A sucker for presidential biographies, I’m about to finish Kathleen Dalton’s excellent book “Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life”. Much beloved by the public, Roosevelt constantly ranks as one of the most popular U.S. presidents ever. His accomplishments in life are impressive. Born into a wealthy and prominent New York family, young Teddy received a good education and stubbornly made sure that his asthma didn’t hold him back (even though his father believed that smoking (!) might be one way to make the affliction go away).
Over the years, Roosevelt cultivated an interest in writing and history that helped him become an accomplished journalist, author and historian. An infatuation with nature and a nostalgic, romantic view of outdoor life also turned him into a Dakota cowboy and a deputy sheriff for a while; his interest in birds and other species later benefited the collections of the Museum of Natural History (which was co-founded by his father) and the Smithsonian. Roosevelt also actively fought in the Spanish-American War while he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy (!).
Appointed New York City Police Commissioner in 1895, Roosevelt reformed the police force and, critically, learned a lot about the plight of the poor and why they needed political help. That may sound obvious, but in the late 1800s those who had money and power in New York City were far from inclined to care about social issues.
What Roosevelt experienced in the dirty streets of the city’s worst neighborhoods probably helped him turn into the radical, progressive, pro-labor politician he was in the White House a decade later where he constantly clashed with a Congress dominated by conservative, pro-business Republicans and viciously racist Democrats.
The clip above is a sound recording from 1916, seven years after Roosevelt left the White House. The speech, on liberty, is probably from the presidential campaign of that year when he helped Republicans try to defeat President Woodrow Wilson.
The story of his life is riveting; the History Channel clip above shows fascinating early footage of him. I’m struck by the fact how Roosevelt was at constant war with Congress who hated him; there were nonstop accusations that he was “kinglike”. The exact same type of attacks are today leveled against President Obama who is described by his conservative critics as arrogant and too radical. In other words, nothing has changed in Washington since 1905.
Another thing that has changed, though, is how racist everyone was in those days, including Roosevelt. The President believed in colonialism and imperialism; in his view, the white man knew best. This was complicated because, for instance, Roosevelt was deeply interested in and impressed by Asian culture… but he also looked down on the Chinese. As for African-Americans, he despised the violently racist views of Southern Democrats… but at other times he didn’t understand how profoundly racism affected society.
Delving deeply into this book makes you see how people functioned in those days and it takes some getting used to how things we consider pretty much evil today, racism and suppression of women, were part of life in a completely open way a mere century ago. Racism is more discreet today. When a book is this good, the people in it come alive so much that it’s even more of a shock to read about a congressman getting so worked up about Roosevelt inviting a black man to the White House that he openly expressed a wish to see the man killed by an assassin. In one instance, the people on these pages feel close to our age, the next they might as well be Neanderthals.
As for women, Roosevelt loved them. As long as they did what he called their duty, produce children. Women deserved respect as long as they kept popping out babies (preferably white ones). Hardly progressive, but at the same time men who abused women enraged him to the degree that he wanted to see rapists on death row; men who beat women deserved, in his view, to be publicly shamed and whipped (!). Roosevelt was indeed complex on virtually every subject.
This is above all a movie blog, so how has Roosevelt been portrayed onscreen? There haven’t been that many movies about him. He was portrayed by Karl Swenson in Brighty of the Grand Canyon (1967), an unremarkable kids’ movie about a remarkable donkey. Roosevelt was treated more seriously in a 1997 miniseries, Rough Riders, which followed his experiences during the Spanish-American War; he was played by Tom Berenger. John Milius directed that, and he also made The Wind and the Lion (1975), an adventure film inspired by a real-life kidnapping case in 1904 that had Roosevelt sending battleships to Morocco.
In the clip above, Brian Keith, as the bear-hunting President, talks about grizzlies and how they represent the American spirit. Most famously, Roosevelt has become the subject of pure fiction, his Museum of Natural History wax doll coming alive and being played by Robin Williams in the three Night at the Museum films.