Allan Powell: A fresh look at Theodore Roosevelt

December 02, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

Theodore Roosevelt was such a magnetic personality that his life story has been the subject for many authors. Edmund Morris has such a profound and enduring admiration for the former president that he has published his third volume, “Colonel Roosevelt.” This partial biography begins in 1909 with the ex-president leading a safari in East Africa. This human dynamo, now free from political demands, has other worlds (and beasts) to conquer.

Col. Roosevelt, now 51, can validate his youthful energy and endurance on a physically demanding trek in the wilds of British East Africa. There was a need to settle the problem of what he should be called by the members of the safari. He decided it should be “Colonel” because it best presented his persona as a former leader of a successful military expedition in Cuba. All of this was probably unnecessary since he was already perceived as “The King of America.”

While Roosevelt was happily enjoying the steady blast of his powerful Holland and Holland rifle, he was also busy writing speeches to be delivered in European universities when he and his family toured the continent and England. He was also committed to a series of articles for Scribner’s Magazine. Not to be neglected was the proper preservation of the many specimens promised to the National Museum in Washington, D.C. This left him little time to squeeze in some precious moments to read.

Roosevelt has much to tell of his dangerous encounters with a raging bull rhino, water buffalo or long-necked giraffe. However, he is also mindful of an evening meal of toasted slices of elephant heart that he found delicious, “for I was hungry and the night was cold.” He was especially pleased with the final count of game shot on the safari.

The awesome list would disturb a modern conservationist: Nine lions, eight elephants, six buffalo, 13 rhino, seven giraffes, two ostriches, three pythons, a crocodile, five wildebeest, 20 zebras, 177 antelope, six monkeys and 32 other animals and birds.

At the conclusion of the African adventure, Roosevelt and his family embarked on a goodwill tour of Europe, in which the ex-president gave addresses at leading universities. In most cities, he was greeted with wild enthusiasm as “the most famous man in the world.” In France, at the Sorbonne, Roosevelt gave an electrifying speech that was so eloquent that one enthusiast sent portions to every school teacher in France.  

During his European tour and, increasingly so upon his return home in the summer of 1910, he began to get complaints from other progressive Republicans that President Taft was betraying the forward ideals of the progressive movement to accommodate Republican conservatives. While this disturbed Roosevelt, he had all but sworn a disinterest in third-term aspirations. This commitment collapsed in a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, given with such evangelical power that the press was convinced that Roosevelt was re-entering the political arena. Indeed, in the summer of 1912, he openly declared, “My hat is in the ring.” Unfortunately for his dreams, the Republican convention delegates renominated Taft for another term in office. Undaunted, Roosevelt announced, “I’m feeling like a bull moose.” This utterance was promptly converted into the name for a third-party — the “Bull Moose Party.” This fateful event split the Republican Party and assured that the presidency would be handed to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. This split between the Republican conservatives and the progressive minority in 1912 was a revolt from the left. It is remarkable that 100 years later, the Republican Party is again seriously challenged (and dominated) by a brash and equally radical minority from the right. Naturally, Democrats are anticipating a repeat of 1912. They are the beneficiaries of the tea party.

Roosevelt was a towering, multi-talented figure. Few leaders could rival his energy and charisma. It is fair to say that he had two enormous flaws (if they could be called such). First, he needed constant attention. It was facetiously repeated that Roosevelt wanted to be “the bridegroom at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” Second, he was accused of being a strange “mix of St. Paul and St. Vitus.” These traits might have been the well-spring of his tireless drive for social improvement.  

History takes strange twists and turns. Roosevelt was catapulted into the White House upon the assassination of William McKinley. Suddenly, he became the victim of a shooting by a man angered at his decision to seek a third term. Three weeks before Election Day, while campaigning in Milwaukee, a bullet grazed his chest. Typically, nothing deterred him from his mission and he went back to winning votes.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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