I spent a lot of time thinking about America this week. I wrote two short editorials about the election, and I thought that this week’s non-fiction spotlight might pick up on the things I discussed there, but instead I’ve chosen to reflect on the changes that have happened throughout history to the role that the president plays in the US.
Theodore Roosevelt has been much explored for his role as a huge transformative force in US politics: one of the most interesting things to consider is the role that his personal character, one might call it a ‘brand,’ had on how the public viewed him as a person, and how it has since changed the role the president plays in America.
You’ll have to forgive the recent lapse in structure on the blog. The recent presidential election shook me almost as much as the EU referendum, and I’m fighting against personal circumstances in order to get the physical time and space to plan out PhD funding applications. I appreciate your patience, and I hope that I’ll have more time to spend here soon.
Teddy Roosevelt was a contrary, confusing man. He explains a lot of the problems I still have in understanding American Progressivism, in that he took a lot of actions that were socially progressive and made life better for lots of people, but also he was really conservative, imperialist and regressive, all at the same time. Case in point- he was responsible for a great deal of the protective measures around National Parks and monuments, which seems socially positive and environmental, but also he was a vitriolic hunter and killed more than 11,000 animals on an expedition in Africa. Not so environmentally-minded, then.
One of the things that I was thinking about this week was the way that old TR became a kind of president-celebrity. Even now, there’s a peculiar mythology surrounding him. In 1912, for instance, he was shot in the chest but insisted on giving the ninety minute speech he had prepared first. At the time, he even made it a joke, telling the audience:
“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot … The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”
Roosevelt consciously chose to adopt a macho-masculine identity, which he combined with a fast-talking and open persona in public. The first non-fiction spotlight this week shines on Ken Burns’ documentary film The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, if you can access it, in which the author explains just how revolutionary and peculiarly ‘modern’ each of the Roosevelts were, starting with TR. In particular, Burns details the way that Theodore Roosevelt took up the difficult role of ‘entertainer.’ TR encouraged the public expectation that the president should not just campaign and legislate, but should be a grand public figure, reaching us on a personal level, leading and inspiring all at once. They should engage in all kinds of soft politics, whether that’s kissing babies, holding fireside chats on the radio, or posing for questionable photos with Miss World.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to establish an official press briefing room in the White House, and he was an early fan of staging photographs to lend himself a positive image. He pushed the masculine identity, posed with dead animals, posed on platforms and made himself look physically and politically ‘great’ in order to provide material to the press corps, who in turn participated in creating a unique image for the president. An image which TR went on to label and package when forming the Bull Moose Party, a brand identity if I ever saw one.
You could try any of Edmund Morris’ books on Roosevelt, but of particular interest to this post is his work Theodore Rex, which is the follow up to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. They’re both regarded as classics by both pundits and the historical community, and stand as two of the best biographies of presidents that have ever been written. One of the best things about Rex is that it pulls no punches about TR and his legacy, but also highlights just how much the presidency has changed. Donald Trump is peculiarly similar in some ways- he owes a great deal of his success to the celebrity that TR was able to establish. At the same time, though, Morris carefully elucidates Roosevelt’s earlier life and the way that he was unusually well-qualified.
“Few, if any Americans could match the breadth of his intellect and the strength of his character. A random survey of his achievements might show him mastering German, French, and the contrasted dialects of Harvard and Dakota Territory; assembling fossil skeletons with paleontological skill; fighting for an amateur boxing championship; transcribing birdsong into a private system of phonetics; chasing boat thieves with a star on his breast and Tolstoy in his pocket; founding a finance club, a stockmen’s association, and a hunting-conservation society; reading some twenty thousand books and writing fifteen of his own; climbing the Matterhorn; promulgating a flying machine; and becoming a world authority on North American game mammals.”
Theodore Roosevelt developed the grandness and greatness that we associate with the position of American president too, in a way that means the government as a whole is often summarised or assumed to be a reflection of their individual decisions and politics. Indeed, from the outside, America as a whole is often boiled down to this one individual. It’s a dangerously powerful seat to hold. You could also try Celebrity in Chief: A History of the Presidents and the Culture of Stardom. Walsh focuses on the Obama presidency by looking at the history of American presidents more widely, since the beginning of the Republic. There are specific spotlights cast on the most ‘celebrity’ presidents, like the Roosevelts or JFK, as well as consideration of the presidents that seemed lacking in star quality, like LBJ or either of the Bush presidents. It’s all useful background knowledge in attempting to understand and explain the next American ruler.
Books in this post:
Edmund Morris – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt
Edmund Morris – Theodore Rex
You could also try:
Theodore Roosevelt- The Strenuous Life
William E Leuchtenburg- The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton