The year was 1904, and Theodore Roosevelt had just
been elected by a landslide to his second term as president of the United States. He told
a friend in a letter, "It is a particular gratification to me to have owed my
election . . . above all to Abraham Lincoln's 'plain people'; to the folk who work hard on
the farm, in the shop, or on the railroads, or who own little stores, little businesses .
. . I would literally, not figuratively, rather cut off my right hand than forfeit by any
improper act of mine the trust and regard of these people."
Four years earlier, Roosevelt had helped return
President William McKinley to office. Roosevelt was McKinley's vice presidential running
mate in 1900, but Teddy was the only one to do any running. An observer new to American
politics might have thought Roosevelt headed the ticket. McKinley barely moved off his
front porch in Ohio to campaign. Roosevelt in turn traveled the country by rail,
denouncing the formidable Democratic challenger, William Jennings Bryan. By Election Day,
Roosevelt had traveled more than 20,000 miles and given hundreds of speeches. The
Republicans won handily.
William McKinley was murdered less than one year
later, a victim of a lone assassin who shot and fatally wounded the president at the
Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. In September 1901, Vice President Roosevelt became the
youngest president in American history, turning 43 one month later. "That damned
cowboy is in the White House," moaned one machine politician. From the very
beginning, Roosevelt was a whirlwind, performing as if he had been born to occupy the
Throughout his life, Roosevelt's triumphs were many.
But they came neither easily nor without considerable self-examination, facts that would
have surprised most people who knew the exuberant, self-assured Roosevelt. After all, this
was the same man who had inspired a Brooklyn toy shop owner to dream up the idea of making
and selling stuffed "Teddy" bears. They became a worldwide success, and
Roosevelt, typically, was delighted.
In his autobiography, Roosevelt said, "One
position which as Governor (and as president) I consistently took, seems to me to
represent what ought to be a fundamental principle in American legislative work. I
steadfastly refused to advocate any law, no matter how admirable in theory, if there was
good reason to believe that in practice it would not be executed."
TR made waves no matter where he went or what he
did. When he was 30 years old, President Benjamin Harrison appointed him to a post on the
U.S. Civil Service Commission. Reform of the civil service system became his cause and, in
historian William Henry Harbaugh's words, TR "read into it both the gospel of
efficiency, which is the conservative's creed, and the open society, which is the
Democrat's dream." Harrison eventually grumped that Roosevelt "wanted to put an
end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset."
And when TR became a New York City police
commissioner in the spring of 1895, he fought deeply entrenched corruption in the
department that had roots in both major political parties. Roosevelt spent two years of
struggle and frustration as commissioner, yet still managed to institute a variety of
reforms. Before his tenure, for example, a captaincy could be purchased for $10,000.
Roosevelt put an end to that. When city newspapers reported in 1897 that TR was resigning,
a patrolman told crusading journalist Lincoln Steffens, "It's tough on the force, for
he was dead square, was Roosevelt, and we needed him in the business."
The American people loved Teddy, even though many
politicians - regardless of party or philosophy - were frustrated and unhappy with him
because he refused to play by their rules. Roosevelt was a man of paradox, a man of action
with a dazzling mind, a genuine reformer who was routinely suspicious of reformers. In his
autobiography, he wrote of "the corrupt and unattractive nature of so many of the men
who championed popular reforms, their insincerity, and the folly of so many of the actions
which they advocated."
When he was governor, the New York World said of
Roosevelt, "An honest and fearless governor - a combination of conscience and
backbone - is a mighty good thing to have at Albany!" The country felt the same.
Theodore Roosevelt, war hero, reformer, adventurer and writer, soon would be in the White
House. When he was nominated for vice president in 1900, a delegate from Wisconsin called
Roosevelt "not New York's son, but the nation's son."
Theodore Roosevelt is the only 20th century
president to join Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln on Mount Rushmore.