- 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
TR’s egotistic moralizing as a reform Police Commissioner of New York City was so insufferable that the Herald published a transcript of one of his speeches with the personal pronoun emphasized in heavy type. The effect, in a column of gray newsprint, was of buckshot at close range. This did not stop TR from using the personal pronoun thirteen times in the first four sentences of his account of the Spanish-American War. In fact, a story went around that halfway through the typesetting, Scribner’s had to send for an extra supply of capital I’s.
The third characteristic of Theodore Roosevelt’s personality was his sense of pride, both as an aristocrat and as an American. From birth, servants and tradespeople deferred to him. Men and women of high quality came to visit his parents and treated him as one of their number. He accepted his status without question, as he did the charitable responsibilities it entailed. At a very early age he was required to accompany his father on Sunday excursions to a lodging house for Irish newsboys and a night school for little Italians. It cannot have escaped his attention that certain immigrant groups lacked the intellectual and social graces of others. Extended tours of Europe and the Levant as a child, teen-ager, and young man soon taught him that this was not due to ethnic inferiority so much as to centuries of economic and political deprivation. Prosperous, independent countries like England and Germany were relatively free of slums and disease; but in Italy women and children scrabbled like chickens for scraps of his cake, and in Ireland people lay down in the road from sheer hunger. From what he read, things were no better in the Slavic countries.
Only in America, with its limitless economic opportunities and freedom from political bondage, might these peasants begin to improve their stock. And only in America could they revitalize their racial characteristics. His own extremely mixed ancestry proved that a generation or two of life in the New World was enough to blend all kinds of European blood into a new, dynamic American breed. (As President, he had a habit when shaking hands with ethnic groups of saying, “Congratulations, I’m German too!” and “Dee-lighted! I’m also Scotch-Irish, you know!” Newspapermen privately referred to him as “Old Fifty-seven Varieties.”)
TR knew the value of an ethnic vote as well as the next man. There is a famous—alas, probably apocryphal—story of his appointment of Oscar Straus as the first Jewish Cabinet officer in American history. At a banquet to celebrate the appointment, TR made a passionate speech full of phrases like “regardless of race, color, or creed” and then turned to Jacob Schiff, the New York Jewish leader, and said, “Isn’t that so, Mr. Schiff?” But Schiff, who was very deaf and had heard little of the speech, replied, “Dot’s right, Mr. President, you came to me and said, ‘Chake, who is der best Choo I can put in de Cabinet?’”
TR realized, of course, that the gap between himself and Joe Murray—the Irish ward-heeler who got him into the New York Assembly—was unbridgeable outside of politics. But in America a low-born man had the opportunity—the duty —to fight his way up from the gutter, as Joe had done. He might then merit an invitation to lunch at Sagamore Hill, or at least tea, assuming he wore a clean shirt and observed decent proprieties.
Here I must emphasize that TR was not a snob in the trivial sense. He had nothing but contempt for the Newport set and the more languid members of the Four Hundred. When he said, at twenty-one, that he wanted to be a member of “the governing class,” he was aware that it was socially beneath his own. At Albany, and in the Bad Lands, and as Colonel of the Rough Riders, he preferred to work with men who were coarse but efficient, rather than those who were polished and weak. He believed, he said, in “the aristocracy of worth,” and cherished the revolution that had allowed such an elite to rise to the top in government. On the other hand (to use his favorite phrase) the historian John Blum has noted that he rarely appointed impoverished or unlettered men to responsible positions. He made great political capital, as President, of the fact that his sons attended the village school at Oyster Bay, along with the sons of his servants, of whom at least one was black; but as soon as the boys reached puberty he whisked them off to Groton.
Only the very young or very old dared call him Teddy to his face. Roosevelt was a patrician to the tips of his tapering fingers, yet he maintained till death what one correspondent called an “almost unnatural” identity with the masses. “I don’t see how you understand the common people so well, Theodore,” complained Henry Cabot Lodge. “No, Cabot, you never will,” said TR, grinning triumphantly, “because I am one of them, and you are not.” TR deluded himself. His plebian strength was due to understanding, not empathy.
The fourth and final major trait of Theodore Roosevelt’s character was his militarism. I will not deal with it in much detail because it is a familiar aspect of him, and in any case did not manifest itself much during his Presidency. There is no doubt that in youth, and again in old age, he was in love with war; but oddly enough, of all our great Presidents, he remains the only one not primarily associated with war (indeed, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906).