July 16, 2014

an unsafe president

Trying to write about Theodore Roosevelt for this blog has gone a long way in demonstrating to me what a genius Edmund Morris is. TR is obviously a fun subject, because he was both a world-class scholar and statesman as well as an eternal 9-year-old boy. But what makes him fascinating also makes him hard to grasp — Who is this man who reads ethnographies of India in Italian in his free moments between presidential duties, and also spends hours wrestling and sleeping outside with his 5 youngest children?

When I saw Edmund Morris speak in 2010 I was struck by how obviously Morris understood TR, and the same is obvious in the book. TR contained a multitude of personalities, and his closest friends and family never knew which one they'd be encountering on any given day — the ardent naturalist, the workaholic, the sportsman, the prankster, the politician, the bookworm. This was the main concern when his named started being floated for president. People thought he was capable of it, sure, but they also thought he could be reckless and unpredictable — descriptors rarely valued in a head of state.

I forget who said this, because I read the first volume of the biography a year ago, but one of his friends expressed his misgivings about TR in the executive office by saying, "The thing you have to understand is that he's about 12."

He also, as Deputy Secretary of the Navy, essentially started the Spanish-American War while his boss and McKinley were out of town for the summer so that he could fight in it. This pretty much soured me on our TR.

The collective response to every other vice president who took office upon a president's death — Tyler, Johnson, and Arthur —had basically been: oops! The American voting public is endlessly capable of forgetting that vice presidents could become the president.

[I just did some math. To date, 7 out of the 47 US vice presidents have had to take over the presidency because of death or resignation — about 1 in 7. That's almost a 15% chance that the VP will become POTUS. It's not a lot, but it's not a lightning strike. And yet we're always surprised!]

When McKinley died and TR took office, no one was sure how it would turn out, but no one thought it would be boring. It was not. TR, in slightly less than two terms:

- Arranged for the building of the Panama Canal
- Transferred the Philippines back to local control (Taft gets most of the credit for this)
- Hosted the negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese war (in Portsmouth! Did you know that?)

and thereby

- Established the US as a world power and peacekeeper

and thereby

- Won the Nobel Peace Prize
- Negotiated the end of a massive coal miner strike


- Fought against railroad monopolies


- Starting a legal conversation on corporations vs. labor that is still relevant today

such as

- Ushering legislation regarding workman's comp, 8-hour days, employer liability, child labor, et cetera through Congress
- Hosted a conservation conference attended by governors, environmentalists (before they were called that), financial tycoons, and various government officials that codified the National Park Service, National Monuments, National Forests, and wildlife preserves
- Made the US Navy the second-largest in the world, and by far the most advanced
- and much more!

The secrets to his effectiveness were his enormous public popularity combined with the fact that no one ever thought he was bluffing. He was a brilliant and tireless politician, but not a cagey one. Someone called him "an unsafe president," meaning that at any given time he might use his enormous power to make a decision completely independent of counsel. It's almost unrecognizable.

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