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TR: On Recent Books about Theodore Roosevelt

ISSUE:  Winter 2005

On a May morning a few years ago, a friend and I watched from the shore as the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, back with its battle group from a six-month tour of duty in the eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf, eased to its berth at the Norfolk Naval Base. Thousands of people were on hand, a band was playing away, and a multicolored barrage of crepe ribbon streamed out on all sides as eight tugboats shoved it toward the wharf.

White-uniformed sailors and blue-clad marines stood at parade rest along the rims of its angled flight desk. Nuclear-powered, with a complement of 6,000 officers and crew, displacing 91,209 tons, 1,089 feet long and 164 feet in beam, its engines producing 280,000 horsepower, the T. R. was a formidable fighting machine.

Beyond the naval base lay Hampton Roads, where not quite ninety years earlier Theodore Roosevelt had sent the Great White Fleet off around the world and twenty months afterward, as one of the final acts of his presidency, had greeted the fleet upon its return. On that day in 1909, twenty-six warships had fired a simultaneous twenty-one-gun salute, then each of twenty battleships individually repeated the cannonade.

Had TR been on hand in 1997 for the return of his nuclear-powered namesake from the Mideast, surely he would have been “dee-lighted!” He enjoyed the display of military and naval might and the tumult and excitement of gala public doings. He liked to be at the center of whatever was happening and took pride in his constitutional role as commander in chief of the armed forces. It would have deeply gratified him to know that, nearly a century after he left office, his name would remain an appropriate designation for a floating icon of American military prowess.

Assuredly our twenty-sixth American president is far from being forgotten. On the contrary, of late there has been positively a resurgence of historical interest in him. Kathleen Dalton’s new biography, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life (2002), is one of the best of at least a half dozen studies to appear within the past ten years. The year before, Edmund Morris published Theodore Rex (2001), covering TR’s White House years, the second volume of what, when completed, seems likely be the definitive three-volume assessment. Louis Auchincloss has written a brief, unremarkable biographical summary, Theodore Roosevelt, in a series entitled American Presidents (2002). H. W. Brands’s biography, T.R.: The Last Romantic, appeared in 1997, and The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War, by Edward J. Renehan, Jr., in 1998. David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback (1981), an account of TR’s younger days, has been reissued with a new introduction (2001). TR plays a commanding role in Warren Zimmerman’s First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (2002) and in James Chace’s 1912 (2004). He has recently been the subject of a multiepisode television documentary.

A selection of his writings, The Man in the Arena: Selected Writings of Theodore Roosevelt: A Reader, has been “edited” by Bryan M. Thomsen (2003). I place the word in quotation marks because the compilation is distinguished by the absence of any introductory or explanatory material whatever to set the context of the excerpts chosen. The “select bibliography” of “critical/biographical works on Roosevelt” is a farce.
The historical reputations of political figures tend to fluctuate in approximate response to the needs of the generations that come after them. TR’s fame has had its ups and downs. During the first decade of the 20th century it was at perihelion. In the years of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency and the Great War there was a falling off. In the 1930s and 1940s the renown of his fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, came to eclipse his own. In the middle decades of the century, as the nation was coming to grips with its failures in civil rights, the status of women, and the “military-industrial complex,” the tendency among historians was to view TR’s administration as having been longer on rhetoric than on substance.

In recent years that verdict has undergone substantial alteration, for his specific accomplishments as president seem less important than his imaginative impact upon the office. TR is increasingly seen as, in effect, the creator of the modern American presidency, who did much to shape the federal government into an active force for domestic, social, and economic betterment and a major participant in international affairs.

When one century ends and another begins, we are prompted to look back at the last time that occurred. During the early 1900s, when TR was “Theodore Rex,” as Henry James once styled him, he was by all odds the dominant, most memorable figure in American public life. He was war hero, historian, conservationist, outdoorsman, reformer, trust-buster, advocate of the strenuous life, moralist, pundit, and above all, gifted politico. He had intelligence, executive ability, and extraordinary energy, qualities that when they intersect in a politician can create a notable commotion. The assassination of William McKinley in 1901 may have put him into the White House several years earlier than anticipated, but to the extent that anything is ever inevitable in politics, in retrospect surely TR’s eventual advent was.

