CHAPTER XX. THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Seldom, in times of peace, is the personality of a single individual so important as that of Theodore Roosevelt during the early years of the twentieth century. At the time of his accession to the presidency, he lacked a month of being forty-three years old, but the range of his experience in politics had been far beyond his age. In his early twenties, soon after leaving Harvard, he had entered the Assembly of the state of New York. President Harrison had made him Civil Service Commissioner in 1889, and he had been successively President of the Board of Police Commissioners of New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, an important figure in the war with Spain, and Governor of New York. He had been known as a young man of promise - energetic, independent and progressive - and in addition to his political activities he had found time to write books on historical subjects, see something of life on a western ranch and develop a somewhat defective physique into an engine of physical power.
Brimming with energy, nimble of mind, impetuous, sure of himself, quick to strike, a fearless foe, frank, resourceful, audacious, honest, versatile - Roosevelt possessed the qualities which would challenge the admiration of the typical American. One who frequently saw him at work described thus the way in which he prepared a message to be sent to the Senate:
He storms up and down the room, dictating in a loud and oratorical
tone, often stopping, recasting a sentence, striking out and
filling in, hospitable to every suggestion, not in the least
disturbed by interruption, holding on stoutly to his purpose,
and producing finally, out of these most unpromising conditions,
a clear and logical statement, which he could not improve with
solitude and leisure at his command.
The breadth of his interests, the democratic character of his friendships - for he was equally at home with blue-stocking, politician, cowboy and artisan - his complete loyalty to his friends and his disregard of conventionalities gave him a grip upon popular favor that had not been duplicated since the days of Andrew Jackson, unless by Lincoln. The effectiveness of so compelling a personality was in no way diminished by Roosevelt's possession of what a journalist would call "news sense." He was made for publicity; he had an instinct for the dramatic. His speeches were removed from mediocrity by his evident sincerity, his abounding interest in every occasion at which he was called upon to talk and the phrases that were half victories which he coined almost at will. "Mollycoddle," "muckraking," "the square deal," "the big stick" became familiar idioms in the vernacular of politics and the street. The political leadership of Roosevelt rested mainly upon his personal prestige and upon his attributes as a reformer. With unerring prescience he chose those political issues which would make a wide appeal and which could be pressed quickly to a successful conclusion. His complete integrity saved him from mere opportunism; his ruggedly practical commonsense saved him from that combination of high purpose and slight accomplishment which has characterized many other reformers.
No estimate of the deficiencies in Roosevelt's personality and leadership would be agreed upon at the present time. In some cases - as in the realm of international relations - only the future can decide whether he was a prophet or a chauvinist; in all cases, opinions have differed widely, for Roosevelt could scarcely explore a river, describe a natural phenomenon or urge a political innovation without thereby arousing a controversy in which his friends and his opponents would participate with equal intensity. His identification of himself with his purposes was as complete as that of Andrew Jackson; opposition to his proposals was reckoned as opposition to him as an individual. Like many leaders of the fighting type, he was frequently weak when judging the motives of those who disagreed with him. One of his admirers declared that his greatest political defect was an impatience of any interval between an expressed desire for an act and the accomplishment of the deed itself - an inability to stand through years of defeat for the future success of an ideal. A keener and equally sympathetic critic dubbed him the "sportsman" in politics - honest, hard-hitting, but playing the issue which had an immediate political effect.