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A PRESIDENT LARGER THAN LIFE.

Byline: - David Kronke

COMPLAINTS that our presidents of the past 40 years simply don't live up to the machismo or epigrammatic qualities of our greatest leaders are frequently due to comparisons with our 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was an avowed hawk who led his Rough Riders to victory in Cuba in the war against Spain yet later became the first president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a man who faced down some of the wealthiest men on Earth, busting up monopolies for the good of ordinary Americans. He tirelessly battled political corruption, championed the creation of the Panama Canal, wrote 35 books despite his own dodgy spelling abilities and, when he realized he had left politics at too early an age, created a third political party, the Bull Moose Party, to run for a third term in office.

As one historian observes in writer/director/producer David deVries' wonderfully compiled documentary miniseries, ``TR: An American Lion,'' Roosevelt was ``the biggest character in American history.'' DeVries' lovingly assembled film makes a strong case for that statement.

``TR'' employs archival footage more than a century old, includes interviews with Roosevelt's granddaughters, great-grandsons, former President Bill Clinton (who awarded Roosevelt the Medal of Valor posthumously), the usual spate of historians and even, briefly, Karl Rove, George W. Bush's infamous adviser. The film is narrated by Edward Hermann, with Richard Dreyfuss an inspired, irascible choice to deliver the charged words of Roosevelt himself.

It's a four-hour biography that moves at a galloping clip - in the first 20 minutes, Teddy's already been born and schooled; he's survived a sickly childhood, and lost both his parents and his first wife. Tonight's episode leads up to his presidency; Tuesday night, his time in office and life afterward is explored.

Roosevelt was a uniquely political animal in a time when most people hadn't quite figured out how to negotiate that rarefied world. As commissioner of the New York City Police, he cleaned up corruption and instilled many innovative reforms; he left his position overseeing the Navy because it wasn't proactive enough for his tastes, and joined the Rough Riders, where his battle cry was not ``Charge!'' but ``Follow me!''

When President McKinley installed Roosevelt as vice president, it was done partially to curb his political ambitions; of course it had the opposite effect when McKinley's subsequent assassination transformed Roosevelt into commander in chief.

DeVries posits Roosevelt as something of a progressive, though the documentary notes Roosevelt wasn't brave enough to confront America's racial problems (he was, nonetheless, the first president to host an African-American, Booker T. Washington, in the White House).

Sadly, with Woodrow Wilson in office during World War I, Roosevelt disappears into the background of his own documentary, a victim of his encroaching irrelevance. But he was a larger-than-life hero whom the nation loved because even when he was wrong, his fights were based on a stringent set of principles. In short, he seems a veritable fictional character today, and perhaps that's why ``TR: An American Lion'' is from first to last sparkling storytelling and a stirring documentary.

TR: AN AMERICAN LION - Three stars

What: Documentary on the life of Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States.

Where: History Channel.

When: 9 tonight and Tuesday.

In a nutshell: A guy who got things done gets a documentary worthy of his stature.

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The politician, adventurer, conservationist and warrior that is Teddy Roosevelt is chronicled in the two-night ``TR: An American Lion'' documentary on the History Channel.
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Title Annotation:Review; U
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 20, 2003
Words:590
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