Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Most Interesting American: What turned a Theodore Roosevelt skeptic into a fan

Presented to the Club by Roger Linscott in 1959.

“The most interesting American” is a phrase which Julian Street employed shortly after the turn of this [20th] century to describe President Theodore Roosevelt. It was a description that echoed the sentiments of the vast majority of Americans of the day — but perhaps it is not the most apt title I could have selected for tonight’s paper. Perhaps I should have entitled it “The Conversion of a Skeptic.” The skeptic in this case is — or rather was — myself.

The year 1958 was, as most of you know, the centennial of Theodore Roosevelt’s birth. Early in the year I was commissioned to do the bulk of the research for a new and as yet unpublished life and times of Roosevelt* — an assignment I undertook, quite frankly, for the money rather than out of any great enthusiasm for the subject. I had, when I started, what might be termed the intellectually fashionable viewpoint toward TR — in sum, a highly critical viewpoint, conditioned by a cynical age in which many of the values that he represented have lost their luster. My picture of him was an unflattering caricature — the caricature of a self-righteous and opinionated political adolescent — a somewhat bogus reformer who made loud noises but produced few tangible results — a bumptious swaggerer who conducted diplomacy with a big stick and disobeyed his own injunctions to walk softly while doing so — a jingo who had an almost psychopathic preoccupation with physical courage and with the glories of the battlefield. It was the comic opera caricature of the rather stout and bespectacled Teddy, sword in hand and medals in mind, rushing recklessly up San Juan Hill at the head of his unmounted Rough Riders.

From this skeptical starting point I immersed myself in the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt. Over a period of four months I spent eight hours a day with him and often more. I read perhaps 40 to 50 books by and about him (without, I might add, covering the bibliography very thoroughly). In a very small way — and within the limitations imposed by essentially secondary sources — I became, I suppose, something of an authority on Roosevelt. And in the process, I became —slowly, reservedly, begrudgingly, but indubitably — an admirer or Roosevelt as well.

This statement needs a little qualification. In the course of becoming a convert to the cause of Teddy, I nonetheless found that my initial skepticism was not wholly unfounded. He was a swaggerer upon occasion. He was a reformer who often talked a better battle than he fought. He was at times a bully in foreign policy — most notably, of course, when he responded to Latin-American high-handedness with even greater high-handedness by virtually seizing the Isthmus of Panama from a defenseless Columbian government in order to build his cherished canal. He was a man of violent prejudices, whose almost unlimited capacity for self-righteousness often led him into savage and unfair attacks upon those with whom he differed. He was almost childlike in his life-long love for military adventure and battlefield derring-do.

He was all of these things, but he was much, much more besides. And even his faults have a way of canceling themselves out when his life is viewed as a whole and the final accounts are cast. The TR who shouted for blood in the Spanish-American War and brandished the big stick in Panama was nevertheless the same TR who negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War almost single-hand and became the first American ever to win a Nobel Prize for peace.  The TR whose bark was so often much worse than his bite when it came to dealing with the depredations of the Wall Street speculators and the robber barons of industry was nevertheless the same TR who performed the enormous service of making social reform respectable by wresting its banners from the relatively incompetent and irresponsible hands of William Jennings Bryan and the Populists. And the TR who endlessly preached the virtues of intense nationalism and the manly glories of the battlefield was the same TR who (in contrast to many another super-patriot) at least had the consistency to translate his preachings into heroic practice on the firing line when the opportunity presented itself.

But to me, as to more thorough students of Theodore Roosevelt’s life and works, the truly awesome thing about him — the quality that seems far more striking than his achievements as statesman and soldier — was his incredible combination of physical energy and intellectual versatility. It is on this aspect of the man, not his politics, that I want to focus tonight. Roosevelt’s public policies shaped our national development and projected us into a new role in world affairs; yet they were only one measure of a personality that was unique in its time and, indeed, in American history. No president, Jefferson included, rivaled TR’s diversity of interests; and none made a deeper impress on the outlook and opinions of his contemporaries. “Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety,” wrote Henry Adams, “showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter — the quality that medieval theology assigned to God — he was pure act.”

