Theodore Roosevelt: The American Presidents Series: The 26th President, 1901-1909

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The American century opened with the election of that quintessentially American adventurer, Theodore Roosevelt. Louis Auchincloss's warm and knowing biography introduces us to the man behind the many myths in this edition of The American Presidents Series.

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Nov 25, 2016

The Strenuous Life

The short biographies that form the American Presidents series do an admirable job in capturing the heart of the accomplishments and characters of our country's leaders. Some of the volumes succeed further in offering, in addition to an introduction, challenging reassessments of their subject's place in history. Bunting's book on Grant and Diggins's study of John Adams are in this latter category. With a leader as complex and energetic as Theodore Roosevelt, (1858 - 1919), the task of a brief portrayal is daunting indeed. Louis Auchincloss has generally succeeded in offering a portrait of TR and his presidency that will serve for basic information. For a more complex and detailed view, the book should encourage the reader to explore further.

The American composer Scott Joplin wrote a delightful ragtime called "The Strenuous Life" in honor of TR but with a hint of satire as well. The phrase aptly describes TR and his era. A sickly child born to great wealth, the twelve-year old TR took seriously his father's injunction to "make your body!" as well as his mind. TR became a dynamo, moving out west to become the owner of a cattle ranch in Dakota in the 1880s and leading the fabled charge of the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. In the midst of a busy life, TR found time to write about 40 books, including his autobiography and innumerable letters.

In his politics, TR developed a unique position as a Republican party regular and as a progressive. He served in the 1880s' as a New York State assemblyman and as Governor of New York, among other accomplishments, before being called to the vice-presidency. He became the 26th president upon the death of McKinley in 1901, and then was elected to a term of his own. TR famously declined to run for a second elected term, a decision he lived to regret.

TR's presidency had many accomplishments, striking out in as many directions as the man himself. He was a trust-buster who believed in American capitalism, individualism and business. He was also a famous conservationist. In foreign policy, he was a mixture of calmness and bellicosity, acquiring the Panama Canal, expanding the Navy, and receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for settling a dispute between Russia and Japan.

Following his term, TR took a lengthy safari as a big-game hunter in Africa and upon his return became disillusioned with the presidency of his chosen successor, William H. Taft. TR bolted the Republican party and, alas, took the progressives with him. The split in the GOP between its progressives and its conservatives has lasted to this day. The immediate result was the election of Woodrow Wilson to the presidency.

Auchincloss tells the story of TR simply and well. But I came away from this book curious to know more. In particular, I would have liked to learn more about TR's writings, some of which are available in a two-volume set published by the Library of America. Auchincloss evidences a certain skepticism about TR, pointing out ways in which TR's America, as well as TR's values, differ from contemporary America and from the choices of many contemporary Americans. As explained by Auchincloss, these values, which seem closely interrelated, center upon TR's elevation of the worth of toughness -- "machismo", -- his sexual restraint and even prudery, and his views on the relationship between men and women, which today would commonly be regarded as sexist. I remain fascinated with TR's strength, vigor, and sense of purpose, combined with his high powers of intellect. His forcefulness and belief in our country, tempered as it usually was with prudence, still has much to teach us.

Robin Friedman

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