HIGH AND MIGHTY
Theodore Roosevelt, larger than life in so many ways, belongs on Mt. Rushmore, but I’m not sure that many Americans can explain why. The issue is that neither political party is eager to claim him. Republicans, despite Roosevelt’s achievements, have problems embracing his belief in activist government, his impatience with “stupid” Capitalists, and his 1912 campaign that split Republicans and handed the election to Woodrow Wilson. Democrats, while welcoming his reforms, are reluctant to credit a rival party or accept his views on racial hierarchy, not uncommon in his time and among his class, but hard to swallow today.
Roosevelt did it all. He was a western rancher, a cowboy, intrepid explorer, naturalist, hunter, athlete, soldier (he preferred being called Colonel), a wonderfully engaged father (to his six children) and yes, President of the United States, a figure known round the globe. And arguably the most well-rounded and intellectually gifted person to occupy the White House (in a close contest with Thomas Jefferson). A Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard, he wrote over thirty books and countless magazine articles on a wide variety of subjects, loved poetry, read a book a day (there is wide agreement on this), spoke many foreign languages, and possessed an astonishing photographic memory.
Every American knew Roosevelt. He gave informal press conferences almost daily while his barber shaved him. Cartoonists had a field day caricaturing his teeth, smile, hat and glasses (he lost an eye while boxing in the White House). For a time the “Teddy Bear” became the rage across the country.
His energy was boundless, one might say manic. Shot at close range in Milwaukee during the 1912 presidential campaign, the bullet, while entering his chest, was slowed down by a metal eyeglass case and the folded speech in his jacket pocket. He was bleeding but still delivered the scheduled 90-minute address! (The bullet would never be removed.)
Roosevelt embodied the best of America together with certain less admirable features. He battled political corruption, raged against corporate excess and inequality, championed individual self-improvement and physical well-being, exemplified family values, promoted far ranging conservation measures and maintained that the federal government must assume an active role in redressing societal ills. On the other hand, he viewed white Anglo-Saxons as the essential bearers of civilization, and was inclined to be bellicose and to glorify war. But he could be excused when, on September 2, 1902, while passing through Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he threatened to physically assault a street car motorman who accidentally crashed into his carriage, injuring the President. It would have been no contest.