into our pages with extraordinary frequency, it is because the force and variety of this “giant,” “over-engined” man appear to be endless. The following study of TR’s personality—which so well illustrates this point—was written by Edmund Morris, who won the Pulitzer prize for The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt in 1980 and is now at work on a second volume. This essay was delivered as a speech, in somewhat longer form, at a recent symposium on presidential personality at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

Let us dispose, in short order, with Theodore Roosevelt’s faults. He was an incorrigible preacher of platitudes; or to use Elting E. Morison’s delicious phrase, he had “a recognition, too frequently and precisely stated, of the less recondite facts of life.” He significantly reduced the wildlife population of some three continents. He piled his dessert plate with so many peaches that the cream spilled over the sides. And he used to make rude faces out of the presidential carriage at small boys in the streets of Washington.

Now those last two faults are forgivable if we accept British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice’s advice, “You must always remember the President is about six.” The first fault—his preachiness—is excused by the fact that the American electorate dearly loves a moralist. As to the second and most significant fault—Theodore Roosevelt’s genuine blood-lust and desire to destroy his adversaries, whether they be rhinoceroses or members of the United States Senate—it is paradoxically so much a part of his virtues, both as a man and a politician, that I will come back to it in more detail later.

One of the minor irritations I have to contend with as a biographer is that whenever I go to the library to look for books about Roosevelt, Theodore, they infallibly are mixed up with books about Roosevelt, Franklin—and I guess FDR scholars have the same problem in reverse. Time was when the single word “Roosevelt” meant only Theodore; FDR himself frequently had to insist, in the early thirties, that he was not TR’s son. He was merely a fifth cousin, and what was even more distant, a Democrat to boot. In time, of course, Franklin succeeded in preempting the early meaning of the word “Roosevelt,” to the point that TR’s public image, which once loomed as large as Washington’s and Lincoln’s, began to fade like a Cheshire cat from popular memory. By the time of FDR’s own death in 1945, little was left but the ghost of a toothy grin.

Only a few veterans of the earlier Roosevelt era survived to testify that if Franklin was the greater politician, it was only by a hairsbreadth, and as far as sheer personality was concerned, Theodore’s superiority could be measured in spades. They pointed out that FDR himself declared, late in life, that his “cousin Ted” was the greatest man he ever knew.

Presently the veterans too died. But that ghostly grin continued to float in the national consciousness, as if to indicate that its owner was meditating a reappearance. I first became aware of the power behind the grin in Washington, in February of 1976. The National Theater was trying out an ill-fated musical by Alan Lerner and Leonard Bernstein, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue . For two and a half hours Ken Howard worked his way through a chronological series of impersonations of historic Presidents. The audience sat on its hands, stiff with boredom, until the very end, when Mr. Howard clamped on a pair of pince-nez and a false mustache, and bared all his teeth in a grin. The entire theater burst into delighted applause.

What intrigued me was the fact that few people there could have known much about TR beyond the obvious clichés of San Juan Hill and the Big Stick. Yet somehow, subconsciously, they realized that here for once was a positive President, warm and tough and authoritative and funny, who believed in America and who, to quote Owen Wister, “grasped his optimism tight lest it escape him.”

In the last year or so Theodore Roosevelt has made his long-promised comeback. He has been the subject of a Newsweek cover story on American heroes; Russell Baker has called him a cinch to carry all fifty states if he were running for the White House today; he’s starring on Broadway in Tintypes , on television in Bully , and you’ll soon see him on the big screen in Ragtime . Every season brings a new crop of reassessments in the university presses, and as for the pulp mills, he figures largely in the latest installment of John Jakes’s Kent Chronicles. No time like the present, therefore, to study that giant personality in color and fine detail.