Theodore Roosevelt was a mass of contradictions. A sickly child, through sheer willpower he lived a robustly masculine, strenuous life, participating in all manner of sports and exploring darkest Africa and the headwaters of the Amazon River. Heir to a portion of a huge fortune amassed by his merchant and businessman grandfather, he became a champion for a “Square Deal” for the common man. A big game hunter on four continents, he was the most influential conservationist of the twentieth century, and the story (probably apocryphal) of his act of mercy toward a bear cub launched generations of Teddy Bears. Known to history as a “trust buster”, he was also a champion of those big corporations that acted fairly and honestly with people and society, which he believed deserved the same “Square Deal” as the common man who acted honorably. In fact, most of his campaign funding came from big corporations, whose capital and innovation he recognized as the wellspring of American greatness. It was not the trusts he was busting, but the evil perpetrated by a handful of them: “A vote is like a rifle: its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.” The same was true of capital.
Born and bred in New York City, he made himself into a cowboy in North Dakota, riding the Badlands for weeks at a time with his herd and sleeping under the desert stars. There he also became a frontier lawman; while hunting a gang of horse thieves he joined forces with Sam Bullock, the legendary sheriff of Deadwood, who became a lifelong friend. Roosevelt later became president of the New York City Police Commission, where he routed out corruption and replaced a system of political spoils appointments to one of merit promotions. His hands-on management of the police department led to unannounced nighttime tours of the seedy tenements of New York in the company of socially aware journalists like Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens. Already a best-selling author himself, Roosevelt won the respect of the reform-minded press, creating an alliance which served both sides well throughout Roosevelt’s career. He provided space within the White House where reporters could work, setting the stage for the White House Press Corps. His close association with journalist Joseph Bucklin Bishop looks suspiciously like what we today call the office of Press Secretary.
Pugnacious by nature, he was well known for his role as colonel of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. As president, he built a navy, the Great White Fleet, and sailed it around the world to highlight American military power at a time when British hegemony was beginning to ebb. He lobbied hard for the entry of the US into World War I. Nonetheless he managed to keep the nation out of war during his two-term presidency, despite growing civil unrest in Europe and South America. He supported a bloodless coup in Panama that cleared the political path to the Panama Canal. He brokered a treaty that ended the bloody Russo-Japanese war, a feat for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. He has said, “Don’t hit at all if it is honorably possible to avoid hitting; but never hit soft!” Perhaps the best known of his many popular aphorisms is a summation of his military philosophy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
A voracious reader, he was also a hugely popular author who wrote on a vast array of subjects: history, biography, nature books and field guides, criticism, memoirs. He published 35 books, innumerable magazine articles, over 135 letters which have been anthologized, and countless political speeches. In addition to his “carry a big stick” remark, he introduced many familiar words and phrases into the American lexicon, among them mollycoddle, pussyfoot, muckraker, and bully pulpit. All these entered American idiom through his speeches or writings. When asked if he would run for president in 1912 he famously replied “My hat is in the ring, the fight’s on!” Even his conversational speech could be colorful: in an interview he once described his diplomatic dealings with Colombia prior to the Panama canal treaty as being like trying to nail cranberry jelly to the wall.
His achievements are legion. At 42, he remains the youngest man ever to have served as US president. (JFK, the runner up, is the youngest to be elected president, at 43. As vice president, TR became president upon the assassination of William McKinley; when he took office in 1905 after his actual election to the office, he was 46.) The Panama Canal owes its existence to him; he became the first sitting American President to leave the U.S. when he went on an inspection tour of the Canal. He was the first president to appoint a Jew to a cabinet post (Oscar Solomon Straus, Secretary of Commerce and Labor), and the first to invite a black man (Booker T. Washington) to the White House as a peer. As a natural scientist he was without equal in his day, establishing the National Park system and the National Forest. Through his expeditions to Africa and Amazonia he made major contributions to the specimen collections of the American Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of Natural History (part of the Smithsonian). He was instrumental in replacing the spoils system of Andrew Jackson that then permeated government with the merit-based Civil Service system in use today. He established the Food and Drug Administration that oversees the purity and safely of those things, and cosmetics as well. His urging changed the rules of American college football to cut back on its violence, eliminating dangerous mass formations like the flying wedge, creating the line of scrimmage, and legalizing the forward pass. He increased the power of the federal government, and concentrated that power in the office of the President.
Roosevelt was not a fan of modern art. In his review in Outlook magazine of the ground-breaking International Exhibition of Modern Art (The Armory Show) in 1913 he wrote: “The Cubists are entitled to the serious attention of all who find enjoyment in the colored puzzle pictures of the Sunday newspapers. Of course there is no reason for choosing the cube as a symbol, except that it is probably less fitted than any other mathematical expression for any but the most formal decorative art. There is no reason why people should not call themselves Cubists, or Octagonists, or Parallelopipedonists, or Knights of the Isosceles Triangle, or Brothers of the Cosine, if they so desire; as expressing anything serious and permanent, one term is as fatuous as another.” Even here, though, his fanatic nationalism showed through. The same things that he scoffed at in the Europeans he paradoxically admired in the Americans: “In some ways it is the work of the American painters and sculptors which is of most interest in this collection, and a glance at this work must convince any one of the real good that is coming out of the new movements, fantastic though many of the developments of these new movements are.“
Above all, he was a man of decisive action:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The next best thing is the wrong thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing.”
Theodore Roosevelt,“The Man in the Arena: Citizenship in a Republic”
When Theodore Roosevelt threw his hat into the ring, it was not so much a hat as a haberdashery:
“They don’t hold White House lunches the way they used to at the beginning of the century. On Jan. 1, 1907, for example, the guest list was as follows: a Nobel prizewinner, a physical culturalist, a naval historian, a biographer, an essayist, a paleontologist, a taxidermist, an ornithologist, a field naturalist, a conservationist, a big-game hunter, an editor, a critic, a ranchman, an orator, a country squire, a civil service reformer, a socialite, a patron of the arts, a colonel of the cavalry, a former Governor of New York, the ranking expert on big-game mammals in North America and the President of the U.S.
All these men were named Theodore Roosevelt.”
Edmund Morris, Roosevelt biographer (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,988150,00.html)