A great book on Theodore Roosevelt, our 36th president. Morris treats his presidency, from 2:15 AM, September 14, 1901, when President McKinley succumbed to Leon Czolgosz's bullet, to the end of his second term, March 4, 1909. Roosevelt's gusto for life, and desire to make things better for all his countrymen, is an inspiring story.
There are interesting comparisons one can make with later presidents. Roosevelt's adaptation of a West African proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick" reminds us of Ronald Reagan's "Trust, but verify." His disdain of, and efforts to overcome, racism, remind us of Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, presidents who also saw equality of all human beings as a top priority.
Two stories in this volume show TR's character and illustrate why he was held in such high respect.
1. There was a black postmistress in Indianola, Mississippi. Appointed by President Harrison, Mrs. Cox had served well over the years, investing her salary in local businesses. By local definition, she had become "uppity," and was "persuaded" by the mayor to resign, or "get her neck stretched." TR's reaction was both precise and prompt. He refused the resignation and continued Mrs. Cox's federal salary. In deference to the citizens of Indianola, however, he arranged that they could, in the future, pick up their mail in Greenville, thirty miles away. I can just see the expressions on their faces as they watched the rump of their horse on their six hour trip to pick up the mail!
2. In 1902, on April 11, it was found that one General Jacob H. Smith had issued orders in the Filipino pacification battles to torture insurgents. Roosevelt swung into immediate action, on April 15th, cabling "[I] also intend to see that the most vigorous case is exercised to detect and prevent any cruelty or brutality . . . nothing can justify . . . the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind . . . ." General Smith admitted to the orders a week later, on April 23. A court martial followed quickly; the result was delivered on July 14th, Smith was found guilty of "excessive zeal" and admonished to "mend his ways." Roosevelt saw it differently. He fired Smith the next day. By so doing, he won praise from both political parties as well as most newspapers. This episode reminds us of George Bush's actions concerning the Gonzales-Rumsfeld directions to the soldiers at the Iraqi prison camp. Or should I say non-actions?
Roosevelt understood our triparite government well. Today, some people rail against judges "making law." In Roosevelt's last speech to Congress however, December 8, 1908, he observed that justice was not a matter of "eternal verities," but of constant adaptation to human perceptions. "Every time," he said, "they (judges) interpret contract, property, vested rights, due process of law, liberty, they necessarily enact into law parts of a system of social philosophy; and, as such interpretation is fundamental, they give direction to all lawmaking." Some conservatives of the time (and since) have tried to disagree with this too obvious to miss statement.
What did TR accomplish? The Panama Canal, a coal strike settlement, a peace treaty, five national parks, eighteen national monuments, reaffirmation of the Monroe Doctrine, the pacification of the Philippines, the establishment of progressive principles, anti-trust laws, a consensus that he had been the most powerful and positive leader of the United States since Abraham Lincoln. And much much more.
Did everyone like TR? In a word, no. Senator Benjamin Tillman, a racist, loathed him, as did all those who passed, enforced and benefited from Jim Crow laws. Tillman once wrote, upon hearing that TR had entertained Booker T. Washington at dinner, "The action . . . will necessitate our killing a thousand n___ (actual word spelled out) in the South before they will learn their place again." The very wealthy, who saw themselves as uniquely entitled not only to their riches, but also their economic and social power, fought his anti-trust and conservation policies to the bitter end. The only folks that liked him were the "common people." Thankfully, there were enough of these to keep him in office for a second term and then elect William Taft, his hand-picked successor. The country underwent a sea change in the years 1901-1909, and this book tells the story well. Read it by the fire this winter. It will warm your heart to know such a person once headed our country.