Lewis L. Gould, eminent historian of the Progressive Era presidency, has a new 73-page biography of Theodore Roosevelt. While one might legitimately ask whether we need another biography of the twenty-sixth president, Gould has much to offer in this brisk and innovative interpretation of Roosevelt.
No president captures the American imagination like Theodore Roosevelt. Unless you are Glenn Beck or Karl Rove, who believe the Progressive Era turned the United States away from the glorious years of the Gilded Age, you probably have a fondness for TR. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives all find something to love about the man. Liberals idealize the conservationist Roosevelt who also pressed for much needed social reform. Conservatives love the manly bearing and imperialist foreign policy. I am more ambivalent, seeing a lot of good legislation and probably an overall positive impact but some very sinister ideology behind much of it. It’s not just that Roosevelt had the social and racial attitudes of his time, but rather he went a long ways toward shaping those attitudes through his voluminous writing and political impact. It’s worth noting that Roosevelt was good friends with Madison Grant, author of The Passing of the Great Race, which heavily influenced one Adolf Hitler.
Gould is more charitable to Roosevelt, viewing him as a force for positive change, though certainly willing to temper the grander claims about Roosevelt inventing the modern presidency and to criticize him for his racism. He generally supports Roosevelt’s foreign policy, noting his work in the Russo-Japanese War and Algercias Conference, as well as his keeping the nation out of serious conflicts. On the other hand, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine is one of the worst foreign policy moves in American history for those of us who care about Latin America. Perhaps U.S. domination of Latin America during the 20th century would have been the same without the Corollary, but it certainly gave the constant invasions of Latin American nations the imprint of official and deeply held U.S. policy.
Perhaps Gould’s most important observation here is how Roosevelt used the media to advance his career. That’s not new necessarily, but it is underplayed in our histories of Roosevelt. I often call Roosevelt “the first twentieth-century American,” in the sense that he understood the new vibrant America coming into being and knew how to shape the media narrative to his advantage in ways far beyond any other politician of the Gilded Age. Gould more or less subscribes to this view, noting how Roosevelt surrounded himself with reporters his entire life, from the time he was a young assemblyman in New York until his death. Roosevelt controlled the news, crafted an image, and promoted his personal rise. One of Gould’s most interesting insights is to note how utterly unprepared Roosevelt was for retirement. He loved the spotlight but in an age of modern celebrity, where, as Gould notes, silent film stars became nationally known figures and celebrity magazines began to appear, Roosevelt was overwhelmed by the throngs that followed him wherever he went. Without a political agenda to shape his media coverage, it became all about his daily activities, much to his chagrin.
Roosevelt’s manipulation of the media and public during his lifetime still colors our view of the Progressive Era today. This is especially true when it comes to William Howard Taft. Gould deftly discusses Roosevelt’s relationship with Taft, a central theme of the book. Roosevelt convinced himself that Taft was the most prepared man for the presidency in American history, ignoring their very different temperaments and political predilections. When Roosevelt turned on him by 1910, it was with great force. Roosevelt quite unfairly savages Taft in his Autobiography. Yes, Taft was more conservative than his predecessor would have liked, but Roosevelt’s primary problem with Taft is that he was not Theodore Roosevelt. Tainting Taft as a conservative dullard ignores Taft’s very real contribution to Progressive reform, including busting trusts and conserving land. Tellingly, the final straw for Roosevelt was when Taft went after U.S. Steel in 1911 for its monopolistic activities after TR made an exception for it in 1907 in order to reassure Wall Street during an economic crisis. For Roosevelt, the antitrust suit was about him, not U.S. Steel.
Roosevelt’s inability to avoid the spotlight combined with his loathing of Taft to bring him back to politics in his ill-fated 1912 run for the presidency. Unable to wrest the Republican Party away from Taft’s supporters, Roosevelt left the party of his youth to run at the head of the new Progressive Party. Gould notes that the 1912 bid “succeeded in broadening the agenda of public life.” Maybe that’s true. Certainly Roosevelt pushed for programs that the nation desperately needed, some of which that would not be implemented until the New Deal, but I’m not totally convinced that Roosevelt really moved the bar. More compelling for me was Roosevelt’s disinterest in building the Progressive Party structure after his defeat. Like many third-party candidates, such as Ralph Nader, Roosevelt was an egoist at heart who used any tool available to advance his own personal agenda but had significantly less interest in long-term change in which he was not personally involved.
We should also laud Gould for his writing. How do you say anything meaningful in a 73-page comprehensive biography of one of the most complex figures in American history? Here’s how:
Out of office, Roosevelt took up cattle ranching in the Dakotas as a catharsis after the death of his wife and mother. He had first invested in the region in 1882, and a year later he put his money, which amounted to 20 percent of his estate, into two cattle ranches, the Maltese Cross and the Elkhorn, in the Dakota Badlands. Roosevelt’s years in Dakota infused his life with even more color and drama. Cowboys in the territory remembered his orders to them: “Hasten forward quickly there.” Men talked of how he floored an armed, drunken antagonist with a single blow in a Montana saloon. He short bears, battled blizzards, and kept on reading. In April 1886 he and two friends pursued and captured, and then he alone brought to the local sheriff three thieves who had stolen a boat from his Elkhorn ranch. While doing all this, he read all of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in French. Stories of his exploits appeared in eastern newspapers. To be sure the world knew of his activities, he wrote articles for popular magazines about what he had done.”
And we are done with the West!
I must criticize Gould a bit for mostly ignoring gender. Roosevelt was obsessed with his own manhood and I don’t feel we can understand the man without some discussion of this. It’s not like talking about TR and masculinity means an engagement with the work of Judith Butler. Roosevelt’s writing make this clear enough. He constantly talked about the need to make the boy a man by taking him hunting and training him for war. Roosevelt loved hunting himself, as well as boxing, football.This was all recreation for him, but it had a much larger purpose: to train a new generation of boys, growing up in enervating and polluted cities, how to become good soldiers ready to defend the republic. That’s absolutely central to how Roosevelt defined himself and chose his life path.
Despite ignoring gender, Gould’s book is a quite worthy addition to the ever-expanding canon on Roosevelt. I’m not sure that I’d assign it to my Gilded Age/Progressive Era course because it flies so quickly that students may have a hard time analyzing the text. But for those of us interested in spending an hour or two thinking about one of the most fascinating individuals in American history, you could not do better than this.
I didn’t originally intend this review to reach 1300 words, but then I don’t write like Gould.