He was and, as Kathleen Dalton declares in the introduction to her biography, a century later he remains “America’s most fascinating president” (p. 12). The widespread public affection he earned in his day still holds good. So does the awareness of his shortcomings and absurdities. What we remember above all is the excitement and ebullience of TR’s personality. He was good copy. Morris quotes one newspaperman who, during a two-week presidential vacation in Yellowstone National Park, commented that, like Old Faithful Geyser, TR could be counted on for “intermittent but continuous spouting” (Theodore Rex, p. 221).

After his second term was over, TR remarked that the likelihood of his being remembered as one of the great presidents was diminished by the fact that there had been no war or major crisis during his time of leadership. This may have been true; if so, certainly TR managed to overcome that apparent handicap. In terms of the talents that he brought to the job, however, it is more likely that the timing of his ascendency was strikingly auspicious.

The nation was, in George Mowry’s description, somewhat tardily confronting “the amazing number of domestic and foreign problems spawned by the great industrial, urban, and population changes of the late nineteenth century” (The Era of Theodore Roosevelt, 1958, p. xv). The decade of his presidency marked the onset of the Progressive Era. In the face of enormous corporate wealth and economic combinations of unprecedented power and influence, there was a growing consensus that the federal government would have to intervene to protect and sustain the welfare of small businesses, working people, farmers, ordinary citizens in general.

Moreover, with the Spanish-American War of 1898 the United States became a major player on the world scene. Expansion was in the air. The first decisive steps were taken whereby our country began to move into its present-day role of international leadership. What happened in our country’s era of imperial adventuring—which, it must be said, was at no time entirely whole-souled—was not always either admirable or lovely. Yet in retrospect it would be difficult to see it as other than inevitable. As Warren Zimmerman writes in First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power, “It was in large part because of America’s actions as a great power that the twentieth century was not the ‘Century of the Third Reich’ or the ‘Century of the Glorious Victory of World Communism’ ” (p. 475).

If so, most of all it was TR who steered the nation toward that role. Congress by its very nature could not provide that kind of direction; the initiative must come from the White House. Being by instinct and preference an activist, TR was exactly the person needed to furnish it. We think of his presidency in terms of doing: prying the Isthmus of Panama loose from Colombia and digging the Panama Canal; prosecuting the Northern Securities, Standard Oil, and sugar trusts; outlawing rebates to powerful shippers and providing the first really effective railroad rate regulation; forcing through a Pure Food and Drug Act; placing the federal government squarely on the side of conservation of natural resources; negotiating a treaty to end the Russo-Japanese War; sending the battle fleet around the world.

To change people’s assumptions, including those of their elected representatives in Congress, about what was proper and appropriate for the president and the federal government to do and to be, it was necessary for TR to appeal directly to the voters. Like no president before him, he knew how to mobilize public opinion and bring it to bear on what, as he developed his legislative agenda, became an ever more reluctant Congress. To quote Mowry again, paraphrasing TR, “The country was moving, and Roosevelt, being a good democratic politician, was ready to move with it and guide it in the ways of moderation, expediency, and righteousness” (p. 223). So TR assured a friend.

“Moderation” is hardly the word that the northeastern financial and business community would have chosen to describe his approach to his job. Starting out as a conservative Republican, and at all times convinced that he was striving to protect the country from anarchy and revolution by making government responsive to the needs of the have-nots, he grew steadily more radical. By the time of his final Annual Message to Congress, he was calling for government control of railroads, workmen’s compensation and employer liability laws, an eight-hour working day for government employees, inheritance and income taxes, an end to court injunctions against striking workers, and centralization of power in the office of the presidency. He even pointed out that when courts interpreted contract and property laws and due process, they were not applying eternal verities but legislating their own social philosophy into law. Needless to say, this last did not earn him accolades on Wall or State Street.

There was always a frenetic, even manic edge to him, with bursts of energy followed by periods of depression. Those who, like his second wife, Edith Kermit Carow, knew him best insisted that he was a far more complex person than the popular image indicated. Behind his seeming spontaneity there was often considerable calculation. At the same time, there was little that was cold-blooded and dissembling about him; he threw himself fully into whatever he did. His well-known saying, “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” is not without insight into what lay behind his pursuit of the Strenuous Life. To understand the nature of TR’s approach to public life, it seems to me essential to take the evidence of his early years into account.

