TR and His Times

  • submit to reddit

Theodore Roosevelt — cowboy, soldier, explorer, hunter, historian, reformer, naturalist and president of the United States — exuberantly led America into the 20th Century. With Roosevelt biographer, David McCullough, at TR’s summer home at Oyster Bay, Long Island, Bill Moyers explores Roosevelt’s brief and golden career which ended after World War I.


Bill Moyers: (V/O) This is the mutoscope — a kind of oversized flip-card system on which sequential pictures can be arranged. It was the first motion picture machine. At the beginning of the 20th century, our century, motion pictures were a brand new thing — a magic lantern in which we could catch glimpses of ourselves as we were — in action and unretouched. We launched this new century — a nation thrilled by new inventions, new ideas, new possibilities. The exuberance of youth was ours, as was the youthful notion that for us, the colors would never fade.

Bill Moyers: (STUDIO) I’m Bill Moyers. The 20th century and the camera grew up together, with results marvelous and mixed. Just imagine that in archives and vaults the world over are millions of feet of film, pictures of men and women, moments and events frozen forever before the lens — a vast album of heroes and common folk; sinners and villains; the wonders, cruelties and disasters of our time. Film has made it possible for us to see our century as no other has ever been seen. It’s changed my view, at least of how to look at history.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Film goes straight to the brain stem, the coils of emotion in all of us. It’s closer, somehow, to what we — actually see and experience of the world — chaotic, fast-moving, apprehended or “sensed” rather than analyzed. There are some things words alone cannot convey about the 20th century; the Great Depression. The frenzy of the ’20s …. or the slaughter of trench warfare.

I’ve gained through film a stronger sense of connection than ever to those people whose faces I see, or once only read about. Many of the pictures suggest how this century has dwarfed individuals. We move among monoliths of our own creation; skyscrapers and factories and super highways, often in crowds — but individual faces keep leaping out of the blue. Our sins and achievements may be collective, but we experience them one by one each of us registers before the lens a singular, personal reaction to moments great and small. What amazing creatures we are — restless, ambitious former amphibians so eager to do and record our tricks before high heaven. You can run film backward and forward: cut, juxtapose, rearrange, freeze, scramble the “reality” and see a different story every time. But history is story within story within story. And now we have to ask: whose story — victor or vanquished? Leader or follower? The strong or the weak?

The sheer volume of images discourages the idea of telling a complete story. And of course the camera cannot capture what it cannot see, so much of the century is out of sight. But think what it means that some things were not. Reinhold Neibuhr warned us in the 40s that the devil was back. But it was something else to see him in the Sportspalast and death camps and the rubble of cities. The devil and all his handiwork. As this century began, history was thought to be a current whose force you could measure and direction you could chart, and it was still taking us to glorious destinations. Progress toward a higher civilization.

How to make sense of history now, seeing this? Who could make sense of it? Maybe no one. But we could hope that film might make it impossible to forget. “In remembrance,” the wise man said, “resides the secret of redemption.”

Bill Moyers: (STUDIO) That’s the reason for doing a series like this. One of the poets of our time has said that with its fantastic proliferation of mass media our planet is witnessing a process that escapes definition, characterized by a refusal to remember. A refusal to remember. So that it often seems that what’s happening today, this very minute, is our sole criterion for judgment: that all our yesterdays have little relevance. “Well, that may increasingly be so, but I’m convinced that film can help us discover the vivacity of the past. Now it’s no replacement for the books, diaries, letters and personal memories that are prime sources for reconstructing history. But even the tiny fragments that are preserved of film, have for me a special magnetism, and can help us discover those stories within stories. That’s one way I’m able to make sense of this century, as a journalist trying to find the roots of current events. History, says one of my colleagues in this search, doesn’t speak in equations, only in parables we have to interpret. Well there are parables in pictures too. And looking at them, I have to agree with Thomas Carlyle that “the past is a world and not a void of grey haze.” So let’s look at that world and begin at the turn of the century.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Film was as primitive as the century was young. Thomas Edison attempted to recreate some of the major news events of his day using miniature models and the battlefields of Orange, New Jersey….The Boer War. The eruption of Mount Pelee on Martinique. The Chinese Boxer Rebellion. This effort to recreate on film the martial temper of the times caught the spirit of the age.

