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11. The Presidency


My kind of happiness seems to me a very different thing from that; it means looking over all the fences and between all the bars, and being immensely interested in every surrounding meadow and distant mountain and flying bird. It’s positive enjoyment, not negative passivity. -
Louise Pond Jewell, The Great Adventure

Theodore was astonished, dazed and happy at the position he now found himself in. It was unseemly, people said, how he couldn’t suppress his joy at being President. He was supposed to be in mourning, for heaven’s sake! His voice was a little too loud. He laughed too much. He was too exuberant even for him.

Newsmen thought that everything he did was exaggerated in every way. “He seemed like a man in a state of spiritual exaltation,” a reporter said. He talked too loud, was too effusive, was dee-lighted to see everyone who called.1 But imagine his feelings at being President at all. He had given up that dream when he had reluctantly taken the position of Vice President, because it was what the people wanted and he lived to serve the people. That had been his first real sacrifice since the Spanish American War and it had been a difficult one. Now, only because he had agreed to do what was right and follow the lead of God and the American people and had not fought his fate, now he was President, which is what he had really wanted all along.

After a year or so, he became much calmer and learned not to shout every word. He began to delegate work and his office began to function in a very efficient way. He was steadier, calmer, more dignified. But that first year he felt such joy that he could not hold it back.

Theodore Roosevelt’s natural exuberance tended to annoy such melancholy souls as Henry Adams, philosopher, grandson and great-grandson of Presidents. Adams felt that Roosevelt used the pronoun “I” constantly, forgetting that he, too, was criticized for doing the same thing. Also, Theodore talked incessantly, annoying the depressed Henry Adams, but spoke only on topics of interest to his listeners. He had a great store of knowledge and could summon it at a moment’s notice. His son, Ted, said:

His Knowledge stretched from babies to the post-Alexandrian kingdoms and, what was more, he could always lay his hands on it. It made little difference in what channels the conversation turned. Sooner or later Father was able to produce information which often startled students of the theme under discussion.2

In 1904 Adams “was obliged to take the place of his brother Brooks at the Diplomatic Reception...and the part of proxy included his supping at the President’s table.” He described the dinner in his autobiography:

Naturally the President talked and the guests listened; which seemed, to one who had just escaped from the European conspiracy of silence, like drawing a free breath after stifling. Roosevelt, as every one knew, was always an amusing talker, and had the reputation of being indiscreet beyond any other man of great importance in the world, except the Kaiser Wilhelm and Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, the father of his guest at table; and this evening he spared none. With the usual abuse of the quos ego, common to vigorous statesmen, he said all that he thought about Russians and Japanese, as well as about Boers and British, without restraint, in full hearing of twenty people, to the entire satisfaction of his listener; and concluded by declaring that war was imminent; that it ought to be stopped; that it could be stopped: “I could do it myself; I could stop it to-morrow!” and he went on to explain his reasons for restraint.3
“Theodore helps us by his gaiety and delights Hay by his sense of fun,” said Henry Adams later. The President liked to tease his friend, Cabot Lodge. “Cabot didn’t mind having the newspapers say that he was head of the kitchen cabinet,” said Theodore, “but he was frantic with fury when they said he was learning to ride so as to go out with me.”
His first three months were described in Our Times:

His high spirits, his enormous capacity for work, his tirelessness, his forthrightness, his many striking qualities, gave a lift of the spirits to millions of average men, stimulated them to higher use of their own powers, gave them a new zest for life.

“He brought in,” said Harry Thurston Peck, “a stream of fresh, pure, bracing air from the mountains, to clear the fetid atmosphere of the national capital.”4

This President was different from the very beginning. He opened the White House to writers, reformers, scientists, professional social workers and labor leaders. He conducted diplomacy on horseback, during tennis games and while walking rapidly through Rock Creek Park.5

People were drawn to his warmth. He had the ability to stand in receiving lines and shake the hands of hundreds of them. The individual handshake took only a moment, but at that moment he looked into the person’s eyes and made him feel “that he or she was personally recognized”, that “he was a living and breathing individual coming in contact with another individual even more vividly alive.”6

He brought to the office an understanding of people. He communicated wonderfully with leaders of different nations. He merely treated them as one gentleman would treat another, he explained. It was a little more than that. One Russian diplomat said after the Russo-Japanese war was arbitrated, “His conduct during the whole time that the peace negotiations lasted has been a marvel of tact.” “The immense amount of information” which Roosevelt had at his finger tips was astounding. He left the delegates alone but was there with quiet hints whenever negotiations were at a standstill. “The hints....which invariably threw a new light upon the points that they had not been able to see or to bring to a solution, were something quite wonderful.” He made his personality felt but did it so “artistically...that nobody could have been offended at the advice which he tendered with such consumate discretion.” The Russian advisor who was also an expert on international affairs wrote, “The man who had been represented to us as impetuous to the point of rudeness displayed a gentleness, a kindness, and a tactfulness mixed with self-control that only a truly great man can command.”7

