What can you say about Theodore Roosevelt that hasn’t been said already? After a series of increasingly weak presidents who followed the larger than life Lincoln, Roosevelt swept into the White House very much an accidental president. History was not on his side. John Tyler and Millard Fillmore alienated their party and never won the presidency in their own right. Andrew Johnson was very much a force of nature, but found his authority gutted by a vindictive Senate. Chester Arthur didn’t even want the job, and it may have killed him.
But Roosevelt was different. Ascending to the presidency upon the assassination of William McKinley, he was a very different vice president. For starters, he confided that he wished it were him Leon Czolgosz had tried to shoot, describing how he would have killed the man bare-handed. Yes, Roosevelt was bragging, but anyone who knows anything about the former Rough Rider understands that he very likely would have done it.
Alas, he would never get the chance to face down an assassin, not until 1912 when he ran as the candidate for the Progressive Party. Roosevelt became the first president to be surrounded by a swarm of Secret Service agents. It did not matter. Roosevelt had plenty of other opponents to fight bare-handed, many of them his friends and allies.
One of the first things Roosevelt did was to up-end the racial status quo at the dawn of the twentieth century. He invited a black man to dinner at the White House, namely Booker T. Washington. The outrage in the South was instant and echoed the fire eaters from the eve of the Civil War forty years earlier. Roosevelt slowed his push for racial equality, he was unapologetic. In fact, he seldom apologized for anything he did.
Now granted, the presidency went into something of a downward spiral when Andrew Johnson tried to defy the vengeance-minded Senate at the beginning of Reconstruction. It further withered away under Ulysses Grant’s negligence. So by the time Rutherford Hayes arrived in an election more controversial than George Bush’s 2000 Electoral College win, a weakened candidate entered the White House to find the office had been hamstrung. It took six administrations to rebuild the presidency to the point where someone like Theodore Roosevelt could step in and use it for his “bully pulpit.”
We get presidents like Roosevelt maybe once in a generation, twice in a lifetime. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Roosevelt stepped in with his own vision for the nation. He introduced conservation as a duty of the federal government, expanded the role of the government in regulating interstate commerce, and made “trust,” “combination,” and “monopoly” dirty words in the American lexicon.
Yet Roosevelt did not just spring into being. He began his national service career as Civil Service Commissioner under Benjamin Harrison. Under William McKinley, he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but abandoned this position to accept a commission as lieutenant colonel to serve in the Spanish-American War. After his time as a Rough Rider, he became the youngest governor in New York history.
Yet Roosevelt had an independent streak that scared the Republican Old Guard. They sought to bury this brash young politico in the vice presidency, where political careers went to die. They actually did him a favor. He learned his lessons well serving under McKinley, upon whose death he inherited an impressive cabinet, including Secretary of War Elihu Root, Lincoln protege John Hay, and Attorney General Philander Knox.
Roosevelt was, in fact, an imperialist. Many criticized his maneuvering in winning the right to build the Panama Canal, yet much of the blame for the Panamanian revolution actually lies at the feet of the Colombian government. The isthmus province longed for the canal linking Atlantic and Pacific, yet found itself stymied by the Bogota government, which kept amending the canal treaty demanding more and more money. However, Roosevelt’s justification for siding with the insurrection in Panama City was flimsy at best.
At home, Roosevelt demanded accountability of the nation’s wealthiest few. He believed capitalism did not allow private entities to restrain trade. This made him unpopular on Wall Street but quite popular on Main Street. But one of the things he might have done is to postpone World War I and the Russian Revolution by a few years. In the case of the former, Roosevelt often found himself sparring with an increasingly unstable Kaiser Wilhelm, who had become more and more enamored with taking foreign nations into receivership, in one case as a means to circumvent the Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt sparred and parried with the Kaiser, denying him Venezuela and Morocco, mainly by the mere presence of the ever-expanding Navy, one of his proudest achievements.
The Czar was able to continue on his throne a few more years thanks to Roosevelt’s skillful negotiation for a treaty in the Russo-Japanese War. Though Roosevelt admired the Japanese, he also knew the Czar needed to save face after the loss of his navy and of Port Arthur in Manchuria. Roosevelt found a way for the Czar to save face while the Japanese declared victory. The effort won him a Nobel Peace Prize.
In the end, Roosevelt left his country much changed. It would have changed with or without him as technology progressed at an alarming rate. Roosevelt opted to join in that change, expanding the government and forcing labor and big business to work together less contentiously. And his fingerprints are all over the office. Since FDR, Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, presidents have pointed at Theodore Roosevelt as their role model. Sometimes, emulating him hasn’t worked. Nixon, for instance, patterned his decisiveness after Roosevelt, yet it brought down his presidency.
In the end, Roosevelt was probably the first president to approach Lincoln’s greatness. He is consistently ranked in the top ten presidents by history, and very often he is in the top five. Looking more recently, if you took Obama’s intelligence, Bush’s decisiveness, and Clinton’s insatiable appetite for knowledge, you would have Theodore Roosevelt. But like a Lincoln, an FDR, a Kennedy, or a Reagan, you only see such a president once or twice in a lifetime. And every time, the result is impossible to duplicate.
Such a president today would scare the hell out of modern political pundits.