Bill Moyers: (STUDIO) As the new century approached, Americans had an appetite for new markets and a yearning for adventure. Listen to this editorial from The Washington Post of the day: “A new consciousness seems to have come upon us — the consciousness of strength, ambition, interest, land-hunger, pride, the mere joy of fighting we are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle.” Pretty strong stuff.

But it was the popular brew of the day, and intoxicated millions with heady nationalism. None drank more lustily from the keg than this man, Theodore Roosevelt. He hugged the contradictions of America to his chest as if they were prize jewels. War monger, peacemaker. An easterner educated at Harvard who went west to prove himself a cowboy. A compulsive activist, yet an intellectual who read history, wrote history and made history. His mind brimmed with ideas — most of them as out of scale as those famous teeth. And he was against anything lazy. It took him but five years to rise from the police commissioner of New York to president of the United States. Just months before he came into office the 20th century had officially come into being — and would find in Theodore Roosevelt our robust American expression. They were made for each other: TR and his Times.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) You can sum him up with a bit of cheerful thievery from physics: Energy equals TR squared. His was a body always in motion, equal parts of busyness and will, whirling around a nucleus of optimism.

David McCullough: (V/O) When you realize what a pathetic little fellow he was as a child, asthmatic, frightened, timid, literally scared of his own shadow, the idea that he would become the emblem of American vigor, manhood, strength and so forth, was really an extraordinary metamorphosis.

He felt, because his father had said so again and again, that life could be snuffed out very quickly at any time; so get action, Theodore Sr., would preach, seize the moment. Man was not meant to be an oyster, (laughter) and he generated that theme in American life: “Isn’t it wonderful to be alive!” “Isn’t it wonderful to be an American.” “Isn’t it wonderful to have all this good work to do.”

Bill Moyers: The podium from which TR conducted much of the hurly-burly of his adult life, he built here — at Oyster Bay, New York, on Sagamore Hill, overlooking Long Island Sound. Historian David McCullough has written about some of TR’s livelier times. It was here that he was notified of his nomination for governor, as vice president and for president and he spoke to a crowd here. Was he a good speaker?

David McCullough: He wasn’t an eloquent speaker and he didn’t have a very good voice. He’d say “I want you to hit the line hard,” and he’d clap his hands like this…but he conveyed conviction, he conveyed passion and determination and all of that was much more important than eloquence or the refined beautiful sentence.

Bill Moyers: Roosevelt caught the public fancy in the 1890s as a young politician with a pugnacious view of America’s destiny. The world’s pace was quickening and TR wanted to move his country — and himself — to the head of the parade. Progress was real. Life was improving. Life for everyday people was improving daily. And if we could carry this progress, carry our political democracy, carry our Christian Judaic tradition to the rest of the world, that seemed like a very noble thing to do.

I think his understanding of biology and his understanding of history led him to believe that when an organism or a nation ceases to grow, physically grow, then it starts to deteriorate. And you must remember that as of 1890 the frontier was officially declared closed by the Census Department. So that by 1898 people were beginning to search for other ways in which the country could expand and grow. He also felt that the mercantile preoccupations of the country were demeaning to the human spirit and he kept searching, as we all keep searching, for some other great cause that would galvanize the country and give meaning to our collective national life, other than just making money.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) TRs cause was glory. He denounced the doves of his day as molly-coddlers, and lobbied to get himself appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy, where he could preach and prepare for expansion.

