The Teddy Treatment

Theodore Roosevelt—"master therapist of the middle class"

In American Nervousness (1881), George Beard, a Yale-educated physician, identified a new illness—"neurasthenia," or "the lack of nerve force." Its symptoms included "fear of responsibility, of open places or closed places, fear of society, fear of being alone, fear of fears ... fear of everything." Among its "exciting causes" were changes in technology and culture, including "steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women." The railroad's introduction of scheduled hurry was emblematic of these changes, which drained the nerves of "brain workers," office-bound men and, in increasing numbers, women of the emergent middle class. Beard's diagnosis caught on. Soon the press was referring to "our neurasthenia epidemic."

Beard followed American Nervousness with the posthumously-published Sexual Neurasthenia, which discussed a symptom found among his male patients, "genital debility." A former business partner of Thomas Edison's, Beard recommended electrotherapy to the "lazy" parts, but the "masculine principle" in society was not so easily restored. "The whole generation is feminized," Basil Ransom, the Southern hero of Henry James's 1886 novel, The Bostonians, bursts out to Verena Tarrant, the Boston spiritualist he wants to save from her lesbian handlers and possess for himself:

The masculine tone is passing out of the world; it's a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and false delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which if we don't soon look out, will usher in the reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been.

Into this late-Victorian world, in which, one critic charged, "the monthly [magazines] are getting so lady-like that naturally they will soon menstruate," came a public man with experiences like this:

I had wounded the bear just at sunset—I wounded him again, as he stood on the other side of a thicket. He then charged through the brush, coming with such speed and with such an irregular gait that I was not able to get the sight of my rifle on the brain pan, though I hit him very hard with both the remaining barrels of my magazine Winchester. It was in the days of black powder, and the smoke hung. After my last shot, the first thing I saw was the bear's left paw as he struck at me.

A man who had disarmed desperadoes in western saloons:

As I rose I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out and then again with my right. He fired the gun.

and had faced down Indians:

It was possible that the Indians were merely making a bluff and intended no mischief but I did not like their action, and I thought it likely that if I allowed them to get hold of me they would at least take my horse and rifle, and possibly kill me. So I waited until they were one hundred yards off and then drew a bead on the first Indian.

Theodore Roosevelt—New York Governor, former New York City Police Commissioner, and hero of the Spanish-American War—received the Republican nomination for vice-president in 1900 and became president after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. When he ran in his own right in 1904, he won the largest majority that had ever yet been recorded. The wonder is that the all-male electorate didn't make it unanimous. Talking up "the virile virtues," warning of the dangers of "soft hitting," championing "the strenuous life" from the "bully pulpit" of the presidency, "TR" was a tonic for a "feminized" age, an anti-modern culture hero leading Americans into modernity. Richard Hofstadter called him "the master therapist of the middle class."

Roosevelt wrote more books than the incumbent president has read. Two of them, The Rough Riders (1899), and An Autobiography (1913), are now republished in the Library of America series; along with a collection of his letters and speeches. His prose is tumescent; nailing his point home again and again. But what a life!

Edmund Morris's multi-volume biography of TR—he's over 1,500 pages into it so far and Roosevelt has yet to shoot an elephant or turn into a Bull Moose—has freshened his subject's celebrity. Even Hollywood has discovered him. Brian Keith displayed Teddy-like teeth in the 1975 action movie The Wind and the Lion, playing a macho President Roosevelt sending the Marines to rescue an American woman kidnapped by a Moroccan bandit. Tom Berenger was "Colonel" Roosevelt in a 1997 made-for-TV adaptation of The Rough Riders, TR's account of the charge up San Juan Hill by his "corking good regiment" of volunteers during the war with Spain. The Rough Riders—Ivy Leaguers and cowboys (some of them TR's friends from his Dakota ranching days)—crossed open ground against entrenched Spanish infantry. "I waved my hat," Roosevelt wrote his friend Henry Cabot Lodge, "and we went up the hill in a rush ... I was the first man in [the Spanish trenches] ... I killed a Spaniard with my own hand"—like "a Jack-Rabbit," he told someone else. The Spaniards had repeating rifles, which inflicted heavy casualties. But if they had had machine guns, they would have brought the Rough Riders, and the regiment of black regulars attacking beside them, under thick fire starting at a distance of five hundred yards; and slaughtered them all. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme during World War I, German machine guns killed 21,000 British soldiers, "most in the first hour of the attack," John Keegan writes, "perhaps the first minutes."

Four days after the United States declared war on Germany, Roosevelt personally asked President Woodrow Wilson if he could lead an American division in France. This was cheeky even by TR's standards. Roosevelt had been calling Wilson soft on the Hun since 1915. Wilson turned him down. Two of Roosevelt's sons did go to the war; one, Quentin, died in it.

TR's Progressivism separates us from him. Imagine a contemporary politician denouncing CEOs as "malefactors of great wealth" or urging "the thoroughgoing supervision and control" of corporations by the "National government." Well, there is one; Ralph Nader. But TR's vision of war as regrettable, to be sure, but worth having as a moral proving ground—"Every man behaved well; there was no flinching"—makes him seem an antique, a knight errant of a myth used to dignify the slaughter of young men and, now, women. Perhaps if Wilson had sent him to France and he'd seen industrial warfare from eyeball-deep in the mud of the trenches he'd have come to the same conclusion.