Of Kaiser Wilhelm Theodore said, “I admire him, respect him, and like him...but I think his international and indeed his personal attitude one of intense egoism.”8 Wanting to prevent any problems with Germany, he treated the Kaiser with great friendship and respect. Kaiser Wilhelm was proud of his relationship with Roosevelt and wrote:

Sir

Profoundly impressed by the private letter which you kindly addressed to me, I hasten to cordially thank you for it; in reading the contents of which I felt a thrill of pride running through me. I am, I feel most flattered that you should have such a high opinion of my humble efforts in my work of furthering the welfare of my People and of developing the resources of my country....I cannot refrain from feeling proud that so eminent a man as President Roosevelt should follow with such interest a monarch doing his very best to fulfil the arduous task with which heaven has entrusted him for the prosperity of his people and of the world....to elicit praise from a man like you is enough to make any ruler proud for the rest of his life, coming as it does from a judgment based upon experience. Your unlimited power for work, dauntless energy of purpose, pureness of motive moving toward the highest ideals, this all crowned by an iron will, form qualities which elicit the highest admiration from everybody over here. They are the characteristics of a man and as such most sympathetic to me.9

He had a good working relationship with the press. The story was that he looked out of the window of the oval office and saw reporters huddling in the rain. Feeling sorry for them, he invited them up and met with them every day after that. This was a calculated move on his part, of course, a way to spread his gospel more efficiently. “I achieved results only by appealing over the heads of the Senate and House leader to the people, who were the masters of both of us. I continued in this way to get results until almost the close of my term,” he wrote.10

The press would watch while he dictated a letter, dictated a book and had his face shaved at the same time. “It was more fun than a circus,” one said.

Once he talked in confidence to a reporter for twenty minutes. The reporter asked, “May I say that from a talk I have had with a high official authority I draw such and such conclusions?” T.R. replied, “That is why I sent for you.” He would leak information to test public opinion. If reaction was unfavorable, he would say the leaked information was incorrect.11

He made it a point to get advice from the press and others. “Senator Lodge had been my close personal friend, with whom I discussed all public questions that arose...He was of all our public men the man who had made the closest and wisest study of our foreign relations.” He “was certain to discuss” all international issues with Lodge, as well as with “certain other members of Congress.” Labor and big business issues were discussed with Senator Dolliver or Congressmen Hepburn or Congressman Cooper. “There were many, many others,” he wrote.12 “There were multitudes of men, in newspaper offices, in magazine offices, in business or the professions or on farms or in shops who actively supported the policies for which I stood and did work of genuine leadership which was quite as effective as any work done by men in public office.”

The English Fortnightly Review reported:

Mr. Roosevelt has gathered around him a body of public servants who are nowhere surpassed, I question whether they are anywhere equaled, for efficiency, self-sacrifice, and an absolute devotion to their country’s interests. Many of them are poor men, without private means, who have voluntarily abandoned high professional ambitions and turned their backs on the rewards of business to serve their country on salaries that are not merely inadequate, but indecently so...They are content, and more than content, to sink themselves in the National service without a thought of private advancement, and often at a heavy sacrifice of worldly honors...

Theodore insisted only that the public servants have the qualities of “courage, honesty, and a genuine democracy of desire to serve the plain people.”
In his effort to help the ordinary working person he had to “greatly broaden the use of executive power.” He felt that it was “not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws.”13

He did not become a strong executive because of his love for power, although he may have loved power. He did it because he was concerned with acting out his religion, which was “service to one’s fellowmen rendered by following the great rule of justice and mercy, of wisdom and righteousness.”14

People said of him that he was a great politician, for he knew the way people were going to be thinking. He did not, he said, “divine what the people were going to think.” He decided what they should be thinking, what they “ought” to think and then “did [his] best to get them to think it.” Sometimes he failed and his critics said he was overly ambitious. “Sometimes I succeeded, and then they said that I was an uncommonly astute creature to have detected what the people were going to think and to pose as their leader in thinking it.”15

The delegate from Russia during the Russo-Japanese War negotiations said:

From a moral point of view the President of the United States is a statesman of large caliber. Born in a time when politicians are more children of their century than of their history, he owes his high position, which he fills more worthily every day, exclusively to his personal qualities, as revealed in actions requiring decision, tact and clear vision. The world recognizes this. When one speaks with President Roosevelt, he charms through the elevation of his thoughts and through that transparent philosophy which permeates his judgment. He has an ideal and strives for higher aims than a commonplace existence presents. In the stubborn struggles of our day men like Mr. Roosevelt have no leisure, for they are soldiers who cannot be relieved from the danger line.16