Teddy Roosevelt (PORTRAYAL): No nation can hold its place in the world, or can do any work really worth doing, unless it stands ready to guard its rights with an armed hand.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) TR’s first noble cause was to take up arms against Spain. Rebels in Cuba and the Philippines were already fighting to free their homelands from brutal Spanish rule. We’d enter on their side and fight for the right. Not to mention putting a little muscle behind budding American interests abroad. After all, William McKinley had been elected president in 1896 with two promises: “Protect American business.” “Free the Cuban people.” Cheering for war from the sidelines were two New York newspaper czars, Joseph Pulitzer of The World and William Randolph Hearst of The Journal. Front-page stories of Spanish atrocities stirred American indignation — and boosted circulation, too. Both papers sent artists to Cuba to depict scenes of the impending war and — with lurid sketches — to hasten it on. Hearst hired Frederic Remington, best known for his wild west work. But Remington had trouble finding anything wild going on when he got there. He cabled Hearst:

Remington (port.): All is calm here. There will be no war.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Hearst cabled back:

Hearst (port.) You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Then, on the evening of Feb. 15, 1898, the battleship Maine, sent to Havana Harbor to protect American lives and property, was ripped apart by a mysterious explosion. The ship sank — taking 260 officers and men to their deaths. No one knew who was to blame, but Hearst and Pulitzer exploded, too — with rage for war. But President McKinley was having second thoughts about spilling blood when it might be possible to accomplish American objectives through negotiation: War should never be entered upon till every agency of peace has failed. Peace is preferable to war in almost every contingency.

Teddy Roosevelt (port.): McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair!

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Two weeks later, the acting secretary found himself in charge of the whole navy — for a mere few hours. His boss, Secretary Long, was out for the afternoon having a massage. The willful TR seized the moment and sent a secret —and momentous cable to George Dewey, commander of the US fleet in the Pacific. Make ready, TR ordered, to attack, if necessary, the Spanish fleet in the Philippines.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) By the time Dewey sailed into Manila Harbor, the Spanish had decided to give us everything we demanded. Too late. McKinley had asked Congress to declare war. From the bridge of his flagship Olympia, Dewey gave the fateful order:

George Dewey (port.): You may fire when ready, Gridley.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) It took the American navy only a few hours to route the Spaniards. Then, Dewey issued another of his laconic commands:

George Dewey (port.): Draw back for breakfast.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Theodore Roosevelt could get to the war in the Philippines only by cable. But he could go to Cuba in person. And go he would. He quit the Navy and got permission to raise a volunteer cavalry unit, which he would lead —looking-the part. He telegraphed Brooks Brothers:

Teddy Roosevelt (port.): Can you make me so I shall have it by next Saturday, a blue cravenette regular lieutenant colonel’s uniform without yellow on the collar and with leggings. If so, make it. Charge, Theodore Roosevelt.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) His unit of course, was the Rough Riders, a collection of Ivy Leaguers excited by the prospect of an adventurous summer’s outing…and cowboys eager to punch something other than cows. We won. Despite every possible muddle and blunder, more men were felled by malaria than by bullets. But we won. The Cubans got their country back. We got our first taste of conquest. And TR got his moment of glory.

Teddy Roosevelt (port.): Oh, but we have had a bully fight!

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Ambassador John Hay:

John Hay (port.): It has been a splendid little war, begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, and favored by that fortune which loves the brave.

Chorus: Rough, rough. We’re the stuff, we wanna fight, and can’t get enough!

David McCullough: The Cuban side of the Spanish-American war was all over in a matter of weeks and Theodore’s time in combat which, a word not in use then, was all of about one week. And his charge up San Juan Hill was one glorious day, one crowded hour as he called it. And it must have been the greatest day of his life. He didn’t charge up San Juan Hill, he charged up Kettle Hill which is right beside San Juan Hill. And the Rough Riders didn’t go up on horseback because they didn’t have any horses with them. They had forgotten to provide ships to bring the horses to Cuba. They went up on foot. He went up on horseback until he had to get off because of a fence. But San Juan Hill sounded like a better name, a more Spanish name, a more exotic romantic name to the people who were covering that event, the newspaper people, and that war was covered as few wars have ever been, so San Juan Hill it became.

Teddy was an overnight hero. Came right home, launched his governor’s campaign from this front porch, and was elected governor on a progressive platform.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) TR might come home again but America would not. We were an empire now, with colonies to rule. Never mind that they might prefer to rule themselves. Off to the Philippines went an army of 75,000 men to put down the very rebels who had fought with us for their independence from Spain. Led by Emilio Aguinaldo, the insurgents fought now to be free of us.

