By Lewis L. Gould
Theodore Roosevelt became President of the United States upon the death of William McKinley in the early morning of 14 September 1901. An assassin had fatally wounded McKinley eight days earlier. Vice President Roosevelt took the presidential oath at a friend’s home in Buffalo, New York, hurried to Washington for a brief Cabinet meeting, and then returned to the capital on 20 September 1901 to take over as chief executive. To the American people, he promised to continue “absolutely unbroken” the policies of William McKinley. He set the new tone for his administration in a private letter that he wrote to his closest friend, Henry Cabot Lodge, on 23 September 1901. “It is a dreadful thing to come into the presidency in this way; but it would be a far worse thing to be morbid about it.”
For the next seven and a half years, Roosevelt led the nation in a style that was anything but morbid and angst-ridden. Though Roosevelt grew fat in the White House and lost the sight of one eye, he reveled in the running of the nation. He told friends in those early days “I will be President” because, as he later said, “I have got such a bully pulpit.” Franklin D. Roosevelt later called his distant cousin “a preaching president.”
Roosevelt was the first chief executive to be a true celebrity and captivate the nation with his energy and charisma. As a reporter noted, when Roosevelt was present the public could “no more look the other way than a small boy can turn his head away from a circus parade followed by a steam calliope.” While Roosevelt was entertaining and fun as no president had been before or since, he was also a serious practitioner of presidential politics and policy.
During his two terms, the United States addressed issues of the conservation of natural resources as had not occurred previously in the nation’s history. He sought to establish the supremacy of the national government over private business interests and included organized labor in the settlement of such disputes as the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902. In the Hepburn Act of 1906 to regulate railroads, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the Meat Inspection Act of the same year, he broadened the government’s power in the economy in ways that still remain controversial.
Roosevelt also used the power of the presidency to shape a world role for the United States. His acquisition of the Panama Canal in 1903-1904 remains controversial. He mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and sent the “Great White Fleet” of the United States Navy around the world in 1907-1908. He believed in both halves of his famous saying “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” While he used power, he did not send American troops into harm’s way in a reckless manner. In his 1913 autobiography, he recalled with pride: “We were at absolute peace” when he went out of office in March 1909.
Time took its toll on Roosevelt during his years in office, but he retained the same joy in being president that he displayed when he assumed power in September 1901. As his days lessened, he told a friend: “I have done my work, I am perfectly content; I have nothing to ask; and I am very grateful to the American people for what they have done for me.” In addition to being a strong president, Roosevelt had made his days in the White House an enjoyable period for the American people. He had reformed college football, jousted in print with political enemies, and saw his celebrity daughter Alice Roosevelt married in the White House. As his presidency drew to a close, he visited the home of his old friend, Henry Cabot Lodge. When the president was departing, Mrs. Lodge observed “The great and joyous days are over, we shall never have anything like them again-there is no one like Theodore.”
Nannie Lodge was right. Theodore Roosevelt was a unique figure in the American presidency. On the anniversary of his coming into the White House, it is good to remember what one historian called “the fun of him” and to recall the wise phrase of a reporter when Roosevelt died: “You had the hate the Colonel a whole lot to keep from loving him.”
Lewis L. Gould is Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Theodore Roosevelt, The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, and The William Howard Taft Presidency.