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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
He did not lack for military influences as a child; four of his Georgian ancestors had been military men, and stories of their exploits were told him by his mother. Two of his uncles served with distinction in the Confederate navy—a fact of which he proudly boasts in his Autobiography , while making no reference to his father’s civilian status. (The Autobiography , by the way, is one of history’s great examples of literary amnesia. You would not guess, from its pages, that Theodore Senior ever hired a substitute soldier, that Alice Lee ever lived or died, that TR was blind in one eye as President, that anything called the Brownsville Affair ever occurred, or that Elihu Root ever sat at his Cabinet table. As James Bryce once said, “Roosevelt wouldn’t always look at a thing, you know.”)
When TR learned to read, he reveled in stories “about the soldiers of Valley Forge, and Morgan’s riflemen,” and confessed, “I had a great desire to be like them.” In his senior year at Harvard, he suddenly developed an interest in strategy and tactics and began to write The Naval War of 1812 ; within eighteen months he was the world expert on that subject. As soon as he left college he joined the National Guard and quickly became a captain, which stood him in good stead when he was called upon to lead a cavalry regiment in 1898. Throughout his literary years he made a study of classical and modern campaigns, and he would wage the great battles of history with knives and forks and spoons on his tablecloth. No doubt much of this fascination with things military related to his natural aggression, but there was an intellectual attraction too: he read abstract tomes on armaments, navigation, ballistics, strategy, and service administration as greedily as swashbuckling memoirs. Nothing is more remarkable about The Naval War of 1812 than its cold impartiality, its use of figures and diagrams to destroy patriotic myths. Roosevelt understood that great battles are fought by thinking men, that mental courage is superior to physical bravado. Nobody thrilled more to the tramp of marching boots than he, but he believed that men must march for honorable reasons, in obedience to the written orders of a democratically elected Commander in Chief. In that respect, at least, the pen was mightier than the sword.
Now how much did these four character traits—aggression, righteousness, pride, and militarism—affect TR’s performance as President of the United States? The answer is, strongly, as befits a strong character and a strong Chief Executive. The way he arrived at this “personal equation” is interesting, because he was actually in a weak position at the beginning of his first administration.
When TR took the oath of office on September 14, 1901, he was the youngest man ever to do so—a Vice-President, elevated by assassination, confronted by a nervous Cabinet and a hostile Senate. Yet from the moment he raised his hand in that little parlor in Buffalo, it was apparent that he intended to translate his personal power into presidential power. The hand did not stop at the shoulder; he raised it high above his head, and held it there, “steady as if carved out of marble.” His right foot pawed the floor. Aggression . He repeated the words of the oath confidently, adding an extra phrase, not called for in the Constitution, at the end: “And so I swear.” Righteousness . His two senior Cabinet officers, John Hay and Lyman Gage, were not present at the ceremony, but TR announced that they had telegraphed promises of loyalty to him. Actually they had not; they were both considering resignation, but TR knew any such resignations would be construed as votes ot no confidence in him, and he was determined to forestall them. By announcing that Hay and Gage would stay, out of loyalty to the memory of the dead President, he made it morally impossible for them to quit. Pride .
As for militarism , TR was seen much in the company of the New York State Adjutant General the next few days, and an armed escort of cavalrymen accompanied him wherever he went. This was perhaps understandable, in view of the fact that a President had just been assassinated, but it is a matter of record that more and more uniforms were seen glittering around TR as the months and years went on. Toward the end of his second administration, Harper’s Weekly complained that “there has been witnessed under President Roosevelt an exclusiveness, a rigor of etiquette, and a display of swords and gold braid such as none of his predecessors ever dreamed of.”
As the theatrical gestures at TR’s Inauguration make plain, he was one of the most flagrant showmen ever to tread the Washington boards. He had a genius for dramatic entrances—and always was sure the spotlight was trained his way before he made one. The first thing he asked at Buffalo was, “Where are all the newspapermen?” Only three reporters were present. His secretary explained that there was no room for more. Ignoring him, TR sent out for the rest of the press corps. Two dozen scribes came joyfully crowding in, and the subsequent proceedings were reported to the nation with a wealth of detail.