David McCullough: The Philippines was drawn out, gory, brutal, confusing and to a large extent, to use our present-day expression, a cover-up. The American people never really knew the degree to which we were slaughtering people out there. Slaughter it was, and it went on for three years, while at home, we debated the “white man’s burden” and the fate of “our little brown brothers.” Senator Albert Beveridge:

Albert Beveridge (port.): Fate has written our policy for us: the trade of the world must and shall be ours.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) The prominent lawyer, Moorefield Storey:

Moorefield Storey (port.): When Rome began her career of conquest, the Roman republic began her decline. Let us once govern any considerable body of men without their consent, and it is a question of time how soon this republic shares the fate of Rome.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) President McKinley:

William McKinley: I’m not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed almighty God for light and guidance, and one night it came to me this way: That there was nothing left for us to do but take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift, and civilize, and Christianize them and by God’s grace to do the best we could by them. And the next morning I sent for the Chief Engineer of the War Department and our mapmaker, and I told them to put the Philippines on the map of the United States — and there they are!

Bill Moyers: (V/O) So our flag now flew over ramparts half a world away. This rise of empire caused Speaker of the House Thomas Reed — after 50 years in the Congress — to resign protesting the colonialism he believed would sully America’s honor and decency. Democrats tried to oust the Republicans in 1900 with the slogan, ” …the Republic forever; an Empire never.” But most voters liked the prosperity war had brought and re-elected McKinley, with TR on the ticket as vice president. Theodore Roosevelt, vice president? Yup. It was the only way the bosses could think of to get him out of Albany. As governor, he had ridden far too high a horse for the pols. So off they packed him to Washington. They should have known …but there was something no one could have known …..William McKinley was assassinated by a young anarchist near the Music Pavilion of the 1901 World’s Fair at Buffalo. The new X-ray machine on display there might have saved his life. But no one thought to use it.

ìIt’s a dreadful thing to come into the presidency this way,” TR said, “but it would be a far worse thing to be morbid about it.” He was 42 years old, and America was embarking on a new century. No one thought TR would waste any time wringing his hands. On the contrary. The lamentations carne from people like Republican boss Mark Hanna:

Mark Hanna (port.): Now, look! That damned cowboy is president of the United States.

Sagamore Guide: What’s important to remember is that three months out of every year President Roosevelt lived here at Sagamore Hill while he was president, so this became THE summer White House. And, if anyone needed to come and see him, this is where they came — to Sagamore Hill. And he was the sort of man that would, if he saw a carriage coming up the driveway, jump up, run down onto the porch and greet his visitor personally. As you look around the room there’s a number of interesting things: On his desk, over near the window, there’s a couple of inkwells, and the first one has a bust of Abraham Lincoln on it, and Abraham Lincoln was his favorite president. The other one is kind of a strange one he got on his African hunting trip; it’s the foot of a rhinoceros.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) The ink from those exotic wells, Roosevelt poured into some of the 20-odd books and countless articles and letters he managed to write when he wasn’t pursuing the strenuous life in any of a million other ways. TR, the naturalist, understood the lessons of the hunting world: the strong — and well-armed — prevailed. The weak — well the weak, ended up on the wall.

TR the tactician, applied the same principle in politics, too — and claimed the hide of more than one opponent as his prize. His fans roared for more.

David McCullough:

They used to say that the reason he drew such big crowds to where ever he went is that the naturalists came to see the naturalist, the birdwatchers came to see the birdwatcher, the politicians came to see the extraordinary politician, the Boy Scouts came to see the boy scout, the book-lovers came to see the book lover, the authors came to see the author, on and on and on: he was all of those things.

He had the attitude that life doesn’t have to be confined to narrow tracks and channels, which is good message good medicine, for all of us. And I think he was a genius. A genius. And we are unaccustomed to genius in political public life, so when it happens, we don’t know quite how to react to it, and one of the ways we react to it is to laugh at it: he’s funny, he’s picturesque. Good old Teddy. He’s a joke.

Bill Moyers: But politicians despised Roosevelt, and the people loved him.

David McCullough: Most of the politicians despised him because they felt he wasn’t trustworthy: his allegiance was more to himself; and he adored personal aggrandizement. Somebody said that the problem with Theodore is that he wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. But he used his theatrical quality and his love of the bully pulpit, as he called the White House, he used that power to do good, to do what he thought was right.

