June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
For TR, the nation s highest office was never a burden; he loved the job, and Americans loved him for loving it
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.
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.”
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.
The most fundamental characteristic of Theodore Roosevelt was his aggression—conquest being, to him, synonymous with growth. From the moment he first dragged breath into his asthmatic lungs, the sickly little boy fought for a larger share of the world. He could never get enough air; disease had to be destroyed; he had to fight his way through big, heavy books to gain a man’s knowledge. Just as the struggle for wind made him stretch his chest, so did the difficulty of relating to abnormally contrasting parents extend his imagination. Theodore Senior was the epitome of hard, thrusting Northern manhood; Mittie Roosevelt was the quintessence of soft, yielding Southern femininity. The Civil War—the first political phenomenon little Teedie was ever aware of—symbolically opposed one to the other. There was no question as to which side, and which parent, the child preferred. He naughtily prayed God, in Mittie’s presence, to “grind the Southern troops to powder,” and the victory of Union arms reinforced his belief in the superiority of Strength over Weakness, Right over Wrong, Realism over Romance.
Teedie’s youthful “ofserv-a-tions” in natural history gave him further proof of the laws of natural selection, long before he fully understood Darwin and Herbert Spencer. For weeks he watched in fascination while a tiny shrew successively devoured a mass of beetles, then a mouse twice her size, then a snake so large it whipped her from side to side of the cage as she was gnawing through its neck. From then on the rule of tooth and claw, aided by superior intelligence, was a persistent theme in Theodore Roosevelt’s writings.
Blood sports, which he took up as a result of his shooting for specimens, enabled him to feel the “strong eager pleasure” of the shrew in vanquishing ever larger foes; his exuberant dancing and whooping after killing a particularly dangerous animal struck more than one observer as macabre. From among his own kind, at college, he selected the fairest and most unobtainable mate—“See that girl? I’m going to marry her. She won’t have me, but I am going to have her! ”—and he ferociously hunted her down. That was Alice Lee Roosevelt, mother of the late Alice Longworth.
During his first years in politics, in the New York State Assembly, he won power through constant attack. The death of Alice Lee, coming as it did just after the birth of his first child—at the moment of fruition of his manhood—only intensified his will to fight. He hurried West, to where the battle for life was fiercest. The West did not welcome him; it had to be won, like everything else he lusted for. Win it he did, by dint of the greatest physical and mental stretchings-out he had yet made. In doing so he built up the magnificent body that became such an inspiration to the American people (one frail little boy who vowed to follow the President’s example was the future world heavyweight champion, Gene Tunney). And by living on equal terms with the likes of Hashknife Simpson, Bat Masterson, Modesty Carter, Bronco Charlie Miller, and Hell-Roaring Bill Jones, he added another mental frontier to those he already had inherited at birth. Theodore Roosevelt, Eastern son of a Northern father and a Southern mother, could now call himself a Westerner also.
TR’s second governing impulse was his personal righteousness. As one reviewer of his books remarked, “He seems to have been born with his mind made up.” No violent shocks disturbed his tranquil, prosperous childhood in New York City. Privately educated, he suffered none of the traumas of school. Thanks to the security of his home, the strong leadership of his father, and the adoration of his brother and sisters, Teedie entered adolescence with no sexual or psychological doubts whatsoever. Or if he had any, he simply reasoned them out, according to the Judéo-Christian principles Theodore Senior had taught him, reached the proper moral decision, and that was that. “Thank heaven!” he wrote in his diary after falling in love with Alice Lee, “I am perfectly pure.”
His three great bereavements (the death of his father in 1878, and the deaths of his mother and wife in the same house and on the same day in 1884) came too late in his development to do him any permanent emotional damage. They only served to convince him more that he must be strong, honest, clean-living, and industrious. “At least I can live,” he wrote, “so as not to dishonor the memory of the dead whom I so loved,” and never was a cliché more heartfelt. Experiment after experiment proved the correctness of his instincts—in graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, in marrying successfully, in defying the doctors who ordered him to live a sedentary life, in winning international acclaim as writer and politician long before he was thirty. (He received his first nomination for the Presidency, by the Baltimore American, when he was only twenty-eight; it had to be pointed out to the newspaper’s editors that he was constitutionally debarred from that honor for the next seven years.)