The publication of his Autobiography in 1913 did much to deploy the Roosevelt “legend,” both in what was said and in what was omitted. The familiar story of the sickly child who by dint of sheer willpower cured himself of asthma, built up his physique, and transformed himself into a robust, vigorous he-man was only partly true. Not acknowledged in his narrative was the element of deliberate, self-conscious exhibition. He not only taught himself to be brave and bold, but he also strove mightily to be seen as brave and bold; he hid the doubt and the hesitation, both from himself and from others. He also had a way of disregarding what did not fit into his story; he did not, for example, cure himself of asthma but suffered from it intermittently throughout his life.

Much has been made, and rightly so, of TR’s attitude toward his father’s hiring of a substitute to fight in the Union Army during the Civil War. Theodore Roosevelt, Senior, was otherwise his eldest son’s hero; and his decision not to serve in the army, despite his strong support of the Union cause, was based on the fact that his young wife, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, was a native of Georgia, with two brothers who were prominent Confederate naval officers. Securing a substitute was by no means without precedent in well-to-do New York society, but after the war the senior Roosevelt apparently came to regret his decision.

What is obvious is that much of his son TR’s eagerness to demonstrate his own martial valor and ardor was a response to his father’s failure to serve. When the war with Spain came in 1898, he resigned as assistant secretary of the navy, recruited the regiment of Rough Riders, and earned high battlefield distinction in Cuba. In 1917, at age 59, overweight and in poor health, he vainly sought permission to raise a division to fight in France, and he not only urged his four sons to volunteer but even brought his political influence to bear to get them overseas as soon as possible. Ted, Jr., and Archibald were severely wounded, and Quentin, the youngest, died in aerial combat.

TR’s admiration for his father has been much attested. From all accounts the senior Roosevelt was an admirable figure, handsome, devoted to his family, with a strong sense of civic responsibility and an imposing record of public and charitable accomplishments. His death in 1878, at age 46, was devastating to TR, who wrote in his diary that “I often feel badly that such a wonderful man as Father should have had a son of so little worth as I. I could not help reflecting sadly on how little use I am, or ever shall be in the world, not through lack of perseverance and good intentions, but through sheer inability. I realize more and more every day that I am as much inferior to Father morally and mentally as physically” (Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt, p. 69; the italics are mine).

Without questioning the sincerity of the young TR’s love and admiration for his father, one is a bit skeptical that the relationship was quite so simple as that. Diaries, it is true, are ostensibly written for the eye of the diarist alone—but they are intended for purposes of future reading, sometimes by others but certainly by the diarist himself. It is interesting that not only when writing the passage quoted above but for weeks and even months after his father’s death, the young TR went to such lengths to record his continuing grief and reiterate his unworthiness. Especially considering the phrase that I have italicized, there is the sense that he was engaged both in lamenting the elder Roosevelt’s loss and in declining to accept ethical responsibility for his own failures.

After all, from everything we know of psychology, it would be odd if there were not some ambivalence to the emotional relationship of an adolescent son and his father, particularly this son. The filial admiration for the beloved parent and the grief at his loss are there and are genuine; but so, too, is an element of guilt—and this not only over his inability to live up to the example his father had set for him, but also at feeling insufficiently remorseful over the failure to do so. The italicized interjection appears to be a protest and to suggest the presence, along with the grief, of resentment and anger—resentment at being made to feel unworthy, anger at having to suppress the resentment.

TR was never one to engage in excessive self-examination of his own motives. As Kathleen Dalton notes in her introduction, “Escape and flight from pain provided familiar devices to protect himself from his own strong emotions and from unpleasant facts he wanted to avoid” (p. 5). The prolonged, repeatedly expressed lamentation in the diary is interesting, in that it is contrary to what soon became a conviction on his part that the way to master severe personal loss was to think about it as little as possible and to avoid alluding to it. To do otherwise, he would later insist, was weak and morbid.

Such was his response five years afterward to the sudden, catastrophic deaths on February 14, 1884, of Alice Lee, his 22-year-old first wife, after giving birth to a daughter, and ten hours later the same day, of Mittie, his mother, at age 48. The distraught TR turned the infant, likewise named Alice, over to his older sister, Bamie, for raising, and not until after his marriage to Edith Carow did the child come to live with him, and then at Bamie’s insistence. Even then, he could not bear to have her called Alice; she was Baby Lee or Sister.