He was “pure act” not only in politics but in a score of other fields as well. To a public conditioned by relatively colorless presidents like McKinley, who preceded him, Roosevelt seemed to have opinions on every subject under the sun and an extraordinary flair for expressing them forcefully. As one national magazine summed it up midway through his presidency: “The scrapes he gets into, the scrapes he gets out of; the things he attempts, the things he accomplishes; his appointments and his disappointments; the rebukes that he administers and those he receives; his assumptions, presumptions, omnisciences and deficiencies, make up a daily tale which those of us who survive his tenure of the presidential office will miss as we might miss some property of the atmosphere we breathe.” Visitors to the White House or at Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt “summer White House” on Long Island, marveled at the man’s zest for life and at the fluency with which he seemed able to discuss almost any subject under the sun. John Morley, the British historian who made a pilgrimage to the White House in 1904, expressed a typical foreign reaction when he remarked: “The two things in America which seem to me the most extraordinary are Niagara Falls and President Roosevelt.” Viscount Lee [Arthur Hamilton Lee, 1st Viscount Lee of Fareham, British military attaché with the United States Army in Cuba during the Spanish–American War], another British visitor, remarked that “whether the subject of the moment was political economy, the Greek drama, tropical flora and fauna, the Irish sagas, protective coloration in nature, metaphysics, the technique of football, or post-futurist painting, Roosevelt was equally at home with the experts and drew out the best that was in them.” Rudyard Kipling, a frequent White House visitor, recalled evenings in which Roosevelt talked while “I sat curled up in the seat opposite, and listened and wondered until the universe seemed to be spinning round and Theodore was the spinner.”

There was almost literally no field or knowledge outside of Roosevelt’s ken. While still an undergraduate at Harvard he had written the bulk of his naval history of the War of 1812, which is still a useful reference work. During his lifetime, he published some two dozen books on a wide variety of subject ranging from ornithological tracts to biographies of Cromwell and Thomas Hart Benton, from accounts of his hunting trips in the Rockies and in Africa to his magnum opus, The Winning of the West, a panoramic history of the American frontier. He was a prolific contributor to periodicals of all sorts, even during his busy years in the White House, and he made a practice of reading at least five books a week throughout his life. His famous “Pigskin Library” of special favorites ranging from the Greek dramatists and Gibbons to French poetry and the nineteenth century Russian novelists went with him into the wilds of Africa and the jungles of the Amazon.

And the extraordinary thing about this was that his knowledge was not only broad but deep. He was an authority of real standing not only on this history of the American frontier but on the history of Central Europe as well. He was generally conceded to be the world’s Number 1 authority on the big game animals of North America, as well as on several species of American songbirds. Although he disparaged his linguistic abilities, he was able to speak and read in French, German and Italian with competence. And he was not only a devoted reader of poetry but a patron of it as well. Probably the only time in his career that he flaunted the principles of civil service was when he insisted upon giving Edward Arlington Robinson, then an unknown and utterly impoverished young poet, a $2,000-a-year post in the Treasury Department with specific instructions that “I expect you to think poetry first and Treasury second.”

This restlessness of intellect imparted a remarkable test to American life during Roosevelt’s years in the White House. He not only read books and periodicals omnivorously but commented upon them publicly and freely. Writers who spoke critically of him were likely to receive long letters of rebuttal from the President himself; authors whose work struck his fancy often as not were invited to the White House to discuss their ideas further. Artists, sculptors, scientists, and scholars joined the politicians and ex-Rough Riders and big game hunters at the Roosevelt table; and the President could more than hold his own with any of them. “I am delighted to show any courtesy to Pierpont Morgan or Andrew Carnegie or James J. Hill,” the President once remarked in explaining his guest lists, “but as for regarding any one of them as, for instance, I regard Professor [John Bagnell] Bury [Irish classical scholar], or Peary the Arctic explorer, or [James Ford] Rhodes the historian — why I could not force myself to do it even if I wanted to, which I don’t.”  He was in this respect the perfect aristocrat. Mere money-making, beyond the point required to ensure a reasonable share of life’s comforts, he regarded as vulgar and corrupting. For the man who spent his life accumulating wealth, Roosevelt felt nothing but contempt. For the man who spent it accumulating knowledge, he felt a reverent kinship.

The breadth of Roosevelt’s interests and associations was reflected in his speaking and his writing. On occasion, he could be, and was, movingly eloquent. But he also had an unsurpassed flair for the colorful phrase and the striking simile. It was he who gave us such terms as “malefactors of great wealth” and “the lunatic fringe” and “the square deal.” It was he who applied (somewhat unfairly) the term muck-rakers to the journalists of his day who were exposing corruption in politics and business. During the Panama crisis he said that making an agreement with the Columbians was as impossible as “nailing jelly to a wall”; and when, as vice president, he felt that McKinley was backing away from war with Spain he declared privately that the President had “the backbone of a chocolate éclair.” Of Bryan, the “Boy Orator of the River Platte,” Roosevelt said: “He is a professional yodeler — a human trombone,” though he later became somewhat more charitable and described Bryan as “a good-hearted man of precisely the temperament best fitted to make a success as a barker for patent medicine.”

