Taking Down Teddy

In our rush to condemn the heroes of the past, we must be sure not to abandon empathy

Can Pac Swire/Flickr
Can Pac Swire/Flickr

Teddy’s statue is coming down, and Teddy would be happy. Happy because he hated the idea of statues of himself almost as much as he hated being called Teddy. Happy because he would have agreed that this particular statue—in front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—in which he rides a horse and is flanked by a Native American and a nearly naked African man, represents the worst of him, while the museum’s hall of biodiversity, which will now be renamed after him, represents the best. And happy because he is back in the news, still making headlines as he rounds the corner toward his 162nd birthday this October. As his daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth famously said, “He wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening.”

Having just spent four years writing a book about Theodore Roosevelt, I am familiar with both his strengths and flaws. Here is a man who ran for president in 1912 as a Bull Moose candidate with a platform that would have made Bernie blush, anticipating his distant cousin Franklin’s New Deal with his own Square one, but whose America-first mania also left him blind to the plight of native people and who entertained twisted racial theories that make us wince. Here is a messy, complex, sometimes hypocritical, wildly entertaining man, a lover of friends, family, and country, an energetic volcano whose idea of fun was preaching to everyone else about how they didn’t live up to his high moral standards. Here is a man who aggressively pushed progressive policies for workers, women, and minorities, helping the nation get to the very spot from which we can now look back and criticize him, and who—oh by the way—helped save 230 million acres of American land.

Not that we shouldn’t criticize him. We should, and we have, and he has proven he can take a punch. And though I fully support taking the statue down, my hope is that we don’t take Roosevelt down with it. To reiterate: it’s complicated.

In Roosevelt we have a test case for our own powers of historical empathy. A test case for whether we are going to continue to sit in the comfortable perch of the present and pass judgment on figures from the past, consigning them to heaven and hell like amateur Saint Peters. I am in no way claiming we shouldn’t be critical of these figures. I’m only suggesting that we practice historical empathy, and cut people some slack for the time they happened to live in. In the not too distant past, say five years ago, it was common to subject historical figures to two simple tests of the imagination: How would we have acted then and how would they act today? Now, it seems, we’ve been too lenient on everyone, all too willing to pull down almost any figure once deemed admirable.

It is the business of biographers, including the great ones, however, to regularly extend historical empathy, providing the context of their subject’s time without much editorializing on how it matches up to their own. As Edmund Morris wrote in the final installment of his three-volume life of TR,

Racial, personal, and sexual attitudes of the time have not been moderated. … The word race, when quoted, usually connotes a national rather than ethnic identity. Although some ‘hyphenated’ minorities achieved recognition during World War I, the phrase African-American did not challenge Negro as a universal term. The world was divided into the Occident and the Orient, and each hemisphere had its Indians. God was masculine; counties, ships and cyclonic disturbances feminine.

Writing with the benefit of hindsight and perspective, biographers can also see things that people locked in their time could not.

I teach in a graduate creative writing program, which is to say the temple of the woke, and when I told my students what I was working on, they looked puzzled. Wasn’t Teddy a Trump for his times? A bully. A bigot. An imperialist who wanted to make America great (again.) It’s true, I admitted, that on a superficial level there are more than a few stylistic overlaps between the 26th and 45th presidents: both men were New York City–born, famous for eating ravenously, and known for having small hands (really). More to the point, Roosevelt did share some bullying, bombastic qualities with the current president, and in his use of power he was not above a similar bellicose bluntness.

But the differences define the two men. Roosevelt’s passion for the natural world and his fight for public lands may have initially drawn me to him, but I soon began to see as profound, and definitive, his deep and lifelong love of reading (“Reading with me,” he said, “is like a disease”) and the not-unrelated growth of his powers of empathy. Roosevelt was, in the words of the writer Wallace Stegner, “a grower,” always learning, listening, changing, and then through a kind of personal photosynthesis, transforming what he learned into words and deeds that inspired others.

Those who maintain that Roosevelt never overcame his bigotry have a case. The life of TR was just one thread of my book; the other was the fate of Bears Ears National Monument, which grew out of the thinking, planning, and advocacy of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition of five tribes: Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute. The coalition brought Roosevelt in direct contact, and direct conflict, with his own greatest prejudice and weakness: his attitude toward Native Americans. In The Winning of the West, Roosevelt wrote, “The truth is, the Indians never had any real title to the soil.” It’s easy to find plenty more damning quotes. Roosevelt’s attitude toward Indigenous peoples was torqued by his imperialistic vision of a shining America spreading across the continent and then the world. Native people were an obstacle, which was one reason his breed of Americanism did not include the original Americans. He did grow to believe that the “square deal” that he thought all Americans deserved should be extended to Native Americans, but he never evolved far beyond the idea that the goal should be their assimilation into the larger culture. If we are going to give him credit for being prescient on environmental issues, we have to admit that on Native American issues he was anything but.