TR’s mother, known as Mittie, was tiny, vivacious, warm-hearted and pleasure-loving, a gifted storyteller, a gracious hostess. She was also something of a neurasthenic. Kathleen Dalton suggests that TR came in later years to view her as self-indulgent and comments that in his response to her death there was no equivalent to the protracted distress and grief expressed when his father died. She quotes Alice Roosevelt Longworth, TR’s and Alice Lee’s daughter, as having “confirmed that he ‘was not nearly so devoted to his mother as he was to his father’ ” (p. 89). David McCullough, however, while conceding the neurasthenia, sees her even so as “an exceptional person in her own right” and responsible for some of her son’s most attractive qualities, including his phenomenal energy (Mornings on Horseback, p. 69).

As between Dalton and McCullough, the former’s is the more substantial work, but in this instance I think McCullough is nearer to the mark. The letters that the youthful TR wrote to Mittie indicate a very close, devoted relationship; “Darling motherling,” he addresses her. Moreover, McCullough notes the immediate affinity that developed between Mittie and Alice Lee. He even quotes one of TR’s diary entries, referring to wintertime sleighing: “When my sweetest little wife can’t go, I always take dear Mother. It is lovely to live as we are now” (p. 239). (It should be added that Alice Roosevelt Longworth in her later years was by no means an objective source on the attitudes of the various females of the Roosevelt family toward TR.)

I have gone into matters of family and filial psychology because they may help to explain TR’s performance both as twenty-sixth president and during the ten years that followed. He was just over fifty years old in 1909 when he turned over the presidency to his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, and departed on an African safari. Four years before, in 1904, upon election to a full term in the White House in his own right, he had declared, too readily as some thought, that because he had already served all but six months of one term after McKinley’s assassination, he would not seek reelection. His friends and supporters were astounded, and most believed that it was a severe blunder, both because it was entirely proper for him to have run for a second term of his own and because by eliminating himself so early from the 1908 race he was weakening his own political leverage with Congress as president. He told William Jennings Bryan that he liked his job and was stepping down with regret, “for I have enjoyed every moment of this so-called arduous and exacting task” (Letters of Archie Butt, ed. Lawrence F. Abbott, 1924, p. 7).

Once out of office and back from Africa, he grew increasingly unhappy at having to look on from the sidelines. “Get it out of your mind, Theodore, you will never be president of the United States again,” Edith Carow Roosevelt told her husband in 1910, after hearing him speculating about future plans with his protégé Henry Stimson (Dalton, p. 369). Yet by 1912, having convinced himself that Taft had allowed the Old Guard to recapture control of the Republican Party, he decided to contest the nomination. Although obviously the favorite of the rank and file, he was denied it—whereupon he ran as a Progressive, thereby splitting the Republican vote and all but ensuring the election of Woodrow Wilson.

It is questionable whether Taft could have defeated Wilson even if TR had accepted the verdict of the Republican convention and declined to bolt the party, while had TR succeeded in gaining the Republican nomination, he, and not Wilson, might well have been elected. If, rather than running as a Progressive, TR had possessed sufficient patience to hold off in 1912—he was, after all, younger than either Taft or Wilson—and to wait another four years, it seems likely that he, and not the colorless Charles Evans Hughes, would have been the 1916 Republican nominee. Had that happened, his own widespread popularity could well have overcome the very narrow margin by which Wilson won reelection. For TR, however, so lengthy a strategic deferral of his political ambitions was a virtual impossibility.

As it was, the TR-Wilson duel of 1912 was the main contest. In the words of John Milton Cooper, Jr., “The most colorful politician since the Civil War squared off against the most articulate politician since the early days of the Republic” (The Warrior and the Priest, 1983, p. 140). The difference between them was basically one of personality—which, however, given the two people involved, was quite enough to make them intense rivals. The Democratic candidate won by a plurality, not a majority, of the electorate, with Taft finishing third behind Roosevelt.

