Even today, Teddy Roosevelt's indomitable spirit shines through the words of his critics.
By Emil Franzi
APRIL 13, 1998:
TR: The Last Romantic, by H. W. Brands (Basic Books). Cloth, $35.
THERE HAVE BEEN hundreds of biographies written about Theodore Roosevelt; and despite some major flaws, H.W. Brands' deserves to be on the upper half of the list.
There seems to be a trend in publishing and academia to debunk long-standing heroes. Brands, a professor of history at Texas A&M, is part of it. But his subject here is strong enough to withstand the tide of historical revision. Brands discusses TR's "uncompromising moralism" as if it were a vice; but some might argue we could use a little more of that now, particularly in our nation's leadership.
The book's title phase, "The Last Romantic," has been over-used. A few years ago, when pianist Vladimir Horowitz died, he was supposedly the last one. We keep finding more "last" romantics, each further gone than the one before. I just hope we won't run out--their minions contribute greatly to society.
The book itself offers not only lucid writing, but a solid methodology. Much of it is based on TR's own letters and writings--some previously unpublished--which were voluminous. While readers may disagree with Brands' contentions, which sometimes degenerate into psycho-babble, a good biography tells you things you didn't know and puts some events into new perspectives. In that, Brands admirably succeeds.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was born into the ruling class and spent most of his life not getting along with it. He was a Harvard graduate from New York City, with an uncle who'd been a Confederate admiral. He was loved in, and genuinely part of, the American West. He was simultaneously a radical and a conservative because of his "uncompromising moralism," which is why he's on Mt. Rushmore. For many, he's still one helluva role model.
Theodore--nobody called him "Teddy" except his first wife--had flaws which Brands dutifully details. But his strengths deserve equal footing, which Brands also discusses: his physical and moral courage, and his great integrity. TR believed in keeping all commitments "expressed or implied," and even his biggest critics conceded he lived by that dictum.
At the age of 40, after a spasmodic career as a minor public official who rose to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he pulled strings to get himself into a war. (He did the same with his four sons, all of whom saw combat duty in World War I. One was killed and two were wounded.) That landed him in Cuba, leading the famous Rough Riders into American history, and ultimately vaulted him into the presidency.
TR was lucky: One day in Cuba made him a national hero. He led not one, but three charges. (One was aborted when he noticed that no one had heard him give the order, and he was advancing alone.) He was recommended for the Medal of Honor. His hero status ensured his GOP nomination for governor in 1898, when the party bosses wanted a sure winner.
After two years, those same bosses wanted him out. Presidential candidates didn't pick their running mates then, conventions did. So the convention promoted him out of their hair in the governor's seat, and into the vice presidency under William McKinley. Six months later, McKinley was shot. TR was elected in 1904 by a wide margin of the popular vote, and was astute enough to hand-pick his own successor, William Howard Taft.
TR started as a Hamiltonian nationalist favoring a strong central government. That he (and Hamilton) would find today's federal operation appallingly large is indicated by Brands' references to TR's great belief in constitutional restraints: He may have bent them, as all strong presidents do, but he didn't have the conceit to pretend they didn't matter.
TR thought he had no legal role in the 1904 coal strike, but used the prestige of his office to mediate. He found the union demands moderate and reasonable. The mine owners went ballistic, accusing him of being a "communist" for even talking to labor, and whined that anything denying them total control would subvert their property rights. Sort of like today's developers.
TR concluded they were greedy and stupid, and asked his secretary of war how he could use the Army to move the coal. The strike was resolved before such drastic measures were taken. Constitutional purists should recognize that he was not routinely inclined to over-reach his powers, as his distant cousin and namesake FDR later would.
TR has a reputation for belligerency, but his foreign policy was tempered by great common sense and a desire to avoid war. He's well-known for mediating the Russo-Japanese War, an action which won him the Noble Peace Prize. Few know, as Brands reveals, that he settled the Venezuelan crisis of 1905 by quietly telling the Kaiser that any attempt to interfere with Venezuelan sovereignty would result in strong American action. TR read the blustering Kaiser correctly: A public challenge would likely have resulted in war. But when the Kaiser backed off, TR instead publicly praised him as a peace-maker. He also quieted the Philippine "insurrection" which was turning into a primitive Vietnam.
There was a strong strain of populism in TR's nationalism that made him an interesting hybrid. Support for the initiative, referendum, and recall were hardly Hamiltonian concepts. And TR went one further: He believed there should be referenda on judicial decisions. These and other issues brought the supposedly retired TR into conflict with Taft, who as president vetoed Arizona statehood because the original state constitution advocated the recall of judges. (Arizona took it out, Taft signed it, and the legislators immediately put it back.) TR was a staunch supporter of referenda and recalls.
The break between TR and Taft was tragic, and deeply hurt Taft. Brands attributes the falling out primarily to TR's megalomania. He ignores many real differences between the men that occurred as a result of TR's growing more radical. And he totally blows the analysis of TR's 1912 presidential bid against Taft by failing to tell us that TR actually beat Taft for the GOP nomination, only to have it stolen in a rigged convention. If, as Brands says, TR treated Taft "shabbily," Taft more than got even by allowing the theft to occur.
"Uncompromising moralists" usually react badly when screwed. TR then ran as the Progressive candidate, placing second and giving Democrat Woodrow Wilson the election.
Brands includes much information about TR's personal and familial relationships. Most pertinent, besides illustrating certain character traits mostly but not always admirable, is that nothing in his private life debilitated his ability to function as a public official: no scams, no girlfriends, nothing we can describe with that archaic word "unseemly."
Where would a maverick like TR be on today's spectrum? Somewhere between Pat Buchanan and Jim Hightower. PETA and Sarah Brady would be shocked, but so would Bill Gates and Saddam Hussein, who'd be short a few palaces before they realized they were playing with a guy who didn't bluff.
Organized labor might be revived, NAFTA and GATT would get the boot, and there'd be a real environmentalist serving as secretary of the interior. TR's was Gilbert Pinchot, one of the founders of the American conservation movement. The ABA wouldn't be picking judges: For better or worse, TR picked his own, based on who agreed with him. Not a bad system, as it turns out: His first Supreme Court selection was Oliver Wendell Holmes. And multi-cultural political correctness would be in deep trouble: TR advocated for being Americans all, not hyphenated Americans--a distinction he meant in the very best sense.
Public opinion? TR believed his job was to form it, not follow it.
That's how a person with "uncompromising morality" gets things done. And whatever his own views on the subject, we thank Brands for helping to illustrate it.
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