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A Lion in the Whitehouse: We Need Theodore Roosevelt – Now!

September 16, 2009

Updated July 23, 2013

teddy Theodore Roosevelt is widely regarded as an esteemed president of the United States, but he also wears the stereotype of a tough cowboy. It wasn’t until I read an excellent biography by Aida Donald, former Editor-in-Chief of Harvard University Press, that I realized just how complicated this man was and how effective he was as president. Her book is entitled: Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt.

To begin with he was very well educated with an innate curiosity; he possessed a masterly way of writing; and he was very much a progressive when it came to social reform, despite being a Republican. Democrats do not have a monopoly on social reform, and my view is that perhaps too much attention is awarded to Franklin D. Roosevelt (Theodore’s nephew). Now I have huge admiration for FDR and have read a significant amount about his life and accomplishments. But in learning about Theodore and how he was abruptly catapulted into the presidency as a result of President William McKinley’s assassination, I have come to appreciate this man.

In this post I wish to share one period in President Theodore Roosevelt’s first term when he faced the racism issue. Given what is happening in America with the vile attacks on President Obama, in what are now being described by some journalists as thinly veiled racism, there are lessons to be learned from 110 years ago.

To begin with, it’s vital to understand that we’re talking about the time around 1900, just over 30 years following the end of the Civil War. While Roosevelt said a lot of progressive things, which caused apoplexy among most Republicans (e.g, he advocated suffrage for women) he turned down the dial in practice for political reasons. On the issue of racism, he engaged the respected Black educator Booker T. Washington to identify Black and White political appointments. In 1901 Roosevelt received a verbal public beating by Southern Republicans who couldn’t accept that Washington had been invited to the White House for dinner. Aida Donald reports in her book that the Memphis Scimitar screamed:

The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President when he invited a nigger to dine with him at the White House.

Other newspaper headlines referred to Our coon-flavored president. And South Carolina Senator Benjamin R. Tillman stated in a speech that …a thousand niggers in the South would have to be killed to teach them ‘their place again.

Somehow Roosevelt, like President Obama today, was able to keep his cool by these violent statements. On the Washington dinner invitation, Roosevelt replied:

…I had no thought whatever of anything, save of having a chance of showing some little respect to a man whom I cordially esteem as a good citizen and good American. The outburst of feeling in the South about it is to me inexplicable….I regard their attacks with the most contemptuous indifference, but I am very melancholy that such feeling should exist in such bitterly aggravated form in any part of the country.

Roosevelt later sent an informal note to a friend that was more blunt: That idiot or vicious Bourbon element in the South is crazy because I have had Booker T. Washington to dine. I shall have him to dine as often as I please.

As much as President Obama has taken the high road when faced with personal and thinly veiled racist attacks, he has much to learn as a second term president and indeed could learn a huge amount from Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, he is reported to be a student of FDR, but in my view Theodore was a much more authentic individual and leader. Each major period of history has its own context in which leadership emerges. Hindsight, of course, is always 20/20. But when I look at the courage, morality and leadership of certain American presidents, I can only feel a sense of awe and inspiration. Theodore, we need you – now.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checked by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

-Theodore Roosevelt

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