Theodore Roosevelt, father : tantalizing tales

September 20, 1998|By Joseph R.L. Sterne | Joseph R.L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Lion's Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War," by Edward J. Renehan Jr. Oxford University Press. 271 pages. $30.

Theodore Roosevelt flung himself into fatherhood with the same gusto that he grasped, hugged and exulted in all the wonders of life. He was hero, companion and daunting role model to his six children, leading them on many a point-to-point hike where one could go over or under, but never around, any obstacle. His fierce patriotism and eagerness to risk death in battle, as exemplified by his daredevil charge up San Juan Hill, became a family as well as a national legend.

TR's romantic attitude toward war, which was much in fashion a century ago, turned into a Faustian bargain, but one he never renounced. "To those who fearlessly face death for a good cause," he once said, "no life is so honorable or so fruitful as such a death."

All four of his sons demanded combat assignments in World War I. Ted and Archie were severely wounded. Kermit, unscathed, saw plenty of action with British and American forces. When the adored youngest, Quentin, was killed in a dogfight over France, Roosevelt was heartbroken: "To feel that one has inspired a boy to conduct that has resulted in his death has a pretty serious side for a father." But in a letter - not a speech - he also said "brave and fearless men must die when a great cause calls."

A generation later, during World War II, all three surviving sons were back in uniform. Archie was wounded again. Ted won the Congressional Medal of Honor so long denied his father when he led his troops ashore at Utah Beach on D-Day. He was the oldest man in combat that day, and the most decorated. He and Quentin II were the only father-son team.

As the centennial of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency approaches, attention is rightly focusing on one of the most fascinating and multi-faceted politicians America has ever known. TR was a jingo, by Jove, an imperialist who anticipated the glories and burdens of world leadership. But he also was a prolific and gifted writer, the first, most committed environmentalist ever to sit in the White House and a progressive reformer who welcomed a larger federal role in national life.

All of the above has been well covered in recent biographies by former Sun reporter Nathan Miller and historian H. W. Brands. Edward Renehan is the first to focus on TR's children, and in doing so supplies some of the follow-up information missing from standard treatises on Roosevelt's life.

Unfortunately, this short book tantalizes as much as it enlightens. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, described as the most complex of TR's children, is mostly off-stage as the author focuses on the wartime exploits of the four sons and daughter Ethel, a nurse in France.

The lives of the Roosevelt children after the death of their father in 1919 are given little more attention than a newspaper obituary, and not too detailed an obit at that. This reader was left wishing Renehan would return to his subjects, draw their personalities more vividly and produce more substantial later editions.

Joseph R. L. Sterne was, for many years, editorial page editor of The Sun and before that a political and foreign correspondent. He is now senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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