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"Roosevelt, who preached and practiced the `strenuous life,' was admired and is remembered not only for his achievements as a statesman, but for being a heroic human being."

ONE COULD ARGUE that Theodore Roosevelt basically invented, or at least drew up the blueprints for, what came to be called the American Century. From 1901 to 1909, Roosevelt, the youngest president in history, brought the Federal government into the marketplace and the workplace, fathered conservation and a modern navy, built the Panama Canal, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and preached from the "bully pulpit" of the presidency the doctrines of the "square deal" in domestic policy and "speak softly and carry a big stick" in foreign affairs. He created in those years what political scientists call the modern presidency.

Later, as the aging Bull Moose Progressive, Roosevelt became the thundering prophet of the welfare state and democratic nationalism through championing such reforms as the presidential primary system, votes for women, and Social Security insurance to guard against the "hazards of sickness, accident, invalidism, involuntary unemployment, and old age." In short, it is hard to overestimate his importance in seeing and setting the course the country followed in the 20th century.

So much for Roosevelt the statesman. To understand his full significance, it also is necessary to consider the fact that Roosevelt was and is an American hero and icon. He was the frail, asthmatic boy who conquered his own body; the dude from the East who lived the fantasy of being a cowboy in the Wild West; the fearless hunter of grizzly bears and lions; the colonel of the Rough Riders leading the charge in the Battle of San Juan Hill; and the leader who survived a would-be assassin's bullet in the chest and made his scheduled speech. Roosevelt, who preached and practiced the "strenuous life," was admired and is remembered not only for his achievements as a statesman, but for being a heroic human being.

Consider this statement by John Hay, Roosevelt's Secretary of State (and in his youth a secretary to Abraham Lincoln), speaking about the President's political opponents: "Each man of them knows very well that he could wish no happier lot to his boy in the cradle than that he might grow up to be such a man as Theodore Roosevelt."

Journalist Walter Lippmann once said that he never had been entirely fair to any of Roosevelt's successors in the White House because Roosevelt was the first president he knew. Perhaps one of the reasons Americans have made the 20th century their own is because Roosevelt set such high standards at the start of the century.

Roosevelt's image still is with Americans--on Mount Rushmore; at the five National Park Service sites dedicated to him (Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace in New York City, Sagamore Hill on Long Island, Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac, Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, N.Y.); in the books about him that continue to be published every year; and in the pictures of him that one sees hung on the walls of a surprising number of offices and residences.

That image still is with us, in part because the old Rough Rider remains a hero to many Americans and because, even in this postmodern period, the U.S. remains in the historical continuum Roosevelt helped launch. To be sure, much about him seems dated, particularly his stem sense of duty and morality. Yet, when contemplating Theodore Roosevelt's image and his meaning and relevance as an icon, citizens are in a real sense looking at themselves as Americans.

An exhibition of paintings, photographs, political cartoons, and memorabilia, "Theodore Roosevelt: Icon of the American Century," is on view at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., through Feb. 7.

Mr. Gable is executive director, Theodore Roosevelt Association, Oyster Bay, N.Y.
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Author:Gable, John Allen
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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