In important respects the “Bull Moose” Progressive political agenda of 1912 did not vary substantially from that of Wilson and the Democrats. Certainly the impressive program of legislation enacted during Wilson’s first term embodied no small portion of the Progressive Party’s goals. In marshaling public opinion to cajole and coax recalcitrant senators and cautious congressmen, Wilson, the former college professor and university president, proved to be as skillful as TR.

Both of them had started out conservatively and had moved toward more radical social views, TR perhaps even more so than Wilson. Both were idealists; both believed strongly in their own rectitude. Wilson was the more private and withdrawn; he did not thrive in political give-and-take, took little delight in chumminess, and had few close friends and confidants. He neither liked nor trusted the press and resented the rapid-fire questioning of press conferences. Nor does he seem to have possessed the unflagging energy that characterized Roosevelt Major, as H. L. Mencken termed TR (FDR was Roosevelt Minor).

Wilson is remembered most of all for his valiant and, it must be said, unnecessarily obstinate battle to secure American participation in a League of Nations. Two decades after his death, as the menace of a second world war grew and the nations of Western Europe seemed powerless to stand up to German aggression, he came to be viewed as a prophet. This is what we remember; in John M. Blum’s words, “The apotheosis of Wilson depends on his devotion to the cause of continuous peace through world organization” (Joe Tumulty and the Wilson Era, 1951, p. 169). In the post–World War II era, as it became apparent that the League’s successor, the United Nations, would likewise be no guarantee of international peace and goodwill, Wilson’s losing cause came to seem less tragic and rather more ironic.

As for TR, it is for neither ideas nor ideals that we continue to find him intriguing, so much as for his personality. The stands he took on specific issues—international cooperation, trust-busting, expansionism, conservation, labor, war, home and the family, or anything else—constitute parts of his sheer vitality. In dramatizing the issues of the day, he thereby dramatized himself—and if the times were made to order for TR, it can also be said that he set his own impress upon them. By no means the most unequivocal Progressive of the Progressive Era, he was by all odds the most interesting among them. That so remarkable and many-sided a human being was in direct contact with just about everything that was important in American public life during his adult years has kept his memory alive.

TR’s last years were not his finest. From the 1912 election until his death in January 1919, he was very much a loose cannon on the gun deck, as he himself put it, out of office and ever more resentful of Wilson for being in it. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 soon set him on a rampage. He raged against Wilson for not giving greater support to the Allies; then, when war was declared in 1917, for his failure to prepare the nation for intervention; then, as victory neared, for being too lenient on Germany. Favorable at first to the idea of an international peacekeeping body once the war was won, he came to oppose it as a betrayal of American sovereignty. As Dalton says, toward the end his hatred of Wilson “may have been the passion that kept him going” (p. 497).

There was a touch of megalomania to some of TR’s later utterances, as John Milton Cooper, Jr., remarks of TR’s famous comment about the forthcoming presidential race in 1916: “It would be a mistake to nominate me unless the country has in its mood something of the heroic—unless it feels not only devotion to ideals but the purpose measurably to realize those ideals in action” (The Warrior and the Priest, p. 304). Underlying all his censure of Woodrow Wilson’s actions in 1917–18, Cooper says, was “that one question—who in America could provide properly heroic leadership at this world-shaking time in history—who but himself? The cause of his quarrel with Wilson was Roosevelt’s sublime egotism” (p. 307).

That last may be carrying the argument a little too far; TR, after all, was by no means the only leading Republican Progressive who had scathing things to say on the subject. Certainly there was that about Wilson’s personality and his way of doing things which encouraged extreme utterance on the part of his opponents. All the same, some of TR’s comments seem irresponsible, as in the press release he issued to America’s allies and enemies in the wake of the striking Republican gains in the 1918 congressional election and on the eve of Wilson’s departure for the Peace Conference in Paris: “Mr. Wilson has no authority whatever to speak for the American people at this time. His leadership has just been emphatically repudiated by them” (Dalton, p. 511).