In wild Dakota Territory, he proceeded to knock down insolent cowboys, establish the foundations of federal government, pursue boat thieves in the name of the law, and preach the gospel of responsible citizenship. One of the first things he did after Benjamin Harrison appointed him Civil Service Commissioner was call for the. prosecution of Postmaster General William Wallace of Indianapolis—who just happened to be the President’s best friend. “That young man,” Harrison growled, “wants to put the whole world right between sunrise and sunset.”
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).
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.
Here again we see a pattern of presidential performance developing. The exaggerated concern for the rights of reporters, the carefully staged gestures (so easy to write up, such fun to read about!)—it was as if he sensed right away that a tame press, and an infatuated public, were his surest guarantees of political security. To win election in his own right in 1904—his overriding ambition for the next three years—he would have to awake these two sleeping giants and enlist their aid in moral warfare against his political opponents, notably Senator Mark Hanna. (Hanna was chairman of the Republican National Committee and the obvious choice to take over McKinley’s government after “that damned cowboy,” as he called TR, had filled in as interim caretaker.)
The new President accordingly took his case straight to the press and the public. Both instantly fell in love with him. Neither seemed to notice that administratively and legislatively he accomplished virtually nothing in his first year in office. As David S. Barry of the Sun wrote, “Roosevelt’s personality was so fascinating, so appealing to the popular fancy, so overpowering, so alive, and altogether so unique that … it overshadowed his public acts; that is, the public was more interested in him, and the way he did things … than they were about what he did.”
This does not mean that TR managed, or even tried, to please all the people all the time. He was quite ready to antagonize a large minority in order to win the approval of a small majority. The sods had hardly stopped rattling on the top of McKinley’s coffin when the following press release was issued: “Mr. Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee, Alabama, dined with the President last evening.” Now this release, arguably the shortest and most explosive ever put out by the White House, has always been assumed to be a reluctant confirmation of the discovery of a reporter combing TR’s guest book. Actually the President himself issued it, at two o’clock in the morning—that is, just in time for maximum exposure in the first edition of the newspapers. By breakfast time white supremacists all over the South were gagging over their grits at such headlines as ROOSEVELT DINES A NIGGER , and PRESIDENT PROPOSES TO CODDLE THE SONS OF HAM . This was the first time that a President had ever entertained a black man in the first house of the land. The public outcry was deafening—horror in the South, acclamation in the North—but overnight 9,000,000 Negroes, hitherto loyal to Senator Hanna, trooped into the Rooseveltian camp. TR never felt the need to dine a black man again.
Although we may have no doubt he had the redistribution of Southern patronage in mind when he sent his invitation to Washington, another motive was simply to stamp a bright, clear, first impression of himself upon the public imagination. “I,” he seemed to be saying, “am a man aggressive enough to challenge a hundred-year prejudice, righteous enough to do so for moral reasons, and proud enough to advertise the fact.”
Again and again during the next seven years, he reinforced these perceptions of his personality. He aggressively prosecuted J. P. Morgan, Edward H. Harriman, and John D. Rockefeller (the holy trinity of American capitalism) in the Northern Securities antitrust case, threw the Monroe Doctrine at Kaiser Wilhelm’s feet like a token of war in the Caribbean, rooted out corruption in his own administration, and crushed Hanna’s 1904 presidential challenge by publicly humiliating the Senator when he was running for re-election in 1903. He righteously took the side of the American worker and the American consumer against big business in the great anthracite strike, proclaimed the vanity of muckrake journalists, forced higher ethical standards upon the food and drug industry, ordered the dishonorable discharge of 160 Negro soldiers after the Brownsville Affair (on his own willful reading of the evidence, or lack thereof), and to quote Mark Twain, “dug so many tunnels under the Constitution that the transportation facilities enjoyed by that document are rivalled only by the City of New York. ”
For example, when the anthracite strike began to drag into the freezing fall of 1902, TR’s obvious sympathy for the miners, and for millions of Americans who could not afford the rise in fuel prices, began to worry conservative members of Congress. One day Representative James E. Watson was horrified to hear that the President had decided to send federal troops in to reopen the anthracite mines on grounds of general hardship. Watson rushed round to the White House. “What about the Constitution of the United States?” he pleaded. “What about seizing private property for public purposes without due processes of law?”