Typically, I have noticed, the Roosevelt biographer brings up something TR did or said, usually something appalling to our modern sensibilities—most often involving killing or bloodlust or craving for empire—and then counterbalances it with something positive, puts it in the context of the times, or simply moves briskly on. Forgive and forget. It’s a standard move. My instinct, too, is to make excuses for TR. But I won’t, not for the moment. I will just let this fact of his prejudice sit here, cold and ugly. It is our history, after all.

The great biographer, and my former professor, Walter Jackson Bate wrote of how his own lifelong subject, Samuel Johnson, gradually began to see “the special ways in which biography—permitting as it does the comparison between life and life, between one person’s total experience and our own—can assist us by supporting, encouraging, perhaps clarifying, or at the very least extending the experience of living.” Biography, more than most writing, can be “put to use” and help in answering that ever-pressing question of how to live. For me, biographies have always been a tunnel out of my own time, a reminder that there were moments other than the present when things felt just as fraught. But they also offer us possibilities, ways of being that may not at first seem viable in the present, but that can ultimately prove not just viable but vital.

It is important to resist the urge to comb through past lives looking for the worst, to resist slamming the door on the past even if what we find there seems flawed in our eyes. The flaws are part of the value. Look under a hero’s hood and you will no doubt find sloppiness and contradiction, and that, in its way, is hopeful, too. What we rarely find is consistency, which is what we lately seem to demand of others (even when we don’t demand it of ourselves).

This is not all bad: our attempts to take down the worst of the old order and to right old wrongs have done much good. But we have also devolved into a world of endless bickering and pettiness, where tearing people down has become a national addiction and a daily habit. Dogma is the enemy. We have forgotten the discipline and rigor, and forgiveness, required to talk to ghosts. You can’t throw out whole traditions due to laziness and easy generalization.

One word that doesn’t come up a lot these days in our discussion of historical figures is greatness. We will all define the word differently, but my definition is: high achievement combined with magnanimity. “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” said Wallace Stegner. That’s it exactly. Largeness. It seems something worth striving for. But for this, we need models. Someone to look at and say, “I can be like that.”  Alfred North Whitehead writes, “Moral education is impossible apart from habitual vision of greatness.”  This was a favorite quote of Bate’s, who added that if we hope “to rise above ‘cultural declines’ and fatigues from whatever cause—or to rise above anything else that threatens to threaten and deflect” us, we need “the companionship, the support to the heart and spirit, of a direct and frank turning to the great.”

Perhaps we need to look harder. Perhaps we need to take what is good in the great figures of the past and discard what is not. We don’t read Teddy Roosevelt now and say, “Wow, those are some cool racial theories about northern white supremacy he sometimes speculated about.” (The odds that TR himself would still entertain such theories on this side of World War II are nil.) What we can do, perhaps, is say: this is a flawed man, yes. But look at his energy and passion for the environment. Look at how he was both an activist and a reader, a doer and a thinker. Look at how he cultivated those deep, lifelong friendships with both men and women, and how close he was to his wife and his sisters and his kids. Look at how much damned fun he had and how much he loved “the big work of the presidency.” Look at the way he could, by getting out into nature, get out of himself.  And so on. There is plenty there to steal for yourself if you want to. And plenty to discard.

To define historical figures by their worst moments, however, is moralism at its most destructive. This is the opposite of openness. I am not the first to point out that the present is starting to feel a whole lot like our notion of the 1950s, when someone who didn’t adhere to an accepted set of moral rules was deemed—along with their achievements, and their lives—worthless.

In July, Darryl Fears and Steven Mufson published an article in The Washington Post that included a quotation that not only takes down John Muir as a racist but also, quite casually, takes down Roosevelt:

The roots of American environmentalism are grounded in a reverence for nature and racism. Muir’s contemporaries at the turn of the last century included Madison Grant, a co-founder of the Bronx Zoo who wrote “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History,” an argument for white supremacy in which he decried the decline of Nordic people.

