October 27 marks the sesquicentennial of the birth of one of the most complete Americans this nation has ever produced: President Theodore Roosevelt. (Interestingly, the next few months to come will mark other anniversaries in the life and death of the 26th President of the United States: next January will mark the 90th anniversary of his death and next March will mark the centennial of the conclusion of his Presidency).
If ever there was a renaissance man in American history it was Roosevelt. His Presidency alone makes him a landmark figure but to judge his life solely on his Presidency fails to capture the totality of the man. Roosevelt in his lifetime was a scholar, sportsman, naturalist, hunter, explorer, horseman, author, historian, cattle rancher, volunteer soldier, state legislator, governor, police commissioner, under-secretary of the navy, and Vice President (achieving excellence in almost all these activities) before becoming President. To paraphrase the late historians Will and Ariel Durant, Roosevelt packed a century’s worth of living into a mere sixty years of existence on this Earth. No other American President except for Thomas Jefferson could match such an enormous variety of accomplishments (and even Jefferson never came close to matching Roosevelt’s vaunted outdoor experiences and conspicuous gallantry on the battlefield).
Roosevelt brought American into the 20th century and set this nation on a course that would make the 20th century the American century. He modernized the Presidency by broadening the scope of the executive powers of the office in unprecedented ways and guided our country through its long awaited transition from a hemispheric power to a world power to be reckoned with in world affairs. America’s victories in World Wars One and Two and subsequent assumption as defender of freedom abroad would never have been possible without Theodore Roosevelt sowing the seeds of progress.
What is even more amazing when reflecting on Roosevelt’s unparalleled record of achievement (especially when it comes to his outdoor activities) is that he did so by overcoming his own physical limits. To paraphrase the late William Manchester writing about Sir Winston Churchill, Roosevelt was a man who triumphed over his own physiognomy. Throughout his life Roosevelt overcame near-sightedness, severe childhood asthma, (by today’s standards obesity), an assassin’s bullet while campaigning for President in 1912, and, later in life, severe malaria while exploring the Amazon river to earn his niche on the face of Mount Rushmore. More amazing still were the emotional and psychological battles he had to face to make his name. Roosevelt had to endure the death of his first wife Alice; opposition from his fellow Republicans when it came to reforming New York State and, later, American politics; the dissipation and premature death of his brother Elliott (father of Eleanor Roosevelt); and the death of his son Quentin who was killed in action in World War One. And yet endure he did, all the while persevering in the face of adversity and, for the most part, triumphing in the end.
When considering the obstacles he had to face, his attainments make him shine even more heroically in the pantheon of American politics. Today’s political figures are mere shades when compared with the monumental edifice of Roosevelt’s life.
One example of this was when President Ronald Reagan died. During the funeral services several conservative commentators compared Reagan with Theodore Roosevelt. In truth comparing Reagan with Theodore Roosevelt is a grave disservice to Roosevelt. As the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus once wrote, “He does not wish to seem but to be.” Reagan, in real life, deliberately portrayed himself in the Rooseveltian image of the cowboy, the rancher, and the heroic figure in the ultimate stage appearance. Roosevelt truly was. Personally I would have loved to see Reagan try to run a dude ranch in North Dakota Badlands where he had to rope and brand his own cattle and ride in a posse after cattle rustlers—which Roosevelt did. Unlike actors Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, Reagan did not fight in combat in World War Two. During the Spanish-American War Theodore Roosevelt resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (where he served with distinction) in order to organize and fight with a volunteer cavalry regiment better known as the Rough Riders. I would have loved to see Reagan marching through a thick Cuban jungle in order to charge up San Juan Hill, all the while watching friend and foe die before his eyes while risking death himself. Roosevelt did all that. Reagan never did. (Roosevelt passed his dedication to fighting on the battlefield to his children—all of whom served in action in World Wars One and Two. Indeed his eldest son Theodore Roosevelt Jr. went ashore at Utah Beach at Normandy on D-Day, earning the Medal of Honor, and is buried at the American cemetery at Coleville, France). I would have loved to have seen Reagan explore the treacherous River of Doubt—a tributary of the Amazon River all the while braving a near fatal bout of malaria. Roosevelt did all that, Reagan never did.
The only similarities between Reagan and Roosevelt are that both men survived assassin’s bullets. Both men believed in a strong military and the vigorous application of American power in the realm of foreign policy.
The only area where Reagan exceeds Roosevelt is in vote-getting and gaining better support from his party. Roosevelt was at loggerheads with his own party whereas Reagan personally reconstituted the G.O.P., making it a mainstream majority party. Ronald Reagan represented the triumph of conservative Republicanism which arose in opposition to the Progressivism established by Theodore Roosevelt. Ironically Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive ideals would be co-opted by his distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt and given expression in ways and areas far beyond what Theodore ever envisioned.
But it is in the human realm that Reagan pales in comparison with Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was a genuine prodigy who could hobnob with Wall Street aristocracy and bivouac with North Dakota cowboys at the same time. Roosevelt could converse with European monarchs and premiers in their own languages—which he did in 1910 when he represented the United States at the funeral of British King Edward VII—while simultaneously earning their respect.
Not only that, but one can compare and contrast Roosevelt and Reagan by looking at the people they chose to help them achieve their political goals. Roosevelt attracted the best and brightest during his political career. Men of great talent like Henry Stimson, Frank Knox, Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes and William Howard Taft. Reagan had one of the most corrupt and bizarre collection of characters in his cabinet in American Presidential history. Almost all of his cabinet members were tried or convicted on criminal charges.
If I were given a choice of interviewing Reagan or Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt would win hands down.
But the most important reason why we, as Americans, should celebrate the life of Theodore Roosevelt is because of the great gift he gave to his country: his decision to make America’s natural treasures into national treasures. Before Theodore Roosevelt, conservation was thought of only in terms of concerned individuals utilizing their time, money, and connections to preserve specific landmarks and treasures in America. The national park system that we know and love today did not exist before Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, when informed that certain natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and other areas faced possible exploitation and despoliation by business and industrial interests, made the unprecedented decision to use the executive powers of the Office of President to make many of America’s natural treasures into national parks and national monuments in order to prevent such exploitation and despoliation. Roosevelt did this because there was no specific constitutional prohibition banning him from doing such a thing. Not only was this one of the boldest assertions of Presidential power since Abraham Lincoln it also had the revolutionary effect of putting the Federal Government as the number one conservator of our national treasures. It expanded and gave new life to the National Park Service and, most important of all, it preserved forever the sacred beauty of our national treasures and, by extension, the sacred beauty of our nation itself. We, as a nation, are defined by the transcendent magnificence of our landscape: our rivers, plains, mountains, valleys, beaches, and forests. Roosevelt’s decision to preserve these wonders helped make America the America we love, revere, and defend today. Furthermore, his act of preserving the natural treasures of our nation helped future generations of American and foreign visitors understand and appreciate what we Americans take for granted today.
Theodore Roosevelt actions did more to define and preserve the American ethos than any other President before or since.
That is why his face is on Mount Rushmore—and rightfully so.