Theodore Roosevelt

With limitless energy and a passionate sense of the nation, he set the stage for the American century

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The obvious example of T.R.'s "Never Around" approach to statesmanship was the Panama Canal, which he ordered built in 1903, after what he called "three centuries of conversation." If a convenient revolution had to be fomented in Colombia (in order to facilitate the independence of Panama province and allow construction to proceed p.d.q.), well, that was Bogota's bad luck for being obstructionist and good fortune for the rest of world commerce. Being a historian, T.R. never tired of pointing out that his Panamanian revolution had been merely the 53rd anti-Colombian insurrection in as many years, but he was less successful in arguing that it was accomplished within the bounds of international law. "Oh, Mr. President," his Attorney General Philander Knox sighed, "do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality."

Dubious or not as a triumph of foreign policy, the canal has functioned perfectly for most of the century, and still does so to the honor of our technological reputation, although its control has reverted to the country T.R. allowed to sprout alongside, like a glorified right of way.

But T.R. deserves to be remembered, I think, for some acts more visionary than land grabbing south of the border. He fathered the modern American Navy, for example, while his peacemaking between Russia and Japan in 1905 elevated him to the front rank of presidential diplomats. He pushed through the Pure Food and Meat Inspection laws of 1906, forcing Congress to acknowledge its responsibility as consumer protector.

Many other Rooseveltian acts loom larger in historical retrospect than they did at the time, when they passed unnoticed or unappreciated. For example, T.R. was the first President to perceive, through his own pince-nez, that this nation's future trade posture must be toward Asia and away from the Old World entanglements of its past. Crossing the Sierra Nevada on May 7, 1903, he boggled at the beauty and otherworldliness of California. New York--his birthplace--seemed impossibly far away, Europe antipodean. "I felt as if I was seeing Provence in the making."

There was no doubt at all in T.R.'s leaping mind which would be the world's next superpower. Less than five years before, he had stormed San Juan Heights in Cuba and felt what he described as the "wolf rising in the heart"--that primal lust for victory and power that drives all conquerors. "Our place...is and must be with the nations that have left indelibly their impress on the centuries!" he shouted in San Francisco.

It's tempting to speculate how T.R. might behave as President if he were alive today. The honest answer, of course, is that he would be bewildered by the strangeness of everything, as people blind from birth are said to be when shocked by the "gift" of sight. But he certainly would be appalled by contemporary Americans' vulgarity and sentimentality, particularly the way we celebrate nonentities. Also by our lack of respect for officeholders and teachers, lack of concern for unborn children, excessive wealth and deteriorating standards of physical fitness.

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