Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858, a sickly child, suffering from asthma and other ailments. But rather than give in to his condition, he embarked on a life of vigorous robustness.
At Harvard, he was active in rowing and boxing. Upon graduating, he was given a physical exam, revealing a serious heart condition. The doctor recommended he find a desk job. Instead, he entered Columbia Law School. A year later, he dropped out to run for New York Assemblyman. His first book, a study of the Naval war of 1812, was published soon after his graduation and became a standard text throughout the Navy.
By 1884, he was already a major player in New York Republican circles. But disillusioned by the exigencies of politics, he “retired” to a ranch he had built in Dakota Territory. He hunted and raised cattle, writing about his activities for eastern newspapers. As the deputy sheriff, he once escorted a group of thieves through the wilderness, going without sleep for almost two days. Returning to New York after losing his cattle in the harsh winter of 1886-87, he ran for mayor of New York City, coming in third. Roosevelt was appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission where he successfully fought the entrenched spoils system, forcing compliance with the Civil Service laws.
In 1895, he took on another tough task. As New York City’s Police Commissioner, he cleaned up the NYPD, reputed to be the most corrupt in America. He was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, taking de facto control due to the inactivity of the Secretary. He was instrumental in preparing the Navy for the Spanish-American War and also laid the groundwork for the globe-circling “Great White Fleet” of his own administration.
At the start of the Spanish-American War, he resigned from office and formed a regiment consisting of western cowboys and Ivy-league friends. Called the “Rough Riders,” he led them through several engagements, the most significant being the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba.
After leaving the Army, he was elected Governor of New York in 1898. In 1900, he became McKinley’s running mate. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Roosevelt assumed the Presidency.
Although a Republican, Roosevelt’s policies were very progressive. He was a dedicated trust buster, angering the business end of his own party. He established the National Park System. He took many trips, including expeditions of America’s western wilderness during his terms of office. Even when in Washington, visitors were warned to “wear your worst clothes” when visiting the White House in anticipation of a day spent hiking in the woods, or climbing rocks. Some capitol denizens clearly remember Roosevelt on his horse, galloping wildly through the city’s streets, shouting “Ki-Yi! Ki-Yi!” He started the Panama Canal, rammed through congress bills mandating food inspections and standards for pharmaceuticals.
Even after he left office, he stayed active, going on an African Safari.
Frustrated with the policies of the Taft administration, Roosevelt eventually established the Bull Moose Party, running for President again against the mainstream Republicans and Democrats. It is the only time in our history that a “third party” finished as high as second in the election.
One event during that campaign typifies the man. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 4, 1912, he was preparing to give a speech when a saloon keeper shot him in the chest. The bullet passed through his steel eyeglass case and the 50-page manuscript for his speech before lodging in his chest muscle. He concluded that since he wasn’t coughing blood, the bullet hadn’t penetrated his lungs. So instead of going to the hospital, he stayed and delivered a vigorous 90-minute speech, bleeding the whole time.
He took an expedition into South America in 1913-1914, boating up an uncharted river that still bears his name. But it was during this trip that he contracted the malaria that would eventually lead to weakening his health, and his death at age 60.
Activism was the life of Theodore Roosevelt. He never slowed down, never really retired. In his speeches and writings, he spoke in glowing terms of the country he led, in words of optimism and hope. His quote that I have always cherished is this one:
“Far better is it to dare mighty things;
to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure
than to rank with those poor timid spirits who know neither victory nor defeat.”
Theodore Roosevelt is unanimously ranked as one of the greatest of our Presidents, so enshrined on Mt. Rushmore. It was his belief in what was possible, his toughness and indomitable spirit, and his ability to lead America into the new century that set him apart.
We will never have another one like him.
And that is our loss.