Review Of I Rose Like A Rocket: The Political Education Of Theodore Roosevelt

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/30/05


  Of all the What Ifs? in American History none has been so explored as the Civil War. Not far behind it is what if World War Two had had a different outcome? yet, to me, while these can intrigue, I find the subtler queries more engaging and compelling. For example. What if Teddy Rooseveltís view of Republicanism had not banished with the man himself? I have long been of the opinion that TR was the last good, if not true, Republican this nation has produced, before that partyís long, sad slide into corporate cronyism, then picking off the worst dregs of the old Southern Democrats to form todayís unholy alliance and hegemony? Yet, despite Mount Rushmore, many biographies, and consistently being ranked among the top five or six Presidents, I still feel that the old man has yet to get his due. This is because, I believe, of two things: 1) he was not President during a crisis, as World War One, and 2) much of his success has been attributed to his personality- TR as a force of nature, rather than a skilled politician.

  The book I Rose Like A Rocket: The Political Education Of Theodore Roosevelt, by Albany Times Union political reporter Paul Grondahl goes a long way to rounding out this seeming missing link to the myth of TR. Think about it- when the name Theodore Roosevelt comes up what do you think of first? Of course, itís the mythos that is superseded only by Lincoln and Washington: there is the weakling who made himself a superior athlete, the Eastern Cowboy, the Rough Rider, the President who finished a speech after being shot by an assassinís bullet, the Great White Hunter after his second term, the conservationist, the resurgent Bull Moose candidate who dogged Woodrow Wilsonís two terms as President, and all his idealized notions of what constituted being a good American citizen. Yet, despite presiding over relatively phat times, TR was also a master politician, and a man of deep principles, even when ultimately he was on the wrong side of an issue.

  This new biography focuses greatly on the political career of TR from his early days as a New York State Assemblyman, through his career as a Washington bureaucrat, back to New York City as a Police Commissioner, back to Albany and the New York Governorís mansion, then skillfully bobbing his way to the Vice Presidency, and his fateful ascension to the top office after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. This book has asides on his youth and his non-political life, but the book stops right upon his ascension to the Presidency, for this is all-too familiar territory. What is amazing to contemplate, though, is that TR was only 42 upon becoming President, yet he had nearly two decades of politicking behind him. How so many biographies have glossed over his pre-Presidential political life is beyond me. For it was in these earlier incarnations that the man who became a pro-business, pro-middle class Progressive was born. From his earliest pugnacious encounters with senior politicians ready to literally sandbag him (quoth TR, in response: ĎIíll kick you, Iíll bite you, Iíll kick you in the balls. Iíll do anything to you- youíd better leave me alone.í), to his strained but admiring relationship with reform-minded Democratic New York Governor and later President Grover Cleveland- including such tidbits as TRís role in shepherding New Yorkís first civil service law, which reduced the power of political patronage brokers, to Clevelandís desk- the book allows insights into TR, the politician and man, from his overt, risk-addicted personality to his covert, subtler manipulations.

  The book also sketches a personal side of TR not oft-explored, at least in its relation to his politics, such as his first marriage and widowerhood, and his numerous writing commitments to serial magazines of the day, on a whole assortment of topics. It also details how the manís principles often hampered his overall rise, which was less rocket-like, and more bulldozer-like, especially in his resuscitation of the office of assistant Navy Secretary. Of course, his style of politicking earned numerous enemies, who conspired to defeat his bid for the mayoralty of New York City, stymied many police reforms, and then even tried to deny him renomination after a successful governorship, instead conspiring with him to get him the Vice Presidential nod just to get him out of the state. This was because, despite being a wealthy scion of a centuries old New York Dutch clan, TR had a social conscience- displayed when he championed Jacob Riisís seminal tracts on urban poverty, or when hr took up union leader Samuel Gompersí challenge to visit the vile tenements of the city he was born in. Yes, many of these exploits were media manipulations, but what set TR apart from such latter-day phonies as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, is that his care for the oppressed was not dependent upon the media glare. He also was pro-business while being pro-corporate responsibility- shrewdly building public support of the stateís first tax on corporations. He knew wealth must first be created before it can be distributed. He also gave state employees an eight-hour workday, one of the first such laws in the country.

  In short, this book is well worth the read, and has less of the calculated polish of a historianís attempt at hagiography, with none of the self-important puffery, and more of a down and dirty muckrakerís attempt to tell a reader about a man who stood up for himself. Ontogeny recapitulates biography, or something like that. Bravo!

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