It's hard to imagine an American more interesting than Theodore Roosevelt - the youngest man ever to enter the White House up to that time, who stands out as one of the most remarkable peacetime presidents in American history. Mr. Roosevelt once said that "if [Abraham] Lincoln had lived in a time of peace, no one would have known his name," and there may actually be some truth in this - presidents who fight a war (particularly a just war) often get credit for this well beyond anything they receive for their other policies; and few could tell you a single thing Lincoln did unrelated to slavery or the Civil War, since these issues overshadow everything else for his presidency. I don't wish to take anything away from Mr. Lincoln (as he is my favorite president), but Theodore Roosevelt was no slouch himself; and the fact that we still remember him - even though he was a peacetime president - testifies strongly to the visibility of his legacy; as few peacetime presidents are remembered more favorably than he is - or, for that matter, remembered at all.
That is why PBS's documentary about him is one of my favorite episodes in their "American Experience" series, and may be in my top three presidential biographies made for television, out of the ones that use the primary visual sources. (In Mr. Roosevelt's case, this involves lots of photographs and even some silent footage; which are used here to great effect by adding sound in the background - no doubt made in a studio, but helpful in bringing the footage to life just the same.) There's even one part of the film where they play a sound recording of Theodore Roosevelt giving a speech; which although scratchy and low-quality (due to the primitive technology) is still quite helpful, in giving you a sense of how he spoke - the inflection, the speed he spoke at, and other such things. (For those interested in how he spoke, I will give a YouTube link below which contains a recording of him giving a speech; with a much longer audio sample of it than that given in the documentary - although I give significant credit to the film for making me aware that these recordings even existed to begin with.)
A recording of Theodore Roosevelt giving a speech
I think the reason this film is so successful is because of a few things; one of the most prominent of which is the way in which it was made. This film was made by David Grubin, who has made quite a few other presidential biographies for television - such as Lincoln, FDR, Truman, and LBJ - as well as a few noteworthy films on other subjects, such as Napoleon and Marie Antoinette. (He may well be the best "Ken-Burns-style" filmmaker besides Ken Burns himself, as he is an expert on the use of still photographs and silent footage.) Another is the involvement of David McCullough, who is interviewed here as a talking head because of the book that he wrote about Mr. Roosevelt, and thus does not give the narration here as he does for some other David Grubin films. (Although they have actor Jason Robards doing the narration quite capably here, so no complaints on that score.) And finally, the film was written by the author Geoffrey C. Ward, who also helped write the script for a number of other PBS documentaries - among them the most famous of them all, which is Ken Burns' "The Civil War." (This is the most popular program in PBS history, and much of its success is owing to the film's world-class writing - a feature it shares greatly with this film about Theodore Roosevelt.
President William McKinley, who Roosevelt served under (and later succeeded as president)
But part of this film's success is also due to the story itself; since Mr. Roosevelt has one of the most interesting lives in American history, and one that was photographed in extensive detail at that. I wouldn't presume to give the story in as much depth as they do, since I am a blogger whose coverage must be even more superficial than that of television; but a few highlights might be useful to give you an idea of how interesting it is. One is this film's coverage of the Spanish-American War, which Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most prominent players in. He was actually in the Cabinet of then-President William McKinley, and was serving as his Assistant Secretary of the Navy when the war broke out - and actually played a prominent role in starting that war. (I won't comment here on whether or not this was appropriate, but suffice it to say he was more involved in the big-picture aspects of this war than his later role on the war's front lines would indicate.) Interested in glory, he resigned as Secretary of the Navy to fight in the Army instead; and thus rode on to immortal glory in the famous charge up San Juan Hill - an action whose heroism may have been blown out of proportion by the newspapers of that time, but which lives on in legend nonetheless. He had an extraordinary capacity to ignore the suffering of his men, and thought the war was "wonderful" and "glorious" - a description he might not have offered, one might add, had he fought in a longer (and more extended) conflict like World War One; where the war dragged on for years without an end in sight, and reached nearer that famous declaration by General William Tecumseh Sherman that "war is all hell."
Theodore Roosevelt as a "Rough Rider," 1898
Nonetheless, it really was heroic; and he did deserve some recognition as a war hero, despite the short length of the conflict with Spain (just six months or so in 1898); which resulted in the U.S. acquisition of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines from the defeated nation of Spain. Because he had resigned as Secretary of the Navy, it was not a good time to re-enter the administration of William McKinley; and he served for two years as Governor of New York instead. When President McKinley ran for public office again in 1900, the establishment of the Republican Party wanted Roosevelt (who was now a young war hero in the public eye) to be his running mate - and thus, vice president. As much as Theodore Roosevelt wanted high public office, the vice presidency was something he didn't want; since he knew that the vice president did not possess any real power, and he shared the opinion of the party establishment that this might get rid of him for good, by ending his career in politics. Nonetheless, he knew it would be political suicide to refuse the offer, and so he became McKinley's vice president in 1901 - gone from national politics for good, or so everyone thought. In reality, it was his springboard to the presidency; because President McKinley was assassinated seven months into his term, and Theodore Roosevelt thus became President of the United States. (I'm sure this wasn't the way Theodore Roosevelt wanted to enter office; but nonetheless, he was in office, and he could run things the way he wanted to now - something that he had wanted to do all his life.)
Famous photograph of Theodore Roosevelt jumping a fence on horseback (a brilliant photo-op), 1907
The interest of time does not permit anything but a brief overview of his presidency; so I'll just mention a few things: One is that he was involved in creating the Food and Drug Administration; and getting the Meat Inspection Act passed (which may have been a reaction to the Upton Sinclair socialist tract "The Jungle," a popular book at that time), and that he was involved in prosecuting monopolies under the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 - passed more than a decade before he entered office, but still on the books at that time. He also created the system of national parks (one of the best environmental ideas any country has ever had); and thus gained historical immortality for his role in preserving the national landscape, in the sense that people still reference and revere him even today - as Ken Burns' "National Parks" series might indicate. I have mixed feelings about his domestic policies (which I will not elaborate on here); but for the most part, they were quite good; and they alone would ensure him a place in the pantheon of great presidents.
Theodore Roosevelt visits Panama Canal in 1906, the first sitting president to go abroad while in office
And then there is his foreign policy; which involved intervention in Latin America - under the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine - and intervention in the war between Russia and Japan in 1905, where he stopped the war with some tough diplomacy. (Those inclined to characterize Roosevelt as a "warmonger" might take a close look at this, and see the remarkable steps he took here to preserve the peace.) There is his building of the Great White Fleet - a fleet which he later paraded around the world, as a demonstration of American military might, meant to scare anyone who might be inclined to push us around with a show of strength - and his backing of the Panama Canal, which was meant to allow America to easily transfer that fleet from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and vice versa. I have another post about that, which goes into more detail about the construction of the Panama Canal; so suffice it to say here that it was a major accomplishment, and it still has economic effects to the present day.
In the interest of time, I won't say much more; so suffice it to say that this documentary about him is a masterpiece, and it belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in Theodore Roosevelt. It's one of the best episodes in the "American Experience" series, and it has one of the most interesting subjects in American history to boot.
DVD at Amazon
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Spanish-American War program
Panama Canal movie
Woodrow Wilson movie