- Historic Sites
Theodore Roosevelt, President
For TR, the nation s highest office was never a burden; he loved the job, and Americans loved him for loving it
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
When referring to Theodore Roosevelt I do not use the word giant loosely. “Every inch of him,” said William Alien White, “was over-engined.” Lyman Gage likened him, mentally and physically, to two strong men combined; Gif ford Pinchot said that his normal appetite was enough for four people, Charles J. Bonaparte estimated that his mind moved ten times faster than average, and TR himself, not wanting to get into double figures, modestly remarked, “I have enjoyed as much of life as any nine men I know.” John Morley made a famous comparison in 1904 between Theodore Roosevelt and the Niagara Falls, “both great wonders of nature.” John Burroughs wrote that TR’s mere proximity made him nervous. “There was always something imminent about him, like an avalanche that the sound of your voice might loosen.” Ida Tarbell, sitting next to him at a musicale, had a sudden hallucination that the President was about to burst. “I felt his clothes might not contain him, he was so steamed up, so ready to go, to attack anything, anywhere.”
Reading all these remarks it comes as a surprise to discover that TR’s chest measured a normal forty-two inches, and that he stood only five feet nine in his size seven shoes. Yet unquestionably his initial impact was physical, and it was overwhelming. I have amused myself over the years with collecting the metaphors that contemporaries used to describe this Rooseveltian “presence.” Here’s a random selection. Edith Wharton thought him radioactive; Archie Butt and others used phrases to do with electricity, high-voltage wires, generators, and dynamos; a Lawrence Abbott compared him to an electromagnetic nimbus; John Burroughs to “a kind of electric bombshell, if there can be such a thing”; James E. Watson was reminded of TNT; and Senator Joseph Foraker, in an excess of imagination, called TR “a steam-engine in trousers. ” A There are countless other steam-engine metaphors, from Henry Adams’ “swift and awful Chicago express” to Henry James’s “verily, a wonderful little machine: destined to be over-strained, perhaps, hut not as yet, truly, betraying the least creak. ” Lastly we have Owen Wister comparing TR to a solar conflagration that cast no shadow, only radiance.
These metaphors sound fulsome, but they refer only to TR’s physical effect, which was felt with equal power by friends and enemies. People actually tingled in his company; there was something sensually stimulating about it. They came out of the presidential office flushed, short-breathed, energized, as if they had been treated to a sniff of white powder. He had, as Oscar Straus once said, “the quality of vitalizing things.” His youthfulness (he was not yet forty-three at the beginning of his first term, and barely fifty at the end of his second), his air of glossy good health, his powerful handshake—all these things combined to give an impression of irresistible force and personal impetus.
But TR was not just a physical phenomenon. In many ways the quality of his personality was more remarkable than its quantity. Here again, I have discovered recurrences of the same words in contemoorarv descriptions. One of the more frequent images is that of sweetness. “He was as sweet a man,” wrote Henry Watterson, “as ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat.” But most comments are kinder than that. “There is a sweetness about him that is very compelling,” sighed Woodrow Wilson. “You can’t resist the man. ” Robert Livingstone, a journalist, wrote after TR’s death: “He had the double gifts of a sweet nature that came out in every hand-touch and tone … and a sincerely powerful personality that left the uneffaceable impression that whatever he said was right. Such a combination was simply irresistible.” Livingstone’s final verdict was that Theodore Roosevelt had “unquestionably the greatest gift of personal magnetism ever possessed by an American.”
That may or may not be true, but certainly there are very few recorded examples of anybody, even TR’s bitterest political critics, being able to resist him in person. Brand Whitlock, Mark Twain, John Jay Chapman, William Jennings Bryan, and Henry James were all seduced by his charm, if only temporarily. Peevish little Henry Adams spent much of the period from 1901 to 1909 penning a series of magnificent insults to the President’s reputation. But this did not prevent him from accepting frequent invitations to dine at the White House and basking gloomily in TR’s effulgence. By the time the Roosevelt era came to an end, Adams was inconsolable. “My last vision of fun and gaiety will vanish when my Theodore goes … never can we replace him.”