Some of the best things that happen in life happen by accident. Theodore Roosevelt becoming the President was an accident. He was sworn into office on September 14, 1901 at the Wilcox Mansion in Buffalo, New York following the assassination of William McKinley becoming the 26th President of the United States of America, and at 42 years of age, the youngest ever. Despite the rhetoric of presidential candidates, running mates are never chosen because the candidate legitimately feels they are the second best qualified person in the country to sit in the Oval Office. (Does anyone really think John McCain felt Sarah Palin was the next best qualified to him?) They are chosen for political reasons.
Some of you might question why I am honoring a Republican by placing him in the Progressive Hall of Fame. The answer is quite simple; the Republican Party was the first American political Party to take up progressive causes. Everything in politics is a transition. The Republicans were actually born in the mid-nineteenth century, primarily of disillusioned Whigs, with somewhat progressive attitudes for the times. With Roosevelt’s ascendance to the presidency at the dawn of the twentieth century his progressive wing of the Republican Party gained prominence, and at times dominance, in the Republican Party. At mid-decade the Republicans became more conservative and the Democrats became more progressive; keep in mind there is never an abrupt break in American politics but more of a gradual slope. In many ways Roosevelt was the first true, (or as close as we get to pure in American politics), progressive President.
Roosevelt was born into a wealthy New York family that had been politically active Democrats until the 1850’s. They became Republicans because of their early support of Abraham Lincoln and the Union. That faction of the emerging Republican Party was actually the first signs of a progressive movement within the Party.
He gained fame prior to the presidency for several of his achievements. Most famous among them was becoming a war hero for his exploits in the Spanish-American War. He resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the war’s outbreak. He proceeded to use his family’s wealth and connections to form and substantially finance the Rough Riders; later taking them into battle in Cuba. Interestingly the Secretary of the Navy was little more than a figurehead with Roosevelt effectively running the Navy prior to that war. His knowledge and love of the Navy would serve both him and America well during his presidency.
He served as President of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners in the 1890’s at which time he cleaned up corruption and instituted order. He was so hands on that he was known to accompany street cops on their beats including early morning and late night shifts.
The teddy bear was named after him – a nickname he despised. The press came to calling him “TR”. He was a politician well ahead of his time in the area of media relations. While President, one rainy day he noticed a group of reporters outside in the rain, he invited them inside the White House, set up quarters for them and started the practice that became press briefings. It is little wonder that his administration generally received favorable press. Reporters strive to be objective, but they are born human.
Roosevelt gained a reputation for taking the side of working class Americans over the wealthy class from which he came. His programs came to be called the Square Deal. Decades later his distant cousin Franklin’s programs to save the nation’s economy would come to be known as the New Deal. He gained a reputation as a trust buster. His idea of a trust was what today we would call a monopoly and he saw too many of them as operating outside the public interest. He utilized the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to defend the interests of the masses against the greed of the powerful. He was a leader in getting legislation like the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act passed. In 1902 he impaneled a fact-finding commission to study a strike by the United Mine Workers. The result was shorter hours and better pay for the miners.
He was the driving force behind the founding of five national parks and 150 national forests. This rich city boy’s love of the outdoors probably accounted for his concern for conservation which was decades ahead of its times.
On the international front he had the foresight to be the driving force behind the completion of the Panama Canal. He became the first American President to win the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War.
Theodore Roosevelt is generally recognized as one of America’s greatest Presidents. The tributes to him would require volumes to document. To cite just one: he is immortalized on Mt. Rushmore along with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. That is pretty good company in my book!
Like any great person, their words live on long beyond them. Roosevelt is probably best known for saying, “Walk softly and carry a big stick.” To me the most valuable words he left us with are: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
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