Bill Moyers: (VO):

Certainly TR believed humanity was improvable and improving — and that he could hasten the process. Beginning in his days as a New York state assemblyman, he took up the causes of sweatshop workers and tenement dwellers, stopping short of what the socialists and radical intellectuals wanted, but going beyond the polite political reforms advocated by his silk stocking neighbors. The cartoonist’s pens were rarely dry. Again, his pugnacious presence was his most formidable weapon. And he’ was blessed with enemies who made marvelous targets. Himself he cast as the David of his day — up against the corporate Goliaths. The latter, he said, had the souls of glorified pawnbrokers and were “malefactors of great wealth.” J.P. Morgan thought that one over and remarked:

J.P. Morgan (port.): I like this country.

Bill Moyers: (VO) To which the populist William Jennings Bryan replied:

William Jennings Bryan (port.) : When he finishes with it, the American people will be pleased to have it back.

J.P. Morgan (port.): I owe the public nothing.

Bill Moyers: (VO): Morgan started US Steel with mills he bought from this man, Andrew Carnegie, who sold out for just under half a billion untaxed dollars.

Andrew Carnegie (port.): Hurrah! I’m out of business.

Bill Moyers: (VO) His retirement fund was $44,000 a day. The ultimate oil tycoon of the time, John D. Rockefeller, believed he had someone even more powerful than TR on his side:

John D. Rockefeller (port.): God gave me my money.

Bill Moyers: (STUDIO) Well, maybe, but Roosevelt certainly gave him headaches. TR actually welcomed the age of oil and steel, welcomed corporations for the skyscrapers they could raise, the refineries and factories they could capitalize, the goods they could move reliably and cheaply. These, he cheered. But not the concentration of great power in the hands of a few men. “Destroy the evils in trusts” he exhorted, “but not the prosperity.” Those plutocrats he detested — no matter the money they gave to universities, foundations and libraries. Their arrogance and greed would incite the mob, he warned, and certainly they incited TR. He could get so morally outraged that a friend said, “Theodore, if there is one thing more than another for which I admire you, it is your original discovery of the Ten Commandments.” But ordinary Americans liked hearing the decalogue echoed from. The bully pulpit in the White House. They admired him, big stick, righteous rhetoric and all — for wading in to help those who were far from being able to help themselves … of whom …unfortunately, there were many.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Almost within sight of Wall Street and the mansions of the new grandees was Ellis Island, the first toehold on a new life for millions fleeing Europe. The trip cost about $12 a head. Steerage. Most arrived with little but small bundles of clothing and large cases of fright. They were pushed by bread riots in Italy, barren land in Greece, pogroms in Russia. They were pulled by visions of unlimited opportunity for anyone of able body and nimble mind. Heart disease? A suspicious rash? An incurable eye disease? Well the quarantine boat waited to whisk you away from all you had come for. From family. From friends. From hope. Hyman Cantor went through it all when he arrived from Russia in 1902:

Hyman Cantor: We all stood in line, and I saw the gate opening and closing. Would I be admitted to heaven or sent back to hell. I prayed to myself and tried to control myself so as not to make a bad impression on the doctor. My turn came to stand before him. He examined my eyes and felt me between the legs, and finally admitted me to the New World. I was intoxicated with joy. In a moment I was near Morris and Cheina. Much hugging and kissing followed.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) The myth, of course, was that the streets were paved with gold. The reality was that they were paved with coal soot and horse manure. Dreams abounded — but so did cholera and tuberculosis. Jobs were scarce, sweatshop bosses cruel, wages low. Ten dollars a week on the average. Seven cents an hour. Help, if you could get it at all, didn’t come from a welfare bureaucracy. Government was officially uninvolved in the hallowed and supposedly self-correcting workings of the economy’s invisible hand. Officially, that is. Unofficially, there were people for whom acts of mercy became barter for a little “Honest graft.” People like George Washington Plunkitt:

George Washington Plunkitt (port.): I seen my chances and I took ’em.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Plunkitt was the boss of New York’s Tammany Hall, a ward heeler who dished out favors of every kind: a scuttle of coal here, a bundle of groceries there. A job, a loan, a kind word to an irascible judge. A mate for a homely eldest daughter. All in trade for the yotes of those he served so well. Why, if a family’s burned out I don’t ask whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, and I don’t refer them to some charity organization, which would investigate their case in a month or two, and decide they were worthy of help about the time they were dead from starvation.

