- - Monday, December 30, 2013

By Edward Kohn
Basic Books, $26.99, 272 pages

Theodore Roosevelt has come down in history as the “cowboy president,” a man whose persona was shaped by the period he spent in the Dakota badlands as a young man, riding, hunting, even owning two sizable ranches. As he was fond of saying, were it not for the time he spent “out West,” he likely never would have been elected to the White House.

This claim — created in large part by Roosevelt himself — draws a healthy snort of disagreement from historian Edward Kohn, an American who teaches in a Turkish university and who has spent much of his academic life studying Roosevelt. The truth is, Mr. Kohn writes, Roosevelt is far more a product of New York City than the West, “as comfortable in a silk top hat and tails in his box at the opera as he was sitting atop a horse on his ranch.” His grandfather was one of the wealthiest men in the city, and his father was a leading philanthropist. The family home was a stately brownstone near Gramercy Park.

Yet Mr. Kohn takes care not to diminish the sincerity of Roosevelt as a man who took an interest in the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged — causes he pursued in various New York City offices and then as governor of New York state. Nonetheless, his image as a “man of the West” was emulated by successor presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, neither of whom objected to being photographed atop a horse.

Roosevelt’s tenure in the West, although grossly overstated by most historians, is well known to students of his life. In 1894, he was shattered by a double tragedy — the death of his wife Alice, in childbirth, and his mother, both within hours on the same date, in the same house. “For joy and sorrow my life has now been lived out,” he later wrote. Although the infant was christened Alice Lee, “he could not bear to call his daughter Alice, and instead referred to her as Baby Lee.”

Roosevelt kept to his duties as a state assemblyman (a post to which he was elected at age 24), then went West to escape his grief. Such was not unusual for the era. Many Easterners, especially men in the higher economic brackets, considered the West to be the “last frontier,” a place where they could display — and challenge — their manhood by hunting and cavorting with cowboys. Railroads offered luxury tours replete with parlor cars and exquisite cuisine for such “adventurers.”

Roosevelt was so smitten with the West that he used much of his inheritance to purchase two spreads in North Dakota, the Elkhorn Ranch and the Maltese Cross Ranch. In reality, alas, the cowboys failed to live up to their romantic image. As Mr. Kohn writes, “Far from being the self-contained men on horseback, traveling with their kits across lonesome plains, that western novelists popularized, most cowboys were little more than itinerant workers, so poor they owned neither the horses they rode on nor the gear they used when they found a job.” (H.L. Mencken rightly termed them “field hands on horseback.”)

Always a prolific writer — he wrote his first book, on the War of 1812, while in his early 20s — Roosevelt did find rich material in the area, although Mr. Kohn suggests much of it emanated in his imagination. His four-volume “The Winning of the West” received critical acclaim. Mr. Kohn detected a not-so-subtle message in the books: “His heroes were not the Indians, but the men who subjugated them. Conquering the continent meant filling it up, and this had been done by English-speaking people. The message Roosevelt sent east about Anglo-Saxon superiority was aptly timed for an audience that was watching the newest shipload of immigrants stepping onto the dock.”

By Mr. Kohn’s calculations, Roosevelt actually spent only about a year and a half “out West,” punctuated by long stays back in New York. The harsh winter of 1886-1887 more or less ruined him as a rancher, killing much of his herd. “I am bluer than indigo about the cattle,” he wrote. “The losses are crippling.” He sold both spreads at substantial losses.

The upside was that Roosevelt now gave serious attention to New York. Both the city and the state suffered under tightfisted (and corrupt) machine rule, and Roosevelt clawed at the bosses at every turn. Muckraking journalist Jacob Riis acquainted him with the grim realities of slum life, with immigrant families crammed into sordid dwellings. Roosevelt fought their cause from his position in the state Assembly. The political bosses crushed his bid for the mayoralty, so he turned to a commission that ran the police department.

Here Roosevelt thrived, for corruption was rife. With a keen eye for publicity, Roosevelt brought various officeholding miscreants before public hearings, exposing them to squirm-inducing ridicule. He did overstep on occasion, notably his attempt to enforce a state law closing saloons on weekends. For a price — split, of course, with political bosses — police permitted these watering holes to keep any hours they wished. When Roosevelt tried to close them, he incurred the predictable wrath of working men who had only one free day to enjoy a beer or two.

Roosevelt eventually did manage to win the governorship, which gave him a far more powerful “bully pulpit” from which to assail the bosses, and achieve wide public popularity.

The brief tenure of Roosevelt’s actual Western exposure notwithstanding, the frontier spirit gave him a self-confidence that encouraged him to combat big-city bosses, to the lasting good of New York.

Veteran Washington writer Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.

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