Celebrating a man of fidelity, strength


Character: Theodore Roosevelt, born 144 years ago tomorrow, has received much attention and admiration in recent years.

October 26, 2002|By Martin D. Tullai | Martin D. Tullai,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Americans weary of pallid politicians and greedy corporate malefactors can now find cause to celebrate. Oct. 27 marks the 144th birthday of one public figure whom Americans can proudly admire: Theodore Roosevelt.

There has been a remarkable revival of interest in this astute and inspiring leader. Books have highlighted his life, an aircraft carrier has been named in his honor, national magazines have carried his picture on their covers, and a football championship has been named after him (the NAIA Division II championship.)

The TV production of Rough Riders has dramatized his heroic exploits in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, actions for which he posthumously received the Medal of Honor. This year's Sienna College survey of U.S. presidents ranks him third among the greatest presidents.

This ought not be surprising. In an era hungry for heroes, Americans are apparently yearning for those qualities of strength, fidelity and honesty so evident in Roosevelt.

Roosevelt has been characterized as the most restless and flamboyant personality ever to attain the presidential office - a sort of elective bombshell.

He was this, but he was more.

Many Americans see the old Rough Rider only as the stereotyped man of the "big stick" - a bellicose, aggressive character ever ready to initiate a conflict. But, as he constantly reminded, his admonition to "speak softly and carry a big stick" proceeded according to priorities.

Persuasion came before force. The availability of raw power, not the use of it, made for effective diplomacy, he believed. (Roosevelt was the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1906. This was for his mediation in the Russo-Japanese War.)

Roosevelt could also be dubbed the man of the "big speak." His penchant for humorous and trenchant invective has produced some classic quips.

When a New York Supreme Court justice incurred Roosevelt's disfavor, he became "an amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains."

President McKinley's lack of decisiveness regarding Cuba evoked the jibe that "he had no more backbone than a chocolate eclair."

Of William R. Shafter, the commander of the 5th Corps in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, he exclaimed: "Not since the campaign of Crassus against the Parthians has there been so criminally incompetent a general as Shafter."

Accused of plotting to annex Santo Domingo, the "Square-Dealer" flared: "I have about the same desire to annex it as a gorged boa constrictor might have to swallow a porcupine wrong-end-to."

When disillusionment set in regarding William Howard Taft's presidential abilities, Roosevelt said, "Taft meant well, but he meant well feebly."

It would be folly, however, to dismiss Roosevelt as mere blather and bluster. Although his effervescence and extroverted political style caught the spirit of the nation, behind the flashing teeth and flailing arms lay a keen-edged intellect and a hearty ambition.

He was a genuine intellectual and a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard. (He is one of only five chief executives to have earned a Phi Beta Kappa key.) H.G. Wells, the prolific British author, saw him as "the most vigorous brain in a conspicuously responsible position in the world."

Impressed by the range of Roosevelt's reading, Wells declared, "He seems to be echoing with all the thoughts of the time, he has receptivity to the pitch of genius."

This observation hit the mark. A voracious reader, Roosevelt conceded that reading was like a disease with him. One source has him consuming 500 volumes in one year.

As the author of some 50 volumes, the man who delighted in exclaiming "Dee-lighted" was the most productive writer ever to serve in the highest office.

When one observer declared that "Roosevelt slung a wicked pen and he rates distinction for his excellent writing," he could do so with assurance. Roosevelt's Winning of the West has been called one of the five most important works of American history written in the latter part of the 19th century.

The Naval War of 1812 is considered a definitive work by historians. One reviewer has labeled Rough Riders - Roosevelt's account of that group in the Spanish-American War - a work that "can stand beside any book of combat ever written by an American."

Roosevelt didn't stop there. An active historian, he served as president of the American Historical Association, was one of the original members of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1898, and became one of the first 15 people elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

He entertained more writers and literati during his presidency than any chief executive before or since. Robert Frost was so impressed with Roosevelt's knowledge of literature that he gushed, "He was our kind. He quoted poetry to me. He knew poetry."

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