George Washington Plunkitt (port.): I just get quarters for them, buy clothes for them and fix them up until they get things running again. It’s philanthropy, but it’s politics too, mighty good politics: Who can tell how many votes one of these fires will bring me.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) At the bottom of this heap of exploited humanity were the young. The 1900 census showed nearly 2 million children under the age of 15 in the work force. One employer explained the advantage of hiring children: small bodies and small fingers fit into small spaces. The disadvantage: children tend to become sleepy in the afternoon…and mangle themselves. For the new, emotional masses, as someone called them, Theodore Roosevelt sought a Square Deal. Gentlemanly reformers — including his own father had looked down on the likes of George Washington Plunkitt, and were loathe to move among the great unwashed. Not TR. He understood that so long as the bosses controlled the vote, they were the true governing class. And he sought to tap the roots of their strength. In the rising flood of immigrants he saw the image of a new America for this new century.

David McCullough: Roosevelt loved people, he loved all kinds of people; He was fascinated by people, and the more different they were from him, the more he was fascinated.

He felt, too, very strongly that we must have, as he said, no “hyphenated” Americans. You know, no Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, that you were an American-American. And he wanted to do away with all of that. He thought it was fine for them to maintain pride in their origins, and pride in their culture and language, but that we must not look at one another as “he’s Irish,” “he’s Italian,” “he’s Jewish,” he’s” whatever; we are all Americans. And that by drawing on all of these great cultures and traditions that we would produce a stronger, more vital country.

Bill Moyers: (STUDIO) That idea of national unity was in keeping with Roosevelt’s reflections as a historian on our roots as a nation. He embraced the Hamiltonian notion that we were one mighty people and required a government with energy equal to our size and strength. Said he: “I believe in a strong executive. I believe in power.” So he was all over the place. Intervening to settle an ugly coal dispute. Suing the corporations. Appointing a commission on child labor laws. Adding millions of acres to the federal domain. Sending the fleet around the world as a show of might.

Much of what he did was indeed more showmanship than accomplishment. But he championed the presidency as the center ring in the national circus. And to TR, America was one big tent with room for everyone to do his civic duty. Her civic duty, too. The subject of his thesis at Harvard was the equality of the sexes. He put forth the notion that women — like cripples and consumptives — should be considered equal in the eyes of the law to athletes and intellectuals. Imagine that. But again it was one of those principles, which for TR was more just than practical. And the prudent politician in him knew he could only take it so far, in his time;

David McCullough: Well, he was thought of as power-hungry, he was thought of as too picturesque, his daughter, Alice, was criticized roundly for her freedom, her liberal attitude toward short skirts and smoking cigarettes, and so forth. There’s a wonderful scene where Theodore is in his office talking to a visitor and Alice burst right in to the Oval Office, began saying something to him, and then she left, and the visitor turned to the president and said, “Mr. President, you’re going to have to do something about Alice.” And he (TR) said, “I can either be President of the United States or I can do something about Alice, but I can’t possibly do both at the same time.”

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Other women, too, were struggling against the confines of the time. Smoke they might — if they dared and their daddies let them. But vote they couldn’t — at least not for the president.

And though new inventions like the telephone and the typewriter might lure mighty legions into the work world, self-rule was no more for women than it was for their little brown brothers. To ride a horse astride or to show a little too much leg at the beach could cause a scandal. To demand birth control information or a voting rights amendment could cause arrest. So most women settled for a quick turn around the edges of progress, then married into a life of many babies and few options …and consoled themselves with a popular lament of the time:

Song (V/O): “‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life,

For youth’ cannot mate with age,

And her beauty was sold,

For an old man’s gold,

She’s a bird in a gilded cage.”

