I have recently noticed three highly publicized new books about Theodore Roosevelt, probably the perfect American hero for a schizophrenic age. Two of them, The Big Burn by Timothy Egan and The Wilderness Warrior by Douglas Brinkley style TR as an ecological crusader– an avatar of the environmental movement, an anti-corporate crusader and defender of America’s vast ecological heritage.
The other book, The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley, is a strangely neo-con, unflatteringly revisionist portrait of “Big Stick” Roosevelt, who apparently talked a big game but dispatched a secret diplomatic mission to Asia to conclude self-serving non-agression pacts with China, Japan, and Korea. And as the author suggests, those disastrously accommodationist agreements made later War in the Pacific all but inevitable.
So here, are both sides of today’s political spectrum: from the Left, Teddy Roosevelt is reborn as an outdoorsy Al Gore and from the Right, as a naive Obama-style appeaser, who should have stood up to looming threats when he had a chance. Which is the authentic TR, or does it even matter? His icon-like status makes him fair game for historical reinterpretation that subtly expresses what the various authors hope or fear our future will be.
I have to admit that I don’t really know much about the authentic Teddy Roosevelt (and which of the books among the hundreds written about him) have captured him accurately. He is a long-ago historical figure, like Julius Caesar or George Washington to most. But I treasure a delicate thread of personal memory about him that ties him to my consciousness in a way that is both powerful and mundane.
My grandfather Harry Kimball (c. 1900-1980), then a (wide-eyed?) 12 year old, stood in a crowd outside the train station in Salem, Massachusetts during the Presidential Campaign of 1912, when former President Teddy Roosevelt came to town. My grandfather couldn’t remember the speech or any of the historical facts of the campaign, but he did always speak of two particular details that I will never forget when I hear or read TR’s name.
The first was that he was surprised at how high Roosevelt’s voice was. The Rough Rider President may have pounded the podium for the muscular political ideology of his “Bull Moose Party” but he did it with a professorial calmness rather that a Rough Rider’s roar.
The second detail was more collective: suddenly in the middle of the speech a long freight train roared through Salem Station. The former President and the crowd who had gathered to hear him had to wait silently, impatiently for a few uncomfortable minutes until the thunderous noise and vibration passed by.
Memory is simple (simplistic?), embodied, and incredibly vivid. History is complex, cerebral, and chameleon-like. Which is more authentic? How does each so differently tie us to the past?