- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

There may have been greater presidents in American history than Theodore Roosevelt, but surely there is no one more interesting. He is still the youngest man ever to serve in the office (at age 42), and was also the political figure who introduced middle-class Progressive reforms to the national scene.

For those aspiring to public office who are reluctant to take risks on unpopular issues, TR is not a role model. His life story, from sickly youth to college boxer and determined athlete, from cowboy to Rough Rider, is well-known to us but was an electrifying legend to his contemporaries.

Roosevelt was a man of incredible energy. He was a popular author, in his late twenties writing a well-regarded history of the War of 1812 and the four-volume “The Winning of the West.” He was a Victorian with the proud values of the wealthy patrician class. As he admitted, though, he was an arrogant, difficult young man, and turned people off with his haughty manner and moralistic speeches. One of his colleagues in the New York Assembly said he dressed with all the affectations of Oscar Wilde — not exactly a compliment in provincial New York state.

In “I Rose Like a Rocket: The Political Education of Theodore Roosevelt,” Paul Grondahl discusses TR’s incredible rise up the ladder of conservative, boss-ridden Republican politics. His work is similar to Edmund Morris’ more comprehensive biographies of Roosevelt. But what Mr. Grondahl makes clearer is how Roosevelt’s principled stands on civil service reform and social responsibility periodically sidetracked his phenomenal career.

We forget that he was pushed out of legislative politics, given a minor job in the Harrison administration without any enthusiasm from his superiors. TR was criticized in his role as assistant secretary of the Navy, defeated as a candidate for mayor of New York City, and the bosses were probably going to deny him renomination for the governorship of New York. He was put on the ticket with William McKinley to get him out of that important state.

Roosevelt was actually prepared to drop out in the first election for governor when his tax dodging became a matter of public knowledge. It was a remarkably unwise misadventure to stoop to for the financially-strapped Roosevelt. Yet even with these substantial roadblocks, he surely “rose like a rocket,” in his own words.

At times, he seems rather callous in his personal relations, as when he wrote that he would have left his wife’s sickbed (even if she were approaching the end) to serve in the Spanish-American War. But TR took seriously his military prescriptions and his concept of citizenship.

The Library of America has dedicated two of its magnificent volumes to Roosevelt: selected “Letters and Speeches” and “The Rough Riders; An Autobiography,” both edited by a chronicler of the American aristocracy, Louis Auchincloss. Roosevelt’s autobiography is rather pedestrian considering his colorful life, but it does include his interesting theory of presidential power, which embraces a very expansive view of executive authority. His “Rough Riders” is really a romantic reconstruction of the confusing battles he participated in during the brief Spanish-American War. One of his colleagues had noted more candidly that TR’s glasses were shot off not by the enemy, as he reported, but by what we now euphemistically call “friendly fire.”

Mr. Auchincloss’ selection of letters unfortunately lacks any introductory material, and at times the reader is not sure what is being referred to. But the essays and speeches contain some of Roosevelt’s classics — on the strenuous life, on the need to carry a big stick, on the man in the arena of active politics, on the new nationalism and the need for an aggressive federal government.

Only TR could remind the men of the West that they should live a life of strenuous activity, not a life of ease. Only he could tell students at the Sorbonne in Paris to remember the France of their warrior past and the need to teach and uplift mankind. Although he is more than a century removed from us, we can still feel his personal energy, character and love of country.

Roosevelt insisted that government be a major player in economic justice. Mr. Grondahl tells, in touching detail, how the young patrician TR took up Samuel Gompers’ challenge to visit the teeming tenement houses where eight-year-olds slept on piles of tobacco leaves while their parents made cheap cigars.

What was remarkable about Theodore Roosevelt was not that he preached social reform and responsibility when members of an obliging press were nearby, but that he continued to be passionate about those goals long after they left, and so earned the popular trust.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of “The Ferocious Engine of Democracy,” a two-volume history of the American presidency.

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