- 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
It’s a pity that the two men never had a public slanging match over the table, because when it came to personal invective, TR could give as good as he got. There was the rather slow British ambassador whom he accused of having “a mind that functions at six guinea-pig power.” There was the State Supreme Court Justice he called “an amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains.” There was that “unspeakably villainous little monkey,” President Castro of Venezuela, and President Marroquin of Colombia, whom he described in one word as a “Pithecanthropoid.” Woodrow Wilson was “a Byzantine logothete” (even Wilson had to go to the dictionary for that one); John Wanamaker was “an ill-constitutioned creature, oily, with bristles sticking up through the oil,” and poor Senator Warren Pfeffer never quite recovered from being called “a pin-headed anarchistic crank, of hirsute and slabsided aspect.” TR did not use bad language—the nearest to it I’ve found is his description of Charles Evans Hughes as “a psalm-singing son of a bitch,” but then Charles Evans Hughes tended to invite such descriptions. Moreover, TR usually took the sting out of his insults by collapsing into laughter as he uttered them. Booth Tarkington detected “an undertone of Homeric chuckling” even when Roosevelt seemed to be seriously castigating someone—”as if, after all, he loved the fun of hating, rather than the hating itself.”
Humor, indeed, was always TR’s saving grace. A reporter who spent a week with him in the White House calculated that he laughed, on average, a hundred times a day—and what was more, laughed heartily. “He laughs like an irresponsible schoolboy on a lark, his face flushing ruddy, his eyes nearly closed, his utterance choked with merriment, his speech abandoned for a weird falsetto.… The President is a joker, and (what many jokers are not) a humorist as well.”
If there were nothing more to Theodore Roosevelt’s personality than physical exuberance, humor, and charm, he would indeed have been what he sometimes is misperceived to be: a simple-minded, amiable bully. Actually he was an exceedingly complex man, a polygon (to use Brander Matthews’ word) of so many political, intellectual, and social facets that the closer one gets to him, the less one is able to see him in the round. Consider merely this random list of attributes and achievements:
He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University. He was the author of a four-volume history of the winning of the West which was considered definitive in his lifetime, and a history of the naval war of 1812 which remains definitive to this day. He also wrote biographies of Thomas Hart Benton, Gouverneur Morris, and Oliver Cromwell, and some fourteen other volumes of history, natural history, literary criticism, autobiography, political philosophy, and military memoirs, not to mention countless articles and approximately seventy-five thousand letters. He spent nearly three years of his life in Europe and the Levant, and had a wide circle of intellectual correspondents on both sides of the Atlantic. He habitually read one to three books a day, on subjects ranging from architecture to zoology, averaging two or three pages a minute and effortlessly memorizing the paragraphs that interested him. He could recite poetry by the hour in English, German, and French. He married two women and fathered six children. He was a boxing championship finalist, a Fifth Avenue socialite, a New York State Assemblyman, a Dakota cowboy, a deputy sheriff, a president of the Little Missouri Stockmen’s Association, United States Civil Service Commissioner, Police Commissioner of New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Colonel of the Rough Riders, Governor of New York, Vice-Président, and finally President of the United States. He was a founding member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and a fellow of the American Historical Society. He was accepted by Washington’s scientific community as a skilled ornithologist, paleontologist, and taxidermist (during the White House years, specimens that confused experts at the Smithsonian were occasionally sent to TR for identification), and he was recognized as the world authority on the bie-eame mammals of North America.
Now all these achievements predate his assumption of the Presidency—in other words, he packed them into his first forty-three years. I will spare you another list of the things he packed into his last ten, after leaving the White House in 1909, except to say that the total of books rose to thirty-eight, the total of letters to 150,000, and the catalogue of careers expanded to include world statesman, big-game collector for the Smithsonian, magazine columnist, and South American explorer.
If it were possible to take a cross section of TR’s personality, as geologists, say, ponder a chunk of continent, you would be presented with a picture of Seismic richness and confusion. The most order I have been able to make of it is ^ to isolate four major character seams. They might be traced back to childhood. Each seam stood out bright and clear in youth and early middle age, but they began to merge about the time he was forty. Indeed the white heat of the Presidency soon fused them all into solid metal. But so long as they were distinct they may be identified as aggression, righteousness, pride, and militarism. Before suggesting how they affected his performance as President, I’d like to explain how they originated.