"The principles for which we stand are the principles of fair play and a square deal for every man and every woman in the United States."—Theodore Roosevelt
He was the first president of the 20th century, and he embodies all that America has been in that century. He came from privilege, yet fought for labor and against cronyism and corruption. He fought to build an American empire at the barrel of a gun, yet battled just as hard for environmental causes. He believed in the perfectibility of all people, yet made only half-hearted efforts toward reconciling race and class conflicts. He considered himself a man of the people, yet he has been enshrined in myth and stone on Mount Rushmore.
Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858, as America began to shift its focus from agrarianism to urban sprawl like the New York City of his youth. Even as a child, he was obsessed with manliness, and all that masculinity had come to represent in the men of his generation: bluster, passion, and monstrous ego. He was, as historian John Milton Cooper calls him, "a self-created character." From his attempts to conquer the West with a Tiffany knife and designer buckskins, to his job as assistant Navy Secretary when he had never been to sea, "T.R." might have been easily dismissed as a poser by those who did not see him in action.
But as the History Channel proves in its documentary mini-series, Teddy Roosevelt: An American Lion, T.R. was the real deal. He played the Republican political machine to get himself into power, taking every allegedly dead-end job—Civil Service Commissioner (in a government full of incompetent cronies), New York City Police Commissioner (in the most corrupt police force in the nation), and even Vice President—and charging ahead to clean house.
There was a darker side to Roosevelt's gung-ho view of the world too. Believing a little war to be good for the soul (biographer H.W. Brands flat out calls him a "warmonger"), Assistant Navy Secretary Roosevelt exceeded his authority and provoked a war with Spain to the horror of his own political administration, then ran off to form a cavalry regiment to fight in it.
Even as president, T.R. was a man of great passions. His ideal of self-motivated improvement translated itself into a strange sort of populism, leading him to fight "the tyranny of mere wealth," as he put it, by taking legal action to thrash monopolistic robber barons. He modernized the White House from a provincial residence to a working office and diplomatic showpiece, and built, in what still stands as one of the great marvels of modern engineering, the Panama Canal. And as his own Republican Party became increasingly more conservative, he shifted increasingly toward progressivism: pro-labor, pro-reform, pro-modernization—the precursor to his cousin Franklin's "New Deal." But on race, he was not so forthright: he entertained Booker T. Washington at dinner, but still fretted about the "terrible presence of the Negro" in American society. And his unabashed imperialism raises persistent questions about America's continuing role in world affairs.
The History Channel fills three hours on two discs telling the story of Teddy Roosevelt's life, and it still feels far too short. For added measure, they include a 1995 episode of A&E's Biography series that oddly gives more psychological assessment than the main feature, in one-quarter of the time: how T.R.'s childhood was shaped by a tough father (who instilled him with a desire to fight political corruption) and a vivacious mother (reportedly the inspiration for Scarlett O'Hara).
But the main feature does offer a balanced and fascinating portrait of one of the most misunderstood figures in American history. Filled with historians and family members offering their insights, archival films and recreations to conjure the life of the man, and Richard Dreyfuss lending his voice to Roosevelt's own words, this documentary is quite successful, especially when paired with the Biography episode to fill in the gaps. We learn much about Lincoln and Washington and Jefferson (at least relative to the rest of our national leaders), but how many people know anything about that fourth face on Mount Rushmore? Hopefully, An American Lion will help correct that error. There is much to learn, both good and bad, in the life of the president whom biographer Kathleen Dalton calls "the biggest character in American history."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Biography Episode: "Teddy Roosevelt: From Roughrider to Rushmore"
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