From Atlantic Unbound:
Politics & Prose: "Tagging After Teddy" (March 22, 2000)
Why Teddy Roosevelt—"an egomaniacal weirdo"—is a hero to both Republicans and Democrats. By Christopher Caldwell
Flashbacks: "American President" (February 20, 1997)
A look back at some considerations of Presidents and the presidency in The Atlantic Monthly.
More Flashbacks from The Atlantic's archive.
Roosevelt in Retrospect
February 27, 2002
he publication this fall of Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex, an epic account of Roosevelt's two terms in the Oval Office (1901-1909), has sparked a renewed popular fascination with this larger-than-life historical figure. Roosevelt is known not only for his political achievements (which include breaking up American trusts, enforcing the creation of the Panama Canal, and setting aside large swaths of land for conservation) but also for his accomplishments as an amateur naturalist, his exploits as an outdoorsman, and his leadership of "The Rough Riders," a volunteer regiment instrumental in liberating Cuba from Spanish rule. A collection of turn-of-the-century Atlantic articles written by and about Mr. Roosevelt sheds light on his public and private character and on his roles as politician, outdoorsman, and scholar.
In 1889, more than a decade before he reached the Presidency, Roosevelt was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison to the Civil Service Commission whose task was to replace political considerations with merit as the basis for hiring government employees. Roosevelt soon became known for the vigorous moral enthusiasm he brought to the commission. In July, 1892, he published an article in The Atlantic, "Political Assessments in the Coming Campaign," arguing for campaign-finance reform and evaluating the commission's progress up to that point in exposing and outlawing the practice, then common among party leaders, of pressuring government employees to make donations to the party that had hired them:
In presidential years the pressure for funds is very great. The national and state campaign committees strive urgently to get every dollar possible.... A certain amount of soliciting for money, usually by indirect methods, goes on.... A great deal of it was done in the last presidential campaign, in 1888. It is too much to expect that the Commission will be able to put a complete stop to it now; but at least we intend to try to minimize the evils complained of, and to make them less than they have ever been before.
Twenty years later—three years after the end of his second term in office—Roosevelt attempted to win the Republican presidential nomination once more, this time competing for it against his successor in office and former friend, William Howard Taft. A month before the Republican National Convention was to take place, the Atlantic's editor Ellery Sedgwick assessed Roosevelt as President, based on his two previous terms in office. He argued, in "Mr. Roosevelt" (May 1912), that Roosevelt's greatest political gift had been his moral conviction and his ability to transmit that conviction to others through colorful and inspiring language.
For seven years he preached as no revivalist ever preached on this continent. And how well he talked! His speech was racy with compact and vivid expression. The "hound's clean tooth," the "mollycoddle," the "square deal," the "muckrake," the "spear that knows no brother"—they stuck like burrs in the every-day speech of his hearers. America was his parish. From Wall Street to the ranges of the West, his sermons were heard not one but seven days a week. Men listened and believed. It is not too much to say that his speeches marked a revolution.
But because Roosevelt's life experience had seemed to consist mostly of one success after another, Sedgwick wrote, Roosevelt's worldview lacked complexity and depth of understanding:
He has touched life at innumerable points of its surface, but he has never climbed its heights, and its depths he has never fathomed. He has never tasted the bitterness of defeat. To profound and lasting sorrow he has been a stranger... For him every success has been the gateway of a new victory. In discouragement and suffering, in anguish of spirit and hope deferred, the nobler training for the soul resides. Fortune would have been more just to Mr. Roosevelt had she been less generous.
Roosevelt's glib confidence, Sedgwick suggested, had sometimes led to arrogance in his policies. His use of military force to bring about the creation of the Panama Canal, for example, "is fairly typical of means which Mr. Roosevelt has felt obliged to use when, in his opinion, the end has justified them."
In "Roosevelt the Politician," published the following month, Roosevelt's appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis E. Leupp likewise examined Roosevelt's qualities as a politician. Roosevelt was, Leupp wrote, "a politician who could not help being one if he tried." His "picturesque personality," his "audacity of method," and his "indifference to precedent or consistency" had made him an effective and charismatic leader. But his impulsiveness—"impatience of the interval between desire and accomplishment; failure to appreciate the persistence of a moral ideal as distinguished from a wise or expedient purpose; and overconfidence in the disposition of the popular mind to consider fine distinctions in passing on a broad issue"—sometimes got him into trouble. Thus, Leupp explained, he was a man capable of delivering electrifying speeches and carrying out successful moral crusades, but also of blustering into spats with foreign governments and failing carefully to think through his appointments.
As for the heated campaign Roosevelt was then waging against President Taft, Leupp wrote,
The American people no longer regard it as a bit of opera bouffe, but recognize to the full its tragic aspects. Two friends who had been loverlike in their mutual devotion, and who were sharers of the highest honors their country could bestow, are facing each other in a battle which is bound to end the public career of the one or the public usefulness of the other, and may produce both results at once.
