Theodore Roosevelt at a camp in Yellowstone.
Library of Congress
*Somerset, PA Daily American
October 9, 2010
as "Changes in the Presidency"
Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Written material only
I’ve been reading Edmund Morris’ bio of Theodore Roosevelt, covering his Presidential years between 1901 and 1909.
To say he was a vigorous man is to engage in understatement. He led “Rough Riders” during the Spanish-American War, winning a legendary victory on Cuba’s San Juan Hill. As New York City Police Commissioner, he single-handedly cleaned up the notoriously corrupt NYPD.
As President, he championed the Panama Canal, which fundamentally re-shaped the Western Hemisphere. Using the Navy’s “Great White Fleet, he took America onto the global stage, demonstrating our ability and resolve to defend our overseas economic and political interests.
He undertook explorations of the American west by horseback. Visitors were warned to “wear your worst clothes” in preparation for hikes up mountains and through gorges. He took an annual winter skinny-dip in the Potomac, and practiced sparring. There are pictures of him walking the streets of Washington in the mornings, accompanied by one or two friends. And there are stories of him racing his horse up those same streets with reckless abandon and a shouted “Ki-Yi!” Under his leadership and irrepressible spirit, the nation surged into an era marked by confidence and prosperity. Though a conservative Republican, he gave birth to “The Progressive Era,” championing conservation and the establishment of America’s National Parks. Booker T. Washington made one of the first African-American official visits to the White House.
A man of tremendous intellect, he was forthright and honest, at times brutally so. He remains to this day one of our most honored Presidents, his likeness enshrined on the face of Mt. Rushmore.
In many ways, he was the last of the accessible Presidents. His Presidency was marked by public interactions that would have made the modern Secret Service frantic. Because of that openness, Americans felt a personal connection with TR and accorded him a trust accorded to few occupants of the White House.
Today, the President lives in a fishbowl, isolated by the concentric barriers of advisors, spinners, and protectors. The innocent days when a President could stroll down the street alone, or drop in the local bodega for a cold soda are long past. We complain that politicians are “out of touch” with us. Yet, this remoteness should come as no surprise. After all, there have been 25 attempted assassinations of U.S. Presidents; four of them successful.
In the modern era, a President has become a figure of polarization, rather than a symbol of unity. The dangers to the incumbent not only include the bent-brained lunatics in this country, but also political and religious extremists the world over. The demands on his time are dismayingly heavy, leaving no opportunity to converse with any of us “ordinary Joes.” The sole means of interaction are the ubiquitous opinion polls. Thus surrounded and insulated from those he leads (and serves), any human would swiftly lose contact with the brutal realities the rest of us face.
It is this context that makes the Roosevelt presidency even more remarkable. Some have called that era a simpler time. This is simply not true. The effort to pull the United States into the 20th century was no less complex and difficult than the tasks that face us in the 21st. The world must still be engaged.
One of Abraham Lincoln’s most prescient statements underscores this burden:
“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history.
We of this Congress and this administration
will be remembered in spite of ourselves.
No personal significance, or insignificance,
can spare one or another of us.
The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down,
in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.
We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. “
(--Annual Message to Congress; December 1, 1862)
There exists a wall between us and the White House, a wall that for the sake of the President’s personal safety, seems to get higher and thicker as the years pass. Consequently, elections have never been more critically important. During campaigns, candidates will, in a limited way, become accessible to the masses. That is the time for us to step up; to ask hard questions…and demand serious answers.
The role of the citizen is as important today as it has ever been. Because in that moment when you stand in the booth, your hand poised above the ballot, you are not just casting your vote.
You are sending a strong message across the wall.