Granted, Wilson himself had sought to make that election into a referendum on his leadership, urging the voters to demonstrate their approval by electing Democratic candidates. Moreover, at the time TR was hospitalized and in pain and, as it turned out, within weeks of his death. Even so, Wilson was still the elected president of the United States, with two years yet to serve. In any event, TR constituted no exception to John Blum’s observation that “Never in American history has a national crisis been severe enough to overcome partisan politics” (Joe Tumulty and the Wilson Era, p. 146). He spoke out loudly and repeatedly for military preparedness, proclaiming Wilson and the Democratic administration as cowardly. The notion of “peace without victory” infuriated him. When the United States entered the war, he urged harsh treatment for pacifists and slackers and tended to equate political disagreement with moral turpitude.

Measured, judicious response to opposing viewpoints was never TR’s style. Throughout his career he could and frequently did become irate over everything from “nature fakers”—writers who attributed sentimental motives to wildlife—to corporate “Malefactors of Great Wealth.” The German torpedoing of the Lusitania in 1915 was the outcome of Wilson’s “abject cowardice and weakness” (Cooper, The Warrior and the Priest, p. 303). Wilson was “the demagogue, adroit, tricky, false, without one drop of loftiness in him” (Owen Wister, Theodore Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1930, p. 355). “As for shame, he has none,” he wrote to Hiram Johnson, “and if anyone kicks him, he brushes his clothes, and utters some lofty sentence” (The Warrior and the Priest, p. 317).

Kathleen Dalton reports on Roosevelt’s numerous rhetorical excesses. In his vehemence against pacifists and opponents of U.S. entry in the war, she points out, he provided aid and comfort to the advocates of intolerance and injustice that he otherwise denounced. He attacked the Wilson administration for attempting to censor criticism of its policies, yet he called Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin an “unhung traitor” for criticizing U.S. intervention in the war. He spoke out repeatedly against “hyphenated-Americanism” and the foreign-language (i.e., German-American) press yet insisted that he was opposed to anti-immigrant nativism. In Cooper’s words, “he was appealing to the despised opposite of his own convictions—to the isolationist, anti-interventionist, and parochial sentiments he had fought for over twenty years” (The Warrior and the Priest, p. 311).

Even so, during that period this high-born conservative Republican moved steadily in the direction of greater radicalism on domestic issues, anticipating much of the social legislation that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal would enact in the 1930s. Dalton chronicles at length his support for women’s suffrage, his denunciation of racial violence, and his advocacy of old-age and unemployment insurance, an excess profits tax, and graduated inheritance and income taxes.

She does her best to stress the firmness of those commitments—and there can be little doubt that TR believed what he was saying when he said it. Still, in his militant hostility to Wilson’s goal of American commitment to participation in an international peacekeeping force for the League of Nations, TR was allying himself with the Republican Old Guard whose hegemony he had challenged as a Progressive. The public mood, both Republican and Democratic, was veering away from further reform and toward what the president who followed Wilson in 1921 would call “not nostrums but Normalcy.” Had TR lived to run for president again in 1920, it seems quite possible that, master politician that he was, he would quickly have sensed an altered climate of opinion and adjusted his program accordingly. By this I do not mean that he would have retracted his more advanced social positions so much as concentrated on other issues.

Given TR’s temperament, it is difficult to imagine him as thriving during the Roaring Twenties. If his talents had been just right for the American political scene in the early 1900s, very likely the opposite would have been true in the moral letdown that followed the end of the war. So perhaps it is just as well that he was removed from the scene before the era of Harding and Coolidge got under way.

In the course of writing Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, Kathleen Dalton would appear to have become so fond of her subject—and with TR that is hard not to do—that, while readily conceding his shortcomings, inconsistencies, and blind spots, she has been sometimes overly ready to accept his own version of what motivated those who opposed him. This is especially true with his archrival, Woodrow Wilson, even though she does note that on important issues they were more often than not in agreement. Her explanation of why, for example, Wilson refused to allow him to recruit and lead a volunteer division in 1917 is one-sided and simplistic. After describing Roosevelt’s interview with Wilson in April of 1917, she declares that “As he thought about the Roosevelt Division, Wilson had every reason to fear TR politically and therefore to prevent another San Juan Hill from electing TR president in 1920. So he turned TR down” (p. 477).

The cause-and-effect of that last sentence is misleading. Undoubtedly the potential political ramifications were a factor in Wilson’s decision, as indeed they must have been for TR as well. But Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker were convinced, too, that for so massive a military enterprise as would be needed against the German army on the Western Front, the catch-as-catch-can recruiting of the past would not do. The democratic way to proceed, Wilson and his military leadership believed, was through conscription: a selective service law administered by local civilian boards.

