100 years ago today, one of the greatest Americans of all time, Theodore Roosevelt died. He passed at his home overlooking New York’s Long Island Sound at the age of 60 of a pulmonary embolism. His greatness extended far beyond his time as President as his entire life was vigorous, interesting, and inspiring. Ask history teachers who their favorite President was and T.R. is likely to be the answer, or at least in the top three. Unfortunately, most of the traits he displayed to be lacking in our leadership today. It is also disappointing that many of the causes he championed don’t seem to be a priority in 2019. We can only hope that in our next President at least some of the spirit of Theodore Roosevelt will return to the White House.
Photo Credit: New York Times
Some examples of what made T. Roosevelt so endearing, and what we would be fortunate to see again:
Protecting the beauty of our lands:
Roosevelt respected the beauty and power of mother nature. He was a driving force behind the creation of our national parks system, also desiring that people be able to afford to visit them. He created our forest service, and wanted our people and government to commit to protecting our wonderful outdoor cathedrals. He was a hunter and sportsmen who also respected animals. The Teddy Bear name came after it was made public that President Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear that had been drugged to slow it down. He pushed legislation that protected lands, animals, and birds. He convened a conference of all governors to address conservation and protection of the air and water. He wanted people who lived long after he died to be able to enjoy the beauty of this country in the same way he had. If you have been fortunate to enjoy the wonderful physical beauty of America in your lifetime, you owe gratitude to T.R. Hopefully our next President will share his love for the majesty of our lands.
“There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
Working for an America that had a place for all of its people:
He wasn’t afraid to do what was right to stick up for minorities. He was the first President to ever host an African American to dine in the white house when he invited Booker T. Washington to join him for dinner. Roosevelt received tremendous criticism for this. I was once fortunate enough to visit the home of Booker T. Washington. In his dining room, there were three personally signed pictures from President Theodore Roosevelt. The friendship between the two caused outrage amongst many Americans. Roosevelt didn’t care what the racist critics said, he and Washington maintained a friendship until Washington’s death. When an African American Postmaster in Mississippi was forced to leave her job because of pressure from local racists, Roosevelt shut down mail service for a year until she was able to safely retake her position.
He was also the first president to hire a Jewish person to serve in his cabinet.
Theodore Roosevelt and Booker T. Washington
Photo Credit: National Public Radio
Roosevelt was also ahead of his time as a leader pushing for women’s rights. As a student at Harvard he wrote his senior thesis on women’s rights, arguing they should be allowed to keep their last name after marriage. While serving in the New York Legislature, he introduced a bill calling for corporate punishment for wife beaters. As police commissioner of New York City he hired women to several positions of prominence and authority. After his Presidency he adopted female suffrage as one of his great causes, even though the two Presidents (Taft and Wilson) who followed it were against it. One of the many characteristics of Theodore Roosevelt was his willingness to make a stand for others even at his own political risk, let us hope the next president of the United States shares that courage.
Roosevelt understood the power of his words:
He called the Presidency the “bully pulpit” because he recognized his ability to shape the attitudes and actions of the American people simply through his words. He kept this in mind every time he spoke. He chose his words to inspire Americans to be better individuals, more decent to each other, and to contribute to a greater cause. When he gave his inaugural address in 1905, he did something amazing: He made it through the entire address without saying the word “I.” Instead he used words like “we”, “us”, and “ours.”
“Much has been given us, and much will rightfully be expected from us. We have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither. We have become a great nation, forced by the fact of its greatness into relations with the other nations of the earth, and we must behave as beseems a people with such responsibilities. Toward all other nations, large and small, our attitude must be one of cordial and sincere friendship.”
-T.R. Inauguration: 1905
Photo Credit: New York Historical Society
Great leaders understand the importance of language, and appreciate the potential impact of each word. There are few greater pieces of oratory than Roosevelt’s famous “man in the arena” speech, delivered by T.R. in Paris in 1910:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Hopefully our next president will use their words to inspire and elevate our country the way Roosevelt did.
Roosevelt cared about the health of all Americans
As a child, Theodore Roosevelt suffered. He was constantly in need of medical attention as he was plagued with asthma (which could be fatal during that time period) as well as very poor eyesight. His father wanted and active son, and was not reluctant to express his disappointment in the young Roosevelt. When Theodore got beat up by school bullies, he proclaimed “I will make my body” and began working out, lifting weights, and boxing. He changed his health and his life with his own resolve.
Perhaps this is why he became an advocate for the health and welfare of others, long before politicians were making this a priority. As a young legislator in New York, he fought for a ban on homemade cigars after seeing what it did to the health of the makers. As a “Rough Rider” in Cuba he fought for the health care of the soldiers who were exposed to malaria, yellow fever, and poor sanitation. As President he pushed through the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Meat Inspection Act. He appointed a commission to study the poor health of those living in rural America. He held a conference on the health and welfare of dependent children in 1908. When he left the Presidency and formed his new “Bull Moose” party, it had one of the most progressive social platforms in all of American history. It called for universal health insurance; a national public health service; insurance for the elderly, the unemployed and the disabled. America will truly be greater if our next President places a priority on the health and welfare of all Americans.
Roosevelt was incredibly well read and knowledgable:
Roosevelt was our most well read President, and probably one of the most well read people in history. He would read an entire book each day before breakfast, and often two more in the evening. He was a speed reader! His reading was not limited to non fiction, biographies, books about war, etc. He also read poetry and stories of all types to allow him to be more aware of the plight of others and develop more empathy for them.
“We all need more than anything else to know human nature, to know the needs of the human soul; and they will find this nature and these needs set forth as nowhere else by the great imaginative writers, whether of prose or of poetry.” -T. Roosevelt
No person or President can be expected to read the voluminous amounts that Roosevelt did, but it would be great if our next President valued the knowledge that can be acquired through books. Not only for themselves, but for the example this would set to all Americans. Learning facts and stories is essential in the quest to be better humans, and the pursuit of this should be honored and cherished, especially by our leaders.
There is so much more that could be said about Theodore Roosevelt: His toughness, like the time he got shot while delivering a speech but finished the speech anyway. His willingness to take on big business and special interest groups, relishing the name “trust buster.” His drive for reforms to safety and improved labor laws as both a President and non President. Entire books have been written about each of these individual characteristics. He was a truly fascinating man. We were surely lucky to have him, and should all strive to maintain his legacy.
The character, traits, skills, and ability to inspire that Theodore Roosevelt had will probably never be matched, but hopefully our next President will be trying to.
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