When red-blooded American boys dreamed of growing up to be President, the President they generally had in mind wasn’t Rutherford B. Hayes or Millard Fillmore. Teddy Roosevelt did the things boys want to do, and did them with boyish, boisterous enthusiasm — roping steers and capturing desperadoes in the Dakota Badlands, boxing, hunting, exploring, climbing the Matterhorn, charging up San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders. In his White House years, 1901-09, his domestic initiatives included joining his six kids in hide-and-seek and pillow fights.
To say that the world was Roosevelt’s sandbox isn’t to dismiss him. He had the right mix of boyish adventurousness and iron willpower to produce a genuinely heroic character, as Nathan Miller’s spellbinding biography makes clear. In Theodore Roosevelt: A Life, the pale, asthmatic boy who turned himself into a man of astounding vigor, versatility, and endurance might have stepped out of the pages of Plutarch. You can easily imagine him weeping, like Alexander the Great, because there were no worlds left for him to conquer. Like most boys and heroes, he kept having to prove himself, and his overdoing was his undoing. After the failure of his third-party insurgency in 1912, he was left, embittered and prematurely aged, on the sidelines as Woodrow Wilson edged into the war Roosevelt had wanted to plunge into. Having once personified the U.S. in its most expansive, confident mood, he was grousing like Coriolanus — ”I am completely out of sympathy with the American people” — before he died at 60 in 1919. Complete with tragic ending, it’s an irresistible story, and Miller, whose previous book was FDR, doesn’t put any psychoanalytic or ax-grinding ideologial obstacles in its way.
”Roosevelt’s greatness,” he writes, ”lies in the fact that he was essentially a moral man in a world that has increasingly regarded morality as superfluous.” It’s a point worth making, but perhaps the same could be said of Wilson or William Jennings Bryan or, for that matter, of Anthony Comstock and Billy Sunday, whose greatness lies nowhere. Miller makes a more incisive point more obliquely: Roosevelt’s bumptious, bellicose excesses and his antiplutocratic, conservationist virtues both sprang from an aristocratic disdain for commercial civilization — for mere getting and spending. He thought life should have a heroic dimension, and his own did. The problem was finding a political arena for it that didn’t involve unnecessary wars or tropical annexations. Perhaps the best government is one that needs heroes the least. A