Former president Theodore Roosevelt, who created the first national forests, praised the 1916 book, which helped shape the views of the future leader of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler, who would go on to write the anti-Semitic autobiography “Mein Kampf,” called Grant’s book “my bible.”

Read that passage carefully. It begins with a big assertion that is in no way backed up—that American environmentalism is grounded in racism. Okay, maybe. If you say so. But a reverence for racism? Next we are told that Madison Grant was a contemporary of Muir’s, nothing more. This is followed by a description of Grant’s racist book and the fact that Roosevelt praised it, before we rush off in the same sentence to Hitler. Actually, Roosevelt called Grant “an addlepated ass,” but you sure wouldn’t know it from this article. The direct line from Muir to Roosevelt to Hitler is clear, and readers who don’t dig any deeper, which is to say most readers, can take away the factoid that American environmentalism was, at the root, a kind of first draft of Nazism. Smear accomplished.

There is something deeply troubling in the racial theories that were circulating in intellectual, not just environmental, circles earlier in the 20th century. Roosevelt was not immune, talking about “race decay” and the need to breed. He could descend, in the words of one biographer, Joshua David Hawley, into “vulgar caricature.” But this same man was the first president to dine with a Black man in the White House, inviting Booker T. Washington to join him despite the great wrath it incurred from the southern states. And the same man who said: “This country will never really demonstrate that it is a democracy in the full reach and range of that conception until we have had both a Negro and Jewish president of the United States.”

This quote appears in Kathleen Dalton’s fascinating reappraisal of Roosevelt, A Strenuous Life (2002). Dalton suggests that we are looking at the wrong story when we marvel at how Roosevelt famously remade himself as a young man. It wasn’t about pumping iron or roping steers. “Perhaps,” she writes, “his long struggle to gain a stronger body had helped him in his longer and more heroic struggle to see beyond the bigotry of his own time.”

A key moment, according to Dalton, occurred during Roosevelt’s tenure as a New York City police commissioner, when he roamed through New York, discovering a world starkly different than the privileged one he grew up in. His companion on those walks was Jacob Riis, whose famous book’s title, How the Other Half Lives, succinctly describes what Roosevelt was learning.

Dalton quotes a letter the NAACP published upon Roosevelt’s death:

A great man has died and the whole world stands shocked and mourning. Humanity has lost its greatest exemplar of noble aims and single-minded devotion to the development of national welfare and glory. The youth of America had no finer inspiration toward which to strive and with the passing of THEODORE ROOSEVELT passes the greatest protagonist of lofty ideals and principles. Take him all in all he was a man, generous, impulsive, fearless, loving the public eye, but intent on achieving the public good. …We mourn with the rest of the world as is fitting, but there is too in our sorrow a quality peculiar and apart. We have lost a friend. That he was our friend proves the justice of our cause, for Roosevelt never championed a cause which was not in essence right. He had his faults—of the head, not of the heart—and even when we suffered as the result of an impulse which we could not reconcile with what we expected at his hands, we were more grieved because he had hurt us than at the hurt itself.

How might TR act if he were living with us now? I suspect he would embrace not just the politics of progressivism but also the broader, more open-minded thinking that it reflects. If you had asked Roosevelt as a boy what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would not have said a statesman or a soldier, an author or even a president, but a naturalist like his hero Charles Darwin. I would maintain that thanks to this early training, and his many days and nights in the wilderness, he was the first and perhaps the only president who evolved past what is perhaps our greatest prejudice of all, anthropocentrism, our inability to see anything beyond the human. Which led him to preserve those 230 million acres of public land.

What would Roosevelt have done as president today? Of two things I have no doubt. He would lead us forcefully through the pandemic, respecting the science and using his ability to make hard choices. And he would use his gift for language to inspire us. More important, as a naturalist and scientist himself, he would face the larger coming crisis. Part of the trouble with climate change is that it’s never been an obvious enemy, but with his natural pugnacity and that gift for language, he might have helped us turn in a serious way to what will be the fight of our lives. The trust buster who was willing to take on the railroads and oil barons would have no problem going toe to toe with the fossil fuel industry. Roosevelt, always not just environmentally passionate but also morally high-handed, would not have equivocated. Here is what our scientists are saying, he would exhort. And here is what we need to do. Now!

Theodore Roosevelt’s flaws were real, but so were his strengths. We would be very lucky in the coming hard years to find a similar leader, flaws and all.

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David Gessner is the author of 12 books, including Leave It As It Is; Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight; All the Wild That Remains; and the forthcoming A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he founded the journal Ecotone.


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