If you’ve never understood why Theodore Roosevelt is on Mt Rushmore reading his autobiography, published in 1913, will give you a clue. I’ve read several Roosevelt biographies, but this is the first time I read his words, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
President “T.R.” Roosevelt left us in 1919, too young at age 60, but he packed into his adult life an incredible amount of achievements, any one of which could have brought him legitimate acclaim. People remember Roosevelt came to the presidency through tragedy, President William McKinley’s assassination. Some remember he was only 42 years of age, the youngest president ever. Some may even remember his “Rough Rider” days during the Spanish American War of 1898 or his later guiding the construction of the Panama Canal. Maybe some remember him as a big game hunter and the founder of the Boone and Crockett Club.
Most probably don’t remember Roosevelt was a prolific writer, authoring the most books of any president until surpassed by Jimmy Carter. Or do people remember this list of achievements? Roosevelt was nominated by several and should have (but for politics) won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his part in battles in Cuba. As Civil Service Commissioner and later as Commissioner of the New York City Police he led extensive reforms replacing the old spoils system with a merit system for employment. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for brokering the end of the Russo-Japanese War.
Note: in 2001, Roosevelt was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, making him the only person, let alone president, ever to have won both the nation’s top award for bravery in combat and the globally recognized top award for peace.
Yet beyond all this, perhaps Roosevelt’s greatest legacy can be summarized in the word “conservation.” Roosevelt contemporary Senator Robert LaFollete paid tribute: “And then, there is the great and statesmanlike movement for the conservation of our National resources, into which Roosevelt so energetically threw himself at a time when the Nation as a whole knew not that we are ruining and bankrupting ourselves as fast as we can. This is probably the greatest thing Roosevelt did, undoubtedly.”
For the record: Roosevelt established the United States Forest Service, 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, 5 national parks, 4 national game preserves, 18 national monuments, 24 reclamation projects, and 7 conservation commissions. He placed approximately 230,000,000 acres of land under public protection, an increase during his presidency of over 400%. As importantly, he nearly single-handedly launched the forest movement, which became the conservation movement, which later developed into the environmental movement. In a word, his record on conservation alone is astounding.
Interestingly, several times in his autobiography Roosevelt referred to what he called the “right stuff,” a set of virtues he believed made people ready to care for their families, to contribute to society, and when the opportunity arose, to lead. In this he predated Tom Wolfe’s popularization of the term, The Right Stuff, in his 1979 book on the space program.
There’s much about Roosevelt’s theory and practice of leadership in this book. He speaks at length about taking action, even in the face of risk, and about adopting what he calls a Lincoln-Jackson school as opposed to a Buchanan-Taft view of power, the latter being what today we’d call “strict constructionists.”
Roosevelt said, “I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the Nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws…I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power. In other words, I acted for the public welfare, I acted for the common well-being of all our people, whenever and in whatever manner was necessary, unless prevented by direct constitutional or legislative prohibition.”
Roosevelt also said, “I bound myself more than ever to treat the Constitution, after the manner of Abraham Lincoln, as a document which put human rights above property rights when the two conflicted.” Together with his expansive view of the use of executive power, this concern for the common man, Roosevelt’s desire to assure them a “Square Deal,” and his lifelong interest in helping people—children with physical limitations, Indians, immigrants, and laborers—makes Roosevelt a different sort of Republican than those who dominate the party today. When Roosevelt fought the big trusts and monopolies he noted that he supported corporate leaders when they were “right” and departed from them when they were “wrong.” In other words, he aligned himself with principle, not given categories or groups of people, regardless of what they did or how they behaved. Contemporary pols on both sides of the aisle could learn from this.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Roosevelt’s autobiography is what’s missing. While he refers to his family and names at least one of his children and while he speaks glowingly of family life, there’s nothing in this account about his losing his first wife and mother on the same day when he was in his mid-twenties. There’s nothing about his leaving his daughter, Alice, behind with his sister when he went west to ranch in North Dakota and nothing about later marrying Edith or the five children coming from that union. In contemporary autobiographies family plays a central role. Perhaps in the day when Roosevelt wrote this was not the case. In any event I consider this the one major flaw in the record because readers are not permitted to glimpse how his family life influenced the man or his achievements.
My favorite quote: “A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”
Contemporary Republicans could learn from Roosevelt: while he affirmed individualism, he did not believe in unfettered individualism or laissez faire. Roosevelt was not afraid to align, when needed, with labor versus management, and he stood up for the common man. He said he’d rather government help a poor man feed his family better than to help a rich man earn more profit for his company. He worked to protect minorities like Indians and immigrants and he had a soft spot for children.
Roosevelt’s autobiography contains long renditions of things that don’t carry present-day import, but mostly it’s an engaging read offering some timeless wisdom about politics, leadership, the greatness of America, and the public welfare. I recommend it heartily.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012
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