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How great was America before Teddy Roosevelt, when wealthy white men controlled the country? Watching the carefully researched TV miniseries THEODORE ROOSEVELT based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller LEADERSHIP IN TURBULENT TIMES, we got a good look. Historic photos show children frequently killed by machinery as they struggled to support their families by doing full-time jobs in mines and factories. Workers such as miners labored 12-16 hour days for wages that didn’t meet their needs. Starvation was not uncommon. While the wealthy built enormous decadent mansions, in another part of the city, the families of laborers who made those riches possible lived in squalor. And the wealthy used the poor and secretly juggled public information so they themselves could make even more money. There was no significant middle class and little hope of change.
And then Theodore Roosevelt charged onto the scene. Although he was born into wealth, he was a frail, asthmatic child—one his father insisted should not only survive but live to make a positive difference in the world. His father taught him dogged willpower. Unlike his peers, Teddy didn’t separate himself from regular people. He entered their world as one of them. A cowboy, soldier, statesman, conservationist, adventurer, reformer, author, and President of the United States, he suffered grievous personal losses that only made him more determined to improve life for common people. The labor force came to love him because he wasn’t just talk. He believed in reform for the masses, regardless of dangers to himself. For example, he cleaned up long-standing corruption in the New York police department by walking the streets at night to see for himself what the realities were instead of accepting the doctored reports of unscrupulous officials. When critics bombarded him with accusations of being a socialist, he didn’t flinch. He was proud to be progressive.
The miniseries reverberated into the present for me—especially as current self-serving, anti-democratic movements at the highest levels of industry and government are exposed. How was it that Roosevelt could make such sweeping changes in a world of dictatorial oligarchs that today seems poised to recur? First, his intelligence and empathy served him well as he took time to listen to the needs and opinions of rich and poor alike, having spent plenty of time with both, before he chose action. Second, he wasn’t afraid to go big and innovative with his plans, plans that pulled the country into world prominence—such as entering the Spanish-American War (where he established himself as a hero) with a private volunteer army of Rough Riders that he formed or pushing the creation of the Panama Canal. He wasn’t shy about being passionate regarding the absolute necessity of America conserving its natural resources in spite of complaints from developers. Taking guidance from Abraham Lincoln whom he admired, he sometimes broke precedents, bent rules, or offended the mighty to make a positive difference. He never forgot he was working for the people.
Finally, he took advantage of the backing of both the people and the press in the face of fierce opposition. His enthusiasm, humility, altruism, and willingness to expose himself to every sort of risk made him a popular leader. He took the trouble to travel the country to personally persuade voters that he was working to help them. When his detractors attempted to smear him with lies and mock his eccentricities, he joined in the laughter and defused their influence. He gave an 84-minute speech with a would-be assassin’s bullet seeping blood from his chest.
Needless to say, Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t typical. In repeatedly proving his courage to himself, he made himself bigger than life. He was usually true to his word, although he did turn his back on African-Americans he had initially supported. But in a way, we need to see that he was, after all, a human who could work miracles and mistakes, as are all our leaders—one who brought the United States into modernity, backed the unions, and exposed corruption.
As we hear testimony revealing the courage and dedication of people who defended the country against attempts to overthrow our government—ongoing attempts, we know Roosevelt’s kind of unselfish caring still exists. Consider the law enforcement personnel who rose up again and again, injured and bleeding, to defend the lives of our legislators during the insurrection. Consider those legislators who struggle daily to improve the lot of common people with blunt truth. With a faction of our media willing and able to spread falsehoods, can we recognize present-day Teddy Roosevelts of whatever gender in time to enjoy their contributions? We know his kind of courage and caring still exists, in spite of propaganda that insists it doesn’t, but what are we willing to do to reveal and support it?