One hundred years ago last summer, in another hour of national grief, Theodore Roosevelt, 42, became the youngest man ever appointed president of the United States. He assumed office following the murder of William McKinley, who was shot by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo.
The press had reported the president was recovering, and Roosevelt went on vacation in the Adirondacks to reassure the American people. But well-meaning doctors botched the effort to remove the bullet from the ailing McKinley. A messenger waving a telegram found the family atop a mountain, and Vice President Roosevelt sped through the night by buggy and train. While he was en route McKinley died, and the great responsibility, for which TR had been seemingly destined, devolved onto him. Thus there came to the White House one of the greatest presidents in America's history.
In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979), author Edmund Morris told of Roosevelt's meteoric ascent from New York assemblyman to colonel of the Rough Riders to governor of the Empire State to Vice President. Morris' second volume, Theodore Rex, begins with that dark ride of September 14, 1901, then chronicles the two presidential administrations that ended eight years later.
Perhaps TR's single most important contribution to American history was the creation of the modern presidency. Roosevelt saw the need to apply the power of the federal government to the regulation of big business. Manufacturers, financiers and railroad barons had come to dominate the nation's life, often abusing their power through combinations in restraint of trade and exploitative working conditions in factories, mines and fields. Roosevelt asserted the concept of "the public interest," with Washington as its guardian. His administration sued to bring marauding corporations within the restraint of the law. It went on to seize the isthmus at Panama for the digging of the great canal, broker a settlement of the war between Russia and Japan, achieve campaign finance reform and create vast reserves of parklands, natural monuments and wetlands. TR the hunter even loaned his name to the Teddy Bear.
Morris' book is a triumph of biographical art. Roosevelt strides through these pages as he strode across American life. Morris is a skillful literary stylist, and this long book flies by in the reading. The exuberance, the energy and the large, hearty, boisterous and sweet nature of TR abound here. So do insightful personal and character sketches of TR's intimates, friends, supporters and enemies. Roosevelt was much more than a president. He had significant and substantive achievements as an explorer, naturalist, sportsman, historian and journalist. He was also a devoted husband and father, and somehow found time to write 35 books. He had as great a capacity for life as anyone you're ever likely to meet, and 100 years after his presidency, TR's life and accomplishments remain an asset and inspiration for our country.
James Summerville of Nashville serves as a trustee of the Theodore Roosevelt Association.