Was there ever such a man before?

5 02 2008

This was the reaction of the French Ambassador to the United States to Theodore Roosevelt on a day shortly after the President’s 50th birthday, in the waning days of his remarkable presidency. He’d come to tea and couldn’t escape the president conversational clasp until after 8. Roosevelt, while having his portrait painted, discussed his effect on Taft’s campaign (his hand-picked successor, alas unlikely to measure up) in the form of advice:

I told “him  he must treat the political audience as one coming, not to see an etching, but a poster,” … “He must, therefore, have streaks of blue, yellow, and red to catch the eye, and eliminate all fine lines and soft colors.”

..he then continued on to discuss the lecture he’d been invited to give at Oxford after his planned post-presidential safari… “He was already deep into paleontological and sociological research. To save time, he was dictating the lecture while Joseph De Camp painted his portrait. He wanted both it and another paper, commissioned by the Sorbonne, to be well in hand before he devoted himself entirely to safari preparations.” This incredible energy and breadth was what drew forth the comment above. His appetite for life — especially reading, writing, and the outdoors were incredible (he ate a good deal and drank lots of coffee, as well!)


Note: this isn’t a review — it’s just some of my thoughts and mementos of the experience of reading the Edmund Morris book, Theodore Rex   which I finished today as I took a brief walk around the block at work in the chill of early evening. I’ve placed some interesting background info at the bottom, though, if you didin’t just finish reading a TR biography and want some context.


Theodore Rex spans just the whirlwind that was TR’s presidency, from 1901 to 1909.


Roosevelt on his role as president:

“Here is the thing you  must bear in mind,” Roosevelt said, clearly irritated. “I do not represent public opinion: I represent the public. There is a wide difference between the two, between the real interests of the public, an d the public’s opinion of these interests.”



Here’s the “Great White Fleet” — Roosevelt flexing his muscle and waving that big stick of American military power — sending four squadrons of battleships on a trip around the world — so that he wouldn’t have to use that stick…and, I believe, just because he thought it was something amazing to do — he was such a kid in so many ways. That’s an impression this book leaves me with — Roosevelt laughing and running through the mud, taking foreign diplomats out for late-night jaunts — hikes, really. Roosevelt  swimming cold rivers, trying to scramble across slippery drainage pipes, rushing up and down mountains, shooting at innumerable creatures…learning 3 or 4 different martial arts, playing Tennis in the rain, and heading to Panama  — the fist sitting president — to sit on big earth-moving equipment and admire “his” canal. Or the way he went about “inspecting” his new official vessel

…sailors were swabbing the Mayflower’s decks, and its officers were dressing below, when a rowboat began to splash across the bay. Pulling the oars was a stocky man in a sleeveless swimsuit. The sailors paid no attention until there was a creaking of the gangway ladder, and the President appeared beaming in their midst.

“Bully! Bully!” Roosevelt exclaimed, as he rushed around admiring fixtures and fittings. By the time the officers came on deck in their hastily buttoned tunics, he was already rowing back to Sagamore Hill for breakfast.


He understood kids as well — in Summer…

Cabinet officers and Congressmen found that strange rules of protocol applied in the President’s house:


(reproachfully) Cousin Theodore, it’s after four.


By Jove, so it is! Why didn’t you call me sooner? One of you boys get my rifle. (Apologetically) I must ask you to excuse me….I never keep boys waiting.


He could be a difficult man to deal with as well.  I identify with some of his failings — his tendency to jump from topic to topic with a suddenness that was hard for some to follow and, in his own words, comparing himself with Taft, “No one could accuse me of having a charming personality” (Perhaps he speaks for me as well!)


Like so many (all?) truly successful men, he had an amazing wife.


“You only have to live with me,” she periodically reminded him, “while I have to live with you.”


He commanded incredible loyalty from all those who knew him and seemed to go through life making an impact on every life he encountered. There is so much more of interest — more dog-eared pages that I’ll likely never note. And it’s impossible to find online images to match the clarity of the wonderful reproductions of turn-of-the-century black and white photos.


For background here’s a brief outline of his life that I pulled up for my friend Misha at work from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery – I was looking for a picture of TR reading in his cabin from the book that I wanted to post here, but it was not easily found.


The life of Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was one of constant activity, immense energy, and enduring accomplishments. As the twenty-sixth President of the United States, Roosevelt was the wielder of the Big Stick, the builder of the Panama Canal, an avid conservationist, and the nemesis of the corporate trusts that threatened to monopolize American business at the start of the century. His exploits as a Rough Rider in the Spanish-American War and as a cowboy in the Dakota Territory were indicative of his spirit of adventure and love of the outdoors. Reading and hunting were lifelong passions of his; writing was a lifelong compulsion. Roosevelt wrote more than three dozen books on topics as different as naval history and African big game. Whatever his interest, he pursued it with extraordinary zeal. “I always believe in going hard at everything,” he preached time and again. This was the basis for living what he called the “strenuous life,” and he exhorted it for both the individual and the nation.

Roosevelt’s engaging personality enhanced his popularity. Aided by scores of photographers, cartoonists, and portrait artists, his features became symbols of national recognition; mail addressed only with drawings of teeth and spectacles arrived at the White House without delay. TR continued to be newsworthy in retirement, especially during the historic Bull Moose campaign of 1912, while pursuing an elusive third presidential term. He remains relevant today.


Continues here (links at bottom of page)



Surfing the century

28 01 2008

It’s 1901. Queen Victoria will die on January 22. Winston Churchill, returned from the Boer War a celebrity due to his bravery, his newspaper dispatches, and his escape from a Boer prison, is sitting in his first term in Parliament. On April 10, W. E. B. Du Bois will refuse Booker T. Washington’s  offer of a position at Tuskegee. The grandson of Emperor Meiji, given the name Hirohito, will be born 29 April, and sent away from his parents to be raised “unselfish, perservering in the face of dificulties, respectful of the views of others, and immune from fear.” On September 14, Theodore Roosevelt will become president.  Tolstoy will be excommunicated this year, protesting against the theft of civil liberties in Russia. Socialism seems on the rise around the world as 140,000 steel workers strike against the United States Steel Corporation. In Stockholm, the first Nobel Prizes will be awarded.


And I’m just getting started in my next reading project — to surf through the 20th century in these fine books, one chapter at a time, keeping them all fairly even in time.

Surfing the Century

W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race (Owl Books)

Churchill: A Life

History of the Twentieth Century, A, Vol I: Volume One: 1900 – 1933

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Theodore Rex


I didn’t buy them with this in mind — they are just books that I happened to be planning to read. But the idea has appeal, and I’ll see how it goes. Unfortunately, Du Bois is starting out behind — I’m up to 1900 in Churchill, and the others all start at 1900 or 1901, but he’s back in 1868, with 238 pages to get even with the others — nearly half the volume.


The only one I’ve read much of is this excellent biography of Churchill that my son Robin got me for Christmas this year — it happens to be written by Martin Gilbert, the author of the 3-volume history of the twentieth century (one volume pictured above) that I’ve had for most of this century, so I thought I’d get some historical context by reading the two together, then inspiration struck this afternoon — I’d read these other biographies from my shelf of future reading at the same time!


I’ll let you know how it goes — and, please, feel free to suggest other biographies that I can pick up along the way so I can make it all the way to 2000 in one big Cowabunga!