TR wheeled around, shook Watson by the shoulder, and roared, “ To hell with the Constitution when the people want coal! ’ Remarks like that caused old Joe Cannon to sigh, “Roosevelt’s got no more respect for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.”
Pride, both in himself and his office, was particularly noticeable in TR’s second term, the so-called imperial years, when Henry James complained, “Theodore Rex is distinctly tending—or trying to make a court.” But this accusation was not true. Although the Roosevelts entertained much more elaborately than any of their predecessors, they confined their pomp and protocol to occasions of state. At times, indeed, they were remarkable for the all-American variety of their guests. On any given day one might find a Rough Rider, a poet, a British viscount, a wolf hunter, and a Roman Catholic cardinal at the White House table, each being treated with the gentlemanly naturalness which was one of TR’s most endearing traits. His pride manifested itself in things like his refusal to address foreign monarchs as “Your Majesty,” in his offer to mediate the Russo-Japanese War (no American President had yet had such global presumptions), and, when he won the Nobel Peace Prize for successfully bringing the war to a conclusion, in refusing to keep a penny of the forty-thousand-dollar prize money. This was by no means an easy decision, because TR could have used the funds: he spent all his presidential salary on official functions and was not himself a wealthy man. He confessed he was tempted to put the Nobel money into a trust for his children, but decided it belonged to the United States.
Pride and patriotism were inseparable in Theodore Roosevelt’s character; indeed, if we accept Lord Morely’s axiom that he “was” America, they may be considered as complementary characteristics. And neither of them was false. Just as he was always willing to lose a political battle in order to win a political war, so in diplomatic negotiations was he sedulous to allow his opponents the chance to save face—take all the glory of settlement if need be—as long as the essential victory was his.
As I have noted earlier, TR’s militarism did not loom large during his Presidency. The organizational structure of the U.S. Army was revamped in such a way as to strengthen the powers of the Commander in Chief, but Secretary of War Elihu Root takes credit for that. TR can certainly take the credit for expanding the American Navy from fifth to second place in the world during his seven and a half years of power—an amazing achievement, but quite in keeping with his policy, inherited from Washington, that “to be prepared for war is the most effectual means to promote peace.” The gunboat TR sent to Panama in 1903 was the only example of him shaking a naked mailed fist in the face of a weaker power; for the rest of the time he kept that fist sheathed in a velvet glove. The metaphor of velvet on iron, incidentally, was TR’s own; it makes a refreshing change from the Big Stick.
If I may be permitted a final metaphor of my own, I would like to quote one from The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt in an attempt to explain why, on the whole, TR’s character shows to better advantage as President than in his years out of power. “The man’s personality was cyclonic, in that he tended to become unstable in times of low pressure. The slightest rise in the barometer outside, and his turbulence smoothed into a whir of coordinated activity, while a core of stillness developed within. Under maximum pressure Roosevelt was sunny, calm, and unnaturally clear.” This explains why the first Roosevelt era was a period of fair weather. Power became Theodore Roosevelt, and absolute power became him best of all. He loved being President and was so good at his job that the American people loved him for loving it. TR genuinely dreaded having to leave the White House, and let us remember that a third term was his for the asking in 1908. But his knowledge that power corrupts even the man who most deserves it, his reverence for the Washingtonian principle that power must punctually revert to those whose gift it is, persuaded him to make this supreme sacrifice in his prime. The time would come, not many years hence, when fatal insolence tempted him to renege on his decision. That is another story. But the self-denial that he exercised in 1908 gives us one more reason to admire Old Fifty-seven Varieties.