Theodore Roosevelt personified the word active if not also proactive. From his sickly youth he lived his life to the fullest, as though he wanted to extract from it every ounce of possibility.
At 42, he became and still is the youngest President of the United States ever elected. But he was ready. Coming to power upon the death of the assassinated William McKinley, “T.R.,” as he was called, never looked back. The 26th President strode the world stage by “speaking softly and carrying a big stick” and by stating forthrightly that the United States of America must be a force to be reckoned by any nation with designs on American territory or interests.
Roosevelt placed more acreage in conservatory protection than all other presidents combined. In doing so he initiated the environmental movement at work today. His vision of a water passageway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was realized in the construction of the Panama Canal, which he visited and inspected personally. He fought monopolies, he lived honestly, he lived big, he won re-election, and he made the fatal political mistake of saying he would not seek a second full term, a statement he lived to regret.
Later in life he also regretted the high view of military glory that he had lived first as a “Rough Rider” hero in the Spanish American War and later in his attitude and philosophy as a father and president. He regretted it because, though he proudly saw his sons adopt his views and go into battle, he and the family suffered the devastating loss of son Quentin who was shot down in Europe during WWI. T.R. did not live to see his eldest son, Theodore, become a brigadier general, land with the troops at Normandy on D-Day, and posthumously receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, but T.R. would have burst with pride. Still, T.R. learned that the glories of war fade quickly in the loss of life closely held. It’s a lesson all Commanders-in-chief should learn.
In addition to his political accomplishments, “Teddy,” this namesake of the Teddy Bear, learned to speak two or three other languages, extensively catalogued birds and other phenomena in his amateur-though-exceptional work as a naturalist, traveled the world hunting big game animals, charted unexplored rivers, and wrote voluminously.
Counting all of his articles and books, T.R. is by far the most published president. Jimmy Carter’s recently published twentieth book is rivaling him, but T.R. still holds the record in total production.
Theodore Roosevelt is still today an excellent model for leadership. He had vision, he communicated it with considerable energy and passion, he liked new ideas and progress, he had a zest for life and people (his favorite, oft-repeated word was, “Delighted!”), his work and exercise ethic were legendary, he openly lived and was faithful to his wife and family, he was a man of integrity, and he was proactive. He got things done.
Roosevelt died too young at age 60. His last words were to ask a care-giver to turn out the light and that night the lights went out on a truly extraordinary life.
Roosevelt and leadership are synonymous. He was always thinking about what he could do next to advance American interests or to advance whatever field of endeavor in which he found himself. His most quoted comment makes this point:
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
Through March 5, 2006, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan is exhibiting “Theodore Roosevelt: A Singular Life.” The exhibit is not large, but it features a number of interesting artifacts from the man’s life and offers a glimpse of the power of his passion and personality. I visited this exhibit yesterday, so I can say from personal experience that for anyone interested in leadership, politics, or history, the exhibit is well worth your time.
© Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2005
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