The White House,” Roosevelt once remarked, is a “bully pulpit.”** But the preaching he did from his pulpit was not limited to political matters. He preached the virtues of simplified spelling, though Congress indignantly rebelled when he ordered the Government Printing Office to adopt such phonetic changes as “tho” for “though” and “thru” for “through.” He preached with equal vigor against what he labeled the “nature fakers,” who wrote what purported to be factual books and articles attributing human emotions and reasoning powers to animals; and when he finally was persuaded that a President should not engage in public controversy on such a minor matter he cut off the debate by declaring that for a competent naturalist to argue with the nature fakers was “as senseless as it would be for professional anthropologist to engage in polemics with the fabricators of the Cardiff giant.” From the White House pulpit, Roosevelt also preached the doctrine of the strenuous life, with daily demonstrations to the delight of the public and cartoonists. And he preached the virtues of large families and the sacredness of the American home.

In all these matters Roosevelt assiduously practiced what he preached, and nowhere was this more evident than in his family life, which was a separate and hallowed compartment of his existence. “I have the happiest home life of any man I have ever known,” he once wrote, and he regarded this as perhaps the greatest achievement of his career. In most areas of his life, Roosevelt accepted and welcomed his place on the center of the stage, but he did his best to keep the spotlight away from his hours with Edith, his wife, and the five children. To some extent, this effort was futile. His children shared a good deal of his exuberance and this, plus the natural curiosity of the press and public, made them the subject of a continuous flow of colorful newspaper stories. “It is truly a remarkable sight” reported a Chicago newspaperman who was stationed at the Sagamore Hill Summer White House, “to see the president of the United States at the head of a young band of savages on their way to the woods or the target grounds.”  The strenuous life which Roosevelt both preached and practiced was as strenuous physically as intellectually, for it was a basic article of faith with him that physical fitness and mental fitness should go hand in hand. As a child he had transformed a frail physique into a sound one by sheer force of self-discipline and in the Dakota Badlands, where he engaged in cattle ranching after the death of his first wife, he had developed his stamina further in range-riding and arduous hunting expeditions. Throughout his life he systematically pushed himself to the limits of physical endurance. On his first honeymoon, he ascended the Matterhorn, then a considerable feat. As a young legislator in New York he once played 91 games of tennis in one day. Riding to the hounds on Long Island a few years later he fractured his arm in two places early in the hunt when his horse rolled over on him, but nonetheless jumped back in the saddle and was first in on the kill, his arm dangling uselessly at his side. During the Bull Moose campaign of 1912 he insisted, with more valor than judgment, upon delivering a speech in Milwaukee after a would-be assassin’s bullet had lodged in the muscles of his chest. Two years later he lost 55 pounds and very nearly died of fever in the jungles of the Amazon Valley where he was engaged in what he termed his “last great adventure” as head of an exploring party for the American Museum of Natural History. In the White House he let only the gravest affairs of state interfere with his daily exercise; and when no better opportunity presented itself he would sometimes sally forth alone at night to run around the Washington Monument at top speed and back to the White House. It was in a boxing bout at the White House that he lost the sight of his left eye, though this was not publicly known until several years after the event.
Of all the President’s outdoor pastimes, perhaps the most characteristic of all were his “obstacle walks,” a form of exercise [in which the object was for a group to proceed to a destination in a straight line without] permitting any natural obstacle — whether an icy river or a sheer cliff, to divert their course. In Washington, the President’s obstacle walks were generally taken at Rock Creek, and it was counted a considerable honor, though an exhausting one, to be invited to accompany him. It was partly as an outgrowth of this pastime that he tried on one occasion to combat the indolent habits of the swivel-chair Army officers in Washington by issuing an order that they must establish their physical fitness by marching 50 miles in a three-day period or, in the case of cavalry officers, riding 100 miles in the same period. When the order was widely attacked as tyrannical and capricious, the President rode more than 100 miles in a single day over the back roads of Virginia through freezing rain and sleet to prove that the test was not unduly demanding.

It was this sort of episode, as much as Roosevelt’s trust-busting or his manipulation of the big stick, that made him the most colorful and controversial figure of his time. People could revere or deplore him, condemn this action or praise that one, but no one could ignore him. The enormous range of his interests, and his endless reservoirs of combative energy, projected him into every phase of national life, and whether the issue was big or little, he was generally to be found in the storm center. “Roosevelt,” a far-from-worshipful contemporary [biographer John William Bennett] admitted, “has the knack of doing things, and doing them noisily, clamorously. While he is in the neighborhood the public can no more look the other way than a small boy can turn his head away from a circus parade followed by a steam calliope.”

