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Revisiting Roosevelt

by Andy Boynton

The nation's 26th president is remembered for self-determination and a love of the outdoors, but he was also a skilled and principled politician

Much has been made of how Theodore Roosevelt's experiences as a Rough Rider, a cattle rancher, and an outdoorsman helped prepare him for the presidency. But, writes Paul Grondahl '81 in his new book, I Rose Like a Rocket, Roosevelt's real political schooling took place in Albany, New York, where he served first as a junior assemblyman and later as the state's governor, and in Washington, where, prior to becoming William McKinley's vice president in 1901, he worked as Civil Service commissioner and then as assistant secretary of the Navy.

"In all the famous, near-mythical stories of the weakling transforming himself into a man of vigor," Grondahl says, "something has been lost: Roosevelt the political master."

Grondahl, who himself worked briefly in New York state politics, is an award-winning reporter at the Albany Times Union, and has written about Albany politics and history for the past two decades. His previous book, Mayor Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma, was hailed as "a minor classic" by the New York Times Book Review.

In I Rose Like a Rocket, he tracks Roosevelt's evolution from a brash, cocky upstart, unafraid to level blows both political and physical, to a shrewd leader who'd learned the art of practical politics. "If you are cast on a desert island with only a screw-driver, a hatchet, and a chisel to make a boat with," Roosevelt said later in his career, "why, go make the best one you can.... So with men."

Like his siblings, Roosevelt was chronically ill as a child, and suffered from frequent asthma attacks. His doctors even gave him electric shock treatment, thinking that his condition was caused by his family's affluent lifestyle. His poor eyesight, meanwhile, required him to wear thick corrective lenses.

Roosevelt's father, Theodore Roosevelt Sr., a prominent Manhattan businessman and philanthropist, urged his son to outmuscle his maladies by lifting weights and mountain-climbing in the Adirondacks. The elder Roosevelt had high expectations for all his children, frequently challenging them to "Get action!" and "Seize the moment!"

Entering Harvard, Roosevelt grew mutton-chop sideburns to try to look manly, but only attracted more ridicule. He quickly took up boxing, which helped release the "recklessness and animalistic rage inside" him, and got into heated arguments with fellow classmates, throwing a pastry at one and slamming a pumpkin down upon the head of another.

Upon Roosevelt's father's death, and deeply affected by his dad's political failures, he threw himself into his studies and activities, leading one student to call him a "steam-engine in trousers," and started dabbling in politics. Around this time, he began to pursue a beautiful young woman named Alice Lee, whom he later married, and even sent away for a set of French dueling pistols to ward off other suitors.

Roosevelt attended Columbia Law School, joined the National Guard, and was elected to the New York state assembly. Upon his arrival in Albany in 1882--at 23, he was the youngest state legislator ever elected--he learned that "Big John" McManus, chief thug for the powerful Tammany Hall political machine, was plotting to haze him. He confronted McManus, who outweighed Roosevelt by about a hundred pounds: "By God! McManus, I hear you are going to toss me in a blanket. By God! If you try anything like that, I'll kick you, I'll bite you.... You'd better leave me alone." McManus and his cronies backed off, marking an auspicious start for the freshman assemblyman.

Still, when Roosevelt got to Albany, his place in the political food chain "was somewhere between plankton and sea slug." He made political headlines that year by boldly taking on corrupt State Supreme Court Judge Theodore Westbrook, leading the press to praise his "sheer moral courage" and nickname him "the Scotch terrier." In his second term, seen as an up-and-comer with unlimited political potential, he was elected Republican Minority Speaker.

But upon his wife's sudden death (on the very same day his mother died), Roosevelt, disgusted with politics, sold his belongings and moved to the Dakota Badlands to become a cattle rancher. There, he picked up antelope hunting and horse riding, one day riding as much as 72 miles over rough terrain, and was very much regarded as a city slicker. He earned respect among the locals, though, by punching out a pistol-wielding drunk and single-handedly staving off an attack by five Sioux Indians.

After weather wiped out over half his herd, Roosevelt returned east to marry his high school sweetheart and work as a freelance writer, publishing the first volume of his "magnum opus," The Winning of the West. President Benjamin Harris then summoned him to Washington to head the Civil Service Commission, which he ran "with the same energy and sense of purpose with which he had rounded up cattle," tackling corruption and incompetence head on.

In 1895, Roosevelt moved back to New York City and became its police commissioner, stamping out systematic corruption and inefficiency that ran rampant. There, he became a favorite of political cartoonists for his massive, gleaming white teeth, which, observed one reporter, were "calculated to unnerve the bravest of the Finest."

But burned out, and at a political dead end, he accepted when President McKinley appointed him assistant secretary of the Navy. Asked later by a reporter whether he'd ever like to run for president, Roosevelt exploded in anger, then, recovering his composure, explained, "I won't let myself think of it; I must not, because if I do, I will begin to work for it, I'll be careful, calculating, cautious in word and act, and so--I'll beat myself."

With the onset of the Spanish-American War, perhaps spurred by bloodlust, Roosevelt dubiously decided to leave his Navy post and lead an all-volunteer regiment, the Rough Riders, into battle. While Roosevelt's exploits made him one of the most famous men in America, one Rough Rider was more matter-of-fact about the effort: "We were just a mob that went up a hill."

After the war, resisting overtures by the Independent Party ("prize idiots," he called them), he ran as a Republican for governor of New York, shaking an estimated 50 hands a minute on the stump and, during one six-day stretch, delivering an astonishing 102 speeches. As governor, he implemented a reform agenda, but employed a more practical approach than he had in the assembly, building political alliances, using the media to his advantage, and consulting experts like Princeton political science professor Woodrow Wilson. In turn, he won passage of several pioneering pieces of labor and education legislation, pushed through landmark tax laws, and built a reputation as one of the greatest conservationists in U.S. history.

By the time McKinley picked him as his running mate in the 1900 election, and he himself assumed the presidency following McKinley's assassination, Roosevelt bore little resemblance, in terms of maturity and his tack, to the fiery young assemblyman who'd arrived in Albany nearly 20 years earlier. But, through his career, his moral compass had never wavered. As one state official said, Roosevelt asked "not 'Is it expedient?' Not 'How is it going to help me?' Not 'What is it worth to the party?' Not any of these, but 'Is it right?' That is Roosevelt's legacy."

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