What ended up transpiring at the Republican Convention that month—by which time Leupp's article was on the newsstands—was even more dramatic than had been anticipated. When it was announced that Taft had won the nomination, Roosevelt and his supporters stormed out of the convention hall and announced the formation of their own party (which eventually came to be known as the "Bull Moose" party). In the November election, Roosevelt received more votes than Taft, but the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, received more votes than either of them, and Roosevelt did not run again.
Seven years later, shortly after Roosevelt's death, Maurice Francis Egan—a professor, diplomat, and friend of the President's—wrote an article entitled "Theodore Roosevelt in Retrospect" (May 1919). In it, he sought to dispel what he considered to be a widespread misconception of Roosevelt as "uncontrollably impetuous, fixed in his opinions, unmanageable even by those persons whose opinions he ought to respect." Egan praised the "depths of [Roosevelt's] spiritual nature, his love for righteousness," "his sane power of making compromises," and his practice of forming diverse committees to solve such problems as a dispute over Spanish friars' land in the Philippines and the coal strike of 1902. Egan also saw in Roosevelt the desire "to crush all kinds of unreasonable prejudices with a firm hand," and reminded readers of his historic inviting of the black educator Booker T. Washington to a White House luncheon (an incident that regrettably ended up fanning the flames of racism in the South).
On the personal side, Egan described Roosevelt as "the most considerate of friends" who "never forgot the slightest detail of one's family life." Even Roosevelt's friends' children, he wrote, "seemed to take a great place in his heart," and brought out Roosevelt's own boyish enthusiasm:
When my son Gerald, now in France, was presented to him, by his request, [Roosevelt] was only prevented, he said, by the presence of older and more formal people from trying a bout at jiu-jitsu with him on the floor of the Cabinet room.
Two other articles paint a picture of Roosevelt as a rugged outdoorsman and naturalist. In one of the more unusual articles to have appeared in The Atlantic, Theodore Roosevelt himself, who had traveled widely in Africa to study and hunt wildlife, weighed in on the behavior of ostriches in "The Wild Ostrich" (June 1918). In this article, a critique of a previous Atlantic article on the same subject by William Charles Scully, Roosevelt helpfully asserted:
If, when assailed by the ostrich, the man stands erect, he is in great danger. But by the simple expedient of lying down, he escapes all danger. In such case, the bird may step on him, or sit on him; his clothes will be rumpled and his feelings injured; but he will suffer no bodily harm.
Finally, in "Camping with President Roosevelt," an article published in May, 1906, while Roosevelt was still in office, the naturalist John Burroughs, a friend of Roosevelt's, described an expedition they had made to Yellowstone Park in 1903. He was clearly impressed with Roosevelt's prowess as a hunter, tracker, and scholar, noting that "his hunting records contain more live natural history than any similar records known to me." In one of several amusing anecdotes, Burroughs wrote of the President's zest for discovery:
As we were riding along in our big sleigh toward the Fountain Hotel, the President suddenly jumped out, and, with his soft hat as a shield to his hand, captured a mouse that was running along over the ground near us. He wanted it for Dr. Merriam, on the chance that it might be a new species. While we all went fishing in the afternoon, the President skinned the mouse, and prepared the pelt to be sent to Washington.... It turned out not to be a new species, as it should have been, but a species new to the Park.
Burroughs also wrote of the President's delight in spending time with the old cowboy friends from his western ranch who joined them on the trip.
He was as happy with them as a schoolboy ever was in meeting old chums. He beamed with delight all over. The life which those men represented, and of which he had himself once formed a part, meant so much to him; it had entered into the very marrow of his being, and I could see the joy of it all shining in his face as he sat and lived parts of it over again with those men that day.... It all came back to him with a rush when he found himself alone with these heroes of the rope and the stirrup.
In the evenings, Burroughs recalled, everyone on the expedition would gather around a large campfire and listen raptly while Roosevelt held forth as only a man of such dramatic character and extraordinary experiences could:
We sat upon logs or camp stools, and listened to the President's talk. What a stream of it he poured forth! and what a varied and picturesque stream,—anecdote, history, science, politics, adventure, literature; bits of his experience as a ranchman, hunter, Rough Rider, legislator, Civil Service commissioner, police commissioner, governor, president—the frankest confessions, the most telling criticisms, happy characterizations of prominent political leaders, or foreign rulers, or members of his own Cabinet; always surprising by his candor, astonishing by his memory, and diverting by his humor.
—Greg Huang and Sage Stossel
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Greg Huang is a New Media Intern for The Atlantic Online. Sage Stossel is an editor at The Atlantic Online.
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