Aida D. Donald is a former editor-in-chief of Harvard University Press who has immersed herself in history. She has written this biography of Theodore Roosevelt with evident admiration for her subject, beginning each chapter with excerpts from Roosevelt's copious diaries and scattering charming photographs through the text of this attractive book.
Roosevelt was, by Donald's account, the first truly modern President, a man who thought of America as a potential world power and who saw himself as a world leader, not merely the leader of an isolated country. He was a sickly child, as is well known, and overcame his tendency to frailty through the manly exhortations of his father whom he all but worshipped. He became so robust that he was often lampooned as a bulldog or a lion. He was once wounded by a bullet while on the campaign trail and he went ahead with a speech, famously stating that if the wound had proved fatal, "I wished to die with my boots on." He traveled much of the world and, as is
also well known, not only served in the military but led the storied charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba in the Spanish American War, a conflict that put an end to European sovereignty in the Americas.
Many of his accomplishments are notable because they took place before he became
president. He was an author, for example, not just of a retrospective autobiography largely penned by aides after he left office, but of scores of popular books, among them
The Winning of the West. These detailed volumes are still in print and include portraits of famed pioneers like Daniel Boone as well as the Indian chief Logan of the Mingo tribe. He had respect for the Indians but saw them as lacking "such qualities as mercy for the fallen, the weak, and the helpless, or pity for a gallant and vanquished foe." By contrast, though the backwoodsmen who settled the American wilderness had their faults, they were, in Roosevelt's view, "upright, resolute and fearless, loyal to their friends and devoted to their country."
In balance, Roosevelt included in his writings a speech by Logan which gave insight if not outright sympathy to the "first Americans."
Roosevelt, in contrast to today's lackluster politicians, would stand out as a candidate and be a shoo-in for the office of President. As Police Commissioner of New York, he cleared the streets of New York of miscreant policemen, bribe-takers and whoremongers who were weakening the political life of the city.
He did so not by passing laws or having someone else do the work; he actually strolled the city by night in a black cape and carrying a cane, uncovering "policemen sleeping, imbibing in watering holes, and frequenting brothels while on duty." Though his mother was a staunch Confederate and pro-slavery, Roosevelt was angered when criticized for having Booker T. Washington, a man he deemed "a good citizen and a good American," visit him in the White House. He personally oversaw the management of the construction of his grand project, the Panama Canal. He negotiated an end to a coal-miners strike, won the Nobel Peace prize and the Medal of Honor, and was the first
president to argue for conservation of American wilderness. In short, Theodore Roosevelt walked the walk. His visage deserves its place on Mt. Rushmore.
Aida Donald has not posed the question, but it seems to ride rambunctiously throughout her narrative, so I will ask it. Where are the Teddy Roosevelts of this era?