Of the many photographs taken of Theodore Roosevelt reading, this one is perhaps the most beguiling. It was taken in 1905, when the president was on vacation. He used his time off to go bear hunting in Colorado on horseback with a small group of friends. While there, he stayed in the “West Divide Creek ranch house,” a simple log cabin.
Roosevelt was famous as a man of action. Few presidents had his love of ‘roughing it,’ though many were endowed, as he was, with physical courage and military zeal. Roosevelt’s love of adventure sprang from wanting to prove himself by facing elemental challenges. This passion fueled his love of sport (such as boxing) as well as his famous excursion toward the end of his life to find the headwaters of the Amazon. As president, he was resolute, tackling the prickliest dilemmas in a forthright, all-out way.
At the same time, Roosevelt’s effectiveness derived from his great intellectual capacities. He was a voracious reader, devouring information and knowledge like a large fish feeding with mouth open wide. He read and wrote compulsively, regardless of his official duties. Being intellectual was intrinsic to his identity. Knowledge clarified the problems he confronted, undergirding Roosevelt’s confidence and leadership skills.
Photographers accompanied Roosevelt on his Wild West vacation. This allowed the public to see another side of the president, barren of conventional symbols of prestige. Yet beneath the ratty clothes and ridiculous hat, Roosevelt’s big-heartedness, joie de vivre, and seriousness remained much in evidence. The dog on his lap joined the Roosevelt household, when Teddy took him back to the White House to stay.
The glory of the present is its offer of restoration: the chance to recoup on a loss, to recover from a painful reversal, to find redemption or liberation despite blows to one’s prospects or identity. The American optimist wakes up of a morning intent on “making America great again,” though his or her vision of that greatness may substantially deviate from the official Trump version. Chicagoans wake hoping for an end to the open-air homicides that mow down a few more of us every day. And all Illinois hopes for something better from Springfield: something that will transform the state’s declining fortunes and liberate it from corruption and a seemingly inescapable pit of debt. There is no reason (except for human folly) that the state cannot become the forward-looking powerhouse it used to be.
It all depends on synergy: a combination of individual energies–what we can spare of our selves, we whose cares might include a water-damaged apartment, a sick child, trouble at work, or a departed spouse.
I think of Teddy Roosevelt, whose cares included the grief of unexpectedly losing his mother and his young wife in a single day. Hampered in childhood by health so bad he nearly died, Roosevelt nonetheless managed in adulthood to become strong while conceiving of himself as integrally one with an America every bit as bedeviled as ours is today. His passionate commitment to public life ended up being a crucial force in turning the United States in a new more wholesome direction and away from the stultifying excesses of the Gilded Age.
President Theodore Roosevelt, holding his top hat in one hand and flanked by two officers and an unidentified man, looks down at the photographer from the back of a railroad car. The year is 1903. The spontaneity of this picture registers how mainstream photography and photographic portraiture were changing in the wake of George Eastman’s revolutionary invention of the hand-held Kodak camera.
By then the Kodak camera had been around for fifteen years, but its impact was still widening and generating change. Because the Kodak was not just a new type of camera, but a new type of film, and one that gave the user freedom from having to learn film processing, it made picture-taking easier for everybody. Amateurs began taking pictures like crazy. The Kodak process also represented a big leap forward in terms of stop-motion photography, suddenly endowing pictures of living subjects with greater immediacy.
Those qualities shine in this marvelous photograph of President Theodore Roosevelt, taken during one of his myriad railway journeys. Who was the photographer? Was it a professional photographer assigned to cover him, or an ordinary American, perhaps even a woman, who successfully beseeched the President to pose just this one time? Did he even consent? His aides look amused, but Roosevelt himself looks positively put out.
This photograph provides a measure of how much our style of choosing presidents has changed. In 1904, when this picture was taken, there was no doubt whatsoever of the power of political parties to select their presidential nominees. In the century since, both parties have lost that control.
Admittedly, the star of this picture, Theodore Roosevelt (in the white vest), was immensely popular, and the incumbent. His rise had been dependent, however, on his skill in gaining support of the major powers in his party–the political bosses who controlled large blocks of delegates, and the senior officeholders whom the bosses supported. A presidential hopeful had to take into account established figures and personally win them over. The months leading up to a convention were a period of intense jockeying, as hopefuls and their friends made the rounds, trying to gain traction within the organization. No way could a candidate hope to become president without the party establishment, because the power to select a nominee really lay, not with voters, but with their delegates.
Ultimately, delegates to the conventions chose the nominee. They could change their votes during the balloting if they pleased, and such changes were often necessary. This process forced the people who were most invested in a political party to come to an agreement about competing nominees and decide which of them best served the party’s interests. In the process of rejecting candidates, the party also closed off undesirable ideological directions it might have taken. (Both the Democratic and Republican parties curtailed the independence of delegates after the tumult of the 1960s, gutting the conventions of their essential purpose and drama.)
Young Roosevelt understood that his individual destiny was interdependent with that of the GOP. Early on, he labored to prove his loyalty to the Republican Party, despite his Progressive leanings and reputation for being an impetuous renegade. He recognized that, whatever his personal talents (which proved to be considerable), he needed the vast organizing structure of the party to propel him upward. After angling for years to get the party where he wanted it, the party finally acquiesced.
The ritualistic mating game they had played was epitomized in the nominating committee’s formal call on Roosevelt after the convention. They visited Roosevelt at his home on Long Island, Sagamore Hill, where he personally received them and demurely accepted their invitation to be the party nominee. The character of the event was not unlike an at-home wedding.
The accommodation that he and his fellow Republicans achieved gave Roosevelt the personal glory he craved, while benefiting the party, which, by organizing itself around Roosevelt, soared to new levels of popularity. In the general election that pitted him against Democrat Alton B. Parker, Roosevelt won every state in the North and the West, including Missouri, which hadn’t gone Republican since the 1860s. His margin of victory was 2.5 million popular votes, the largest in American history.
Roosevelt forgot what he knew about interdependence later in life. Having declared that he would never again run for the presidency, he yielded his place to William B. Taft, who retained the White House for the Republicans in 1908. In 1912, Roosevelt made a disastrous decision to run against his party, splitting it and effectively giving the presidency to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats. It was that party’s first presidential victory since before the Civil War. Roosevelt’s go-it-alone mentality and determination to defy the stolid power of the parties betokened the ill-conceived and divisive presidential bids so prevalent now.