There were to be no appointments of politicians to high command this time, and no headlong rush of volunteers into uniform. Already the officers and potential officers needed to train and to lead into battle the troops who would make up the vastly enlarged U.S. Army were in short supply, and a disproportionate number of TR’s proposed volunteers would fall into that category. There must be no pejorative distinctions between volunteers and draftees, and no priorities demanded for volunteer units, whether of equipment or in assignments.

As the newly appointed commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Major General John J. Pershing, wrote to explain why, despite his own career obligations to TR, he had opposed letting him raise a volunteer division, for the kind of warfare that lay ahead “it was necessary that officers, especially those in high command, be thoroughly trained and disciplined. Furthermore, he [TR] was not in the best of health and could not have withstood the hard work and exposure of the training camps and trenches” (My Experiences in the World War, 1930, vol. 1, p. 22). In France, Pershing needed—and he used—the authority to replace division commanders on the spot during a battle or a campaign, and it is not difficult to imagine the furor that would have been touched off if it had proved necessary to relieve Roosevelt of command.

Woodrow Wilson could hardly have overriden the advice not only of his secretary of war but of the commanding general under whom TR would have served on the Western Front. And it must have been obvious to all concerned that, however TR might claim, and with entire sincerity, that bygones would be bygones and that if appointed he would be totally loyal to those in command over him, the chances were not very good of his staying silent for very long if he thought that mistakes were being made, in particular by Democrats.

So I disagree with Dalton. That said, I would insist that Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life is an interesting, well-written, and well-documented biography of a very complex and enduringly admirable man. He was no picture-book hero, but as Dalton declares, he had the capacity to learn and to change his views.

As noted earlier, TR was not one to bare his innermost thoughts, whether to others or to himself. Introspection was not one of his talents, and the maelstrom of activity that characterized his everyday routine was, among other things, a way of keeping boredom and melancholy at bay. After his retirement from the presidency, and especially after his unsuccessful campaign as a Progressive in 1912, that proved ever more difficult to do, while the frustration at having no role to play in the war exacerbated his feeling of futility.

It seems quite likely that, as some who knew him have said, the death of his youngest son, Quentin, in aerial combat in July of 1918, together with the severe wounding of Theodore, Jr., and Archie in infantry action, brought a heavy burden of guilt. Such awareness would have been heightened by an intermittent suspicion on his part that he had in effect used his sons to reinforce his own emotional needs. He knew that he had encouraged them as children to compete with each other to prove their fearlessness, that when war came they had felt it obligatory, as his sons, to demonstrate their masculinity, and that they were, and knew they were, in effect his surrogates in battle. “To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death,” he wrote, “has a pretty serious side for his father” (Dalton, p. 504).

For the three boys who survived, being the “sons of the lion,” as they termed themselves, entailed lifelong problems of identity. Ted, Jr., had a distinguished career as a diplomat and in World War II as a battlefield soldier, earning the Congressional Medal of Honor for his leadership at Utah Beach on D-day, yet from all accounts he experienced much unhappiness and was known for possessing an overweening ego. Dalton quotes Edith Roosevelt as having written to him in 1939 that “Honestly, as I look back, you fared worst because Father tried to ‘toughen’ you, but happily was too busy to exert the same pressure on the others” (p. 516). Kermit ended as an alcoholic and a suicide. Archie grew bitter about his father, became a fanatical right-winger, and embarrassed the family with his extreme racist and political views.

If TR’s domestic political goals were in important respects similar to those of Woodrow Wilson, the 20th-century public figure that he most resembled, it seems to me, was surely not Wilson, but rather Winston Churchill. The parallels are striking. Both were renowned for their furious activity, and apparently both were manic depressives. Both were aristocrats. Both had prominent fathers who died in their forties and mothers who were sometimes self-indulgent. Both overcame childhood handicaps: in TR’s instance asthma and a weak physique, in Churchill’s a speech defect and parental neglect. Both deliberately set out to cultivate robustness and to demonstrate their bravery under fire. Both attained early renown as war heroes. Both became well-known authors, but never at the expense of active involvement in politics. Both began as Tories, enlarged their sympathies as they matured, and made their reputations as reformers. Both encountered criticism as opportunists and party-bolters. Both suffered severe setbacks in midcareer. Both spent time in the political wilderness and found it greatly frustrating.

Where the similarity ends is in their later careers. There was for TR no equivalent to Churchill’s reemergence in 1940 as Britain’s great wartime leader. Had TR lived, and had he been a decade or two younger, something like that might well have happened; there can be no doubt about what his attitude would have been toward Adolf Hitler and the rise of Nazism. It was left, however, to another, younger Roosevelt to deal with the challenges of crippling economic depression, the rise of totalitarianism, and a second and even more lethal world war, fought out on a more global scale and in close partnership with Churchill.

For Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had married TR’s niece Eleanor, “Uncle Ted” was very much a role model. Both in politics and in style FDR deliberately evoked the Progressive heritage. “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!” went TR’s famous summons to the Progressives in 1912; “This is not a nomination; it is a call to arms!” FDR declared in accepting the Democratic nomination in 1932.

The younger Roosevelt had gone through his own iron time in the 1920s and been seasoned by it. He was longer on patience than TR had been, more in control of himself, and far more introspective and, it must be said, devious. The problems of leadership facing FDR, first during economic depression and then in war, were more immediately urgent than those that either TR or Woodrow Wilson had confronted as president. He had learned from some of his older cousin’s missteps and also from watching TR’s great duel for power with Wilson, in whose administration he had been assistant secretary of the navy. Not only were there old Progressives in FDR’s cabinet from the outset of his administration, but when war drew near he acted to enlist as secretaries of the navy and of war two prominent Republicans, one of them a Rough Rider in 1898, the other a political protégé of TR’s. He took care to keep the lines open to the Senate and House; there would not be for him the chasm between the White House and Congress that TR had allowed to develop during his second term or that blighted Wilson’s last several years as president.

What both the Roosevelts, Churchill, and for that matter Woodrow Wilson had in common was the ability to lead. They took full responsibility for the actions of the governments they headed, and those who worked with them were left in no doubt over who was making the major decisions. Sometimes this could have its disadvantages: FDR’s obstinate refusal to accept Charles de Gaulle’s growing authority in France; Churchill’s insistence upon fighting the 1945 parliamentary elections along blatantly partisan lines; Wilson’s converting the 1918 congressional election into a referendum on the Democratic Party’s conduct of the war. In TR’s instance, his reluctance to consult with congressional leadership, especially during his second presidential term, ultimately placed him and his program at a virtual impasse with the House and Senate, but not before he had led the federal government decisively into the 20th century. For all his reputation for spontaneity, on major policy decisions he thought things through in advance, was careful to prepare the way, and made it clear that he was calling the shots.

As the English ambassador, Lord Bryce, commented after his last and most bitter clash with Congress, “Nobody likes him now but the people” (Theodore Rex, p. 547). From the death of William McKinley and TR’s elevation to the White House onward, for two decades there was probably not a presidential election that he could not have won, if allowed by the Republican establishment to head his party’s ticket. As he prepared to leave the White House in 1909, Archie Butt, his naval aide, was convinced that “he better understands the American people than any one man in the past fifty years” (Letters of Archie Butt, p. 357).

Several thousand Washingtonians, including numerous members of the diplomatic corps, showed up at Union Station to say good-bye when the Roosevelt family left Washington following Taft’s inauguration. Even Henry Adams, that acerbic, ironic old crosspatch who had mocked and made fun of him for years, went up to TR and Edith as they were leaving the White House and said, simply and meaningfully, “I shall miss you very much” (Owen Wister, Theodore Roosevelt: The Story of a Friendship, 1880–1919, 1930, p. 149). And to a friend Adams wrote that his own house on Lafayette Square “will seem dull and sad when my Theodore has gone” (Theodore Rex, p. 520).

Among those at the station, and in tears, was Jules Jusserand, ambassador of the Republic of France and TR’s tennis partner, fellow hiker, cliff-climber, and medieval scholar. As Jusserand once put it to Archie Butt after coming for tea and listening to TR hold forth upon paleontology for more than two hours, “Was there ever such a man before?” (Letters of Archie Butt, p. 144).

There are even those who say that we could use someone like him at the helm right now.


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