Theodore Roosevelt

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

  • They don't hold White House lunches the way they used to at the beginning of the century. On Jan. 1, 1907, for example, the guest list was as follows: a Nobel prizewinner, a physical culturalist, a naval historian, a biographer, an essayist, a paleontologist, a taxidermist, an ornithologist, a field naturalist, a conservationist, a big-game hunter, an editor, a critic, a ranchman, an orator, a country squire, a civil service reformer, a socialite, a patron of the arts, a colonel of the cavalry, a former Governor of New York, the ranking expert on big-game mammals in North America and the President of the U.S.

    All these men were named Theodore Roosevelt.

    In his protean variety, his febrile energy (which could have come from his lifelong habit of popping nitroglycerin pills for a dicey heart), his incessant self-celebration and his absolute refusal to believe there was anything finer than to be born an American, unless to die as one in some glorious battle for the flag, the great "Teddy" was as representative of 20th century dynamism as Abraham Lincoln had been of 19th century union and George Washington of 18th century independence.

    Peevish Henry Adams, who lived across the square from the White House and was always dreading that the President might stomp over for breakfast (T.R. thought nothing of guzzling 12 eggs at a sitting), tried to formulate the dynamic theory of history that would explain, at least to Adams' comfort, why America was accelerating into the future at such a frightening rate. His theory was eventually published in The Education of Henry Adams but makes less sense today than his brilliant description of the President as perhaps the fundamental motive force of our age: "Power when wielded by abnormal energy is the most serious of facts...Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter--he was pure Act."

    In his youth, as indeed during his infamous "White House walks," which usually culminated in a nude swim across the Potomac, Theodore Roosevelt's cross-country motto was "Over, Under or Through--But Never Around." That overmastering directness and focus upon his objective, be it geological or political or personal, was the force that Adams identified. But T.R., unlike so many other active (as opposed to reactive) Presidents, also had a highly sophisticated, tactical mind. William Allen White said that Roosevelt "thought with his hips"--an apercu that might better be applied to Ronald Reagan, whose intelligence was intuitive, and even to Franklin Roosevelt, who never approached "Cousin Theodore" in smarts. White probably meant that T.R.'s mental processor moved so fast as to fuse thought and action.

    He was, after all, capable of reading one to three books daily while pouring out an estimated 150,000 letters and conducting the business of the presidency with such dispatch that he could usually spend the entire afternoon goofing off, if his kind of mad exercise can be euphemized as goofing off. "Theodore!" Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was once heard shouting, "if you knew how ridiculous you look up that tree, you'd come down at once!"

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