Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt, by Aida D. Donald
Aida D. Donald's biography of the 26th American president of the United States is one of several projects to come out recently indicating a resurgence in the popularity and relevance of the man who Donald characterizes as the first modern president. Characteristics of modernity that Donald focuses upon include Roosevelt's positioning of the United States as a world super power rather than the fledgling nation started by intellectuals fracturing off from European centrality and control.
The biography looks to the frailties of Roosevelt's early life in order to explicate the impetus behind his self-created image of a robust man who lived and lead with gusto in his later life. "Roosevelt aimed to restore the old virtues and programs of the earliest Republicans. He staked out his philosophy of government, and his political tactics were aggressive and energetic" (Donald 38). While he is best remembered in popular culture for his almost mythic presidency, Roosevelt was a man who had many stages of accomplishment throughout his lifetime, including his illustrious military career and the conservationism and natural preservation efforts that defined his post-White House life.
After he graduated from Harvard and lost his first wife, Alice, to kidney disease, an event he refused to discuss for the rest of his life, Roosevelt built a ranch named Elk Horn in the Bad Lands of North Dakota. Many of the stories that he would tell throughout his political career emphasized the toughness that he cultivated through this time period, and Donald points out that Roosevelt was eventually well-respected by lifelong ranchers in the territory because he proved himself unwilling to back away from conflict. It was throughout this period that his physical form became tanned and muscled, closer to the image most Americans have of him in his later life. He ended up serving as a deputy sheriff for the area in which he lived. It was also during his time in the Badlands that he developed a lifelong love and commitment to America's natural landscape.
Two years after he moved out west he realized that his ranch was no longer financially viable and that it was time for him to turn his attention back to more successful ventures. He sold Elk Horn in the fall of 1886 and moved back to New York City to mount an unsuccessful mayoral bid. Following this defeat, he turned his attention to writing, and through the rest of the 1880s, he finished the well-received, three volume tome The Winning of the West while serving on the Civil Service Commission until 1895, an appointment he received due to his hearty campaigning efforts for Benjamin Harrison in the Midwest.
After this appointment, he was placed on the New York City Police Board and then was named police commissioner for the city for the years 1895 to 1897. Throughout this period, he established himself as a dedicated and notable public servant with an eye upon reform. He was known to patrol the streets of the city at night himself in order to reduce crime rates in the city. Donald writes of Roosevelt through this period of time as disciplined and with an eye on brighter future prospects, but with an eternal commitment to the city of New York that would last a lifetime.
The next section of the book focuses upon Roosevelt's military career, which was a product of both the fearlessness than Donald asserts was culled from his earlier experiences ranching as well-planned personal strategizing which moved him into positions of increasing power and responsibility. Throughout the portion of the biography pertaining to Roosevelt's military career, the author takes a rather removed stance, letting the sequence of events speak for themselves. This stands in stark contrast to the politicized analysis and recontextualization of Roosevelt's time in state and federal government. The book, which is much shorter than other biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, moves through his tenure as Assistant Secretary to the Navy, in which he played an instrumental role in preparing the United States Naval Forces for the Spanish-American. Donald emphasizes the hand-on approach he took to leadership; he resigned from the Navy Department when the war was officially declared in 1898 in order to create the diverse 'Rough Riders', the First U.S. Voluntary Calvary Regiment. His Rough Riders gained infamy for their efforts at the Battles of Kettle Hill and San Juan Hill. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor following these battles but it was not approved because it was said that he did not follow the rules of the army as a volunteer and thus interfered with the campaign; Donald does not provide any insight into how affected a battle-wearied Roosevelt.
Roosevelt in a Political Context
It was the popularity he enjoyed in the public eye following the Spanish-American war that brought him to the attention of the political establishment of the dawning 20th century:
"The war soon brought him even larger rewards than did his mastery of men. He was now even more famous than the president. Powerful men in New York were maneuvering to restart his political career. And the wartime experience had matured Roosevelt. He thought better of the average American man and he gained experience in managing yet another organization" (Donald 102-103).
This attention and financing helped him to be elected as the Governor for the state of New York. Donald does not portray a Roosevelt who desired to rise higher politically than this role at this stage. Rather than aim for higher political aspirations, Roosevelt focused upon reform within the state of New York, and Donald writes of how he had a good blend of character traits and experiences at this point in his career to get the job done. "Roosevelt had had just enough experience in how legislatures worked in the dark and often under malign influences to know that they needed a strong governor to lead them" (Donald 109). Besides this practical knowledge of the government's inner workings, he had an effective rhetoric for communicating the critical need for change.
"He meant to be a strong executive who would make policy and manage the government, who would tackle the new industrial order. He knew that he had to create a new kind of politics to succeed. In his words, he would strive for efficiency, honesty, morality, principle, duty, courage, character above all, and common sense. He planned to bring to his tasks, additionally, persuasion and publicity. A foreign observer saw Roosevelt at the time as "reason made hot by passion." (Donald 112.)
Roosevelt declined to run for re-election in 1908. His post-presidential years were highly productive and kept him in the national spotlight. The media attention that followed him throughout his public life was another mark of his status as a modern president, and it was not a role that Roosevelt stepped into blindly. He had cultivated his accessible, vibrant image by elevating the status of the national press pool in his presidential years by building the White House Press Room where a pool had once been.
The public followed his extensive African safari, during which he hunted game for the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian. Roosevelt desired greatly for the city of New York to have an institution which would bring the natural world into the hands of the urban explorer, and the city's appreciation is evident in the iconic statue of Roosevelt on horseback in front of the museum's entrance.
Roosevelt was highly disappointed in the direction the Republican Party was going in by 1912 and ran for president once more through the Bull Moose Party he created after his hopes of President Taft continuing his progressive brand of Republicanism were dashed as Taft and Roosevelt clashed over the role of the judicial system in political reform. Roosevelt wasshot in an assassination attempt while delivering a stump speech; he famously insisted upon completing his 90 minute address to the crowd in Milwaukee before agreeing to seek medical attention.
The wound was serious enough for Roosevelt to have to step down from the campaign, although he still received over four million votes. He recovered and traveled to South America, where he contracted malaria. His physical health, once the stuff of legend, never fully recovered. His son was a pilot for American forces during World War I; his plane was shot down over German-occupied France in 1918. Roosevelt was said to have never recovered from the loss of his son and he died in his sleep in early 1919.
The Political Contextualizing of Theodore Roosevelt
It is through the latter one hundred and fifty pages of the book that Donald's intentions in telling Roosevelt's story become most clear. The first half of the book underscores the life events, which forged the person who would ascend to national prominence later in life. It is a book that does not seek to conceal personal flaws nor does it aim…