This never-ending energy — this quality of “pure act” — had still another consequence that cannot fail to impress the student of TR’s life. It enabled him to compress a truly breath-taking amount of activity into short periods of time, so that sometimes the reader of the Roosevelt record has the dizzying impression that he is watching a kaleidoscope rather than the orderly unfolding of a mere mortal’s career.

Consider, for example, one period of just six months during his early career: the period of February through July of the year 1886, when Roosevelt, at the age of only 26, was a young reform legislator in Albany. In mid-February of that year he was devastated by the greatest single tragedy of his life, when his beloved first wife, Alice, and his mother, to whom he was deeply devoted, died within 24 hours of each other at the family mansion in Manhattan. With an extraordinary display of will power he returned to his legislative duties two days after the double funeral and for the next two months dominated the activities of the session, conducting an exhaustive and productive investigation of municipal administration and corruption in New York City. In April he was in Buffalo for the state Republican convention at which he out-maneuvered the anti-reform elements of the party and emerged as the head of a liberal delegation to the party’s national convention in Chicago. At Chicago, two months later, he was the spearhead of the fight to block Blaine’s nomination for the presidency, going sleepless for days and nights on end in a heroic though unsuccessful fight to nominate a liberal ticket. And by late June, with the convention over and Blaine nominated, he was in the Dakota Badlands riding herd with his cowboy friends and embarking on a buffalo hunting expedition that was to take him through hostile Indian country into virtually unexplored areas of the Great Plains. All this, mind you, in a period of less than six months when he was a young man of 26.

Or consider the kaleidoscopic course of his life during the year 1898, when he was 39 years old. At the start of that year he was serving as assistant secretary of the Navy, a post which he had taken after a brief but dramatic stint as police commissioner for New York City. In February the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor brought to a head the growing rift between Spain and the United States over the Cuban revolution. Without the knowledge of his cautious superior, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, Roosevelt alerted Admiral Dewey to get the Asiatic fleet in readiness to move against the Philippines — a step which was a major factor two months later in the smashing American victory at Manila Bay. Meanwhile, on the day that the inevitable declaration of war against Spain was approved by Congress, Roosevelt resigned from the Navy Department to organize a motley regiment of hardened cowboys, polo-playing dudes and free-wheeling soldiers of fortune who came to be known as the Rough Riders. After two months of training in Texas, the Rough Riders embarked for Cuba where Colonel Roosevelt led them through the most colorful and hazardous chapter of what John Hay termed the “splendid little war” with Spain. In July, with the war over, he initiated the famous “round robin” letter which, when “leaked” to the press, forced the Was Department bureaucrats in Washington to bring the bulk of the American troops home rather than leave them, as originally planned, in Cuba, where they were being decimated by yellow fever. By August, Colonel Roosevelt had returned to a hero’s welcome in New York; a month later he was the Republican candidate for governor of the state; and in November after a hard-driving campaign, he was triumphantly elected. In the short space of less than a year he had compressed a series of exploits that would have been deemed remarkable in another man if they had occurred over the course of an entire lifetime.

What gave TR such bottomless reservoirs of physical and intellectual energy? What gave him such driving enthusiasm, such an utter incapacity for boredom? Part of it must have been built in at birth — but much of it was deliberately acquired. In a sense his life was a classic example of mind over matter. The same intense self-discipline that enabled him to overcome the handicap of a sickly childhood enabled him to force himself, constantly, to drive through life with the throttle wide open. “I always believe in going hard at everything,” he once said. And to young people his frequent advice was: “Don’t flinch. Don’t foul. Hit the line hard!” He was a born actor, moreover — and he played his role to the hilt every day of his life.

Perhaps inevitably, the relentless demands that Roosevelt placed upon his energies took a heavy and inexorable toll upon his constitution. When he died in 1919 at Sagamore Hill — peacefully, in his sleep, of a blood clot in his heart — he was only two months past his 60th birthday. A few weeks earlier, when he had been hospitalized briefly with a slight stroke, he had written characteristically to a friend: “The doctors think I will be all right in the end. I hope so; but I am ahead of the game anyhow. Nobody every packed more varieties of fun and interest into sixty years.”

Across the nation, the news of Roosevelt’s death was received with shocked incredulity by Americans who had come to think of his extraordinary energy as almost a permanent part of the national life. Messages from kings and commoners poured into Sagamore Hill from all over the world. But perhaps the most apt tribute of all was the one penned in Washington the next day by Vice President Thomas R. Marshall. “Death,” he wrote, “had to take him sleeping. For if Roosevelt had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

* The book for which Linscott did research was The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt, by Stefan Lorant (Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1959). A Berkshire County resident, Lorant was a prolific Hungarian-American filmmaker, photojournalist, and author.

** Roosevelt used the word bully as an adjective meaning "superb" or "wonderful," a more common usage in his time than it is today.

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