Bill Moyers: (V/O) As always, there were a few whom even a gilded cage couldn’t keep. Like Ida Tarbell, the crusading journalist. And Hetty Green, who hoarded every penny of the millions she made on Wall Street. And there was Carrie Nation, who heard TR urge the strenuous life and heeded the call.

Carrie Nation (port.): Men, I have come to save you from the drunkard’s life!

Man: Oh, no! It’s that crazy woman!

Bill Moyers: (VO): Booze, she believed, was the root of all evil —and she’d clamber toward heaven on a heap of broken bottles.

Carrie Nation: I will smash this murder mill! Lord God, peace on earth.

Policeman: Madam, I must arrest you for defacing property.

Carrie Nation: “Defacing? I’m not defacing, I am destroying.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Like many a crank or crusader of the time, Carrie ended up on the evangelical lecture circuit. Women flocked to hear her — and took up the cry for both the vote and prohibition.

Bill Moyers: (STUDIO) The sun that came up on Jan. 1, 1901, officially the first day of the new century, looked exactly like the one that had set the night before. Because centuries do blend one into the other, and one age yields but gradually to the next, you find it hard to notice the landmarks. When did that gadget first hit the kitchen? When was it Grandma got indoor plumbing? Whoever dreamed up that as a dance step? Although Theodore Roosevelt would have preferred all eyes to remain on him, there were plenty of other novel attractions around the turn of the century: electric lights and telephones, running water, the phonograph, bicycles with safety brakes, anesthesia, the radio. Our faith in progress was almost as great as our faith in God. Could anyone doubt it? Maybe not, but some could poke fun at it. One of the most popular figures in those days was a fictitious barkeep named Mr. Dooley, the Doonesbury of the time. He was the creature of the Chicago newspaper columnist, Finley Peter Dunne, who had some sharp and funny things to say about this world and sensibly had them issue from Mr. Dooley’s mouth. One of Mr. Dooley’s cherished targets was the man he called “Tiddy Rosenfeldt,” a personage he liked but did not spare. When Mr. Dooley read TR’s self-glorifying account of his adventures with the Rough Riders, he said, “If I was him, I’d call it ‘Alone in Cuba.’ As usual, truth floats just below the surface of laughter, as it did when Mr. Dooley beheld the advance of progress:

Finley Peter Dunner: (V/O) We live in an age of wonders. Never before in the history of the world has such progress been made. A cow goes lowing softly into Armours, and comes out glue, beef, gelatin, fertilizer, celluloid, jewelry, sofa cushions, hair restorer, washin’ soda, soap, literature and bed springs, so quick that while aft she’s still a cow, forward she may be anything from buttons to Panama hats. Yes sir, mechanical science has made great strides.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Of which the automobile was but one. The first ramshackle models appeared in the 1890s. By the turn of the century, the car was still only a crowd-collecting rarity. But it was soon to become the hallmark of both social and physical mobility. We were well on our way to saying farewell to mornings on horseback … and hello to the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur. The bald one is Wilbur …….Leonardo daVinci had dreamed of wings for humanity back in the 15th century. In the 20th, on the dunes of Kitty Hawk North Carolina, under the unflinching gaze of the local life-saving society, two bicycle mechanics from Ohio, tried and failed; tinkered and tried again; crashed, repaired and doubted. Then —on a July day in 1901 — they finally flew — and controlled — a glider. Within a few years, they’d added an engine — and attracted the Number One Fan.

He was the first president, for example, to go down in a submarine, the first president to use a typewriter, the first president to use a camera, the first president to go up in an airplane.

An old question, then: Did he create the times or did the times create him?

David McCullough: There’s no answer to that; he was exactly right for his times, and it’s impossible to imagine him as President of the United States today. His eccentricities would show up so strongly on medium, for example, that I’m not sure how the public would take it. He once took some British officers on one of his point-to-point hikes very shortly after he became President. A point-to-point hike was a game he devised here at Oyster Bay where you set out and you can’t go around anything, you have to either go over it or through it no matter what is ahead of you. It’s a good metaphor for his whole career. And they set off on a hike from the White House. And everything was quite open in those days, but on the way back they were heading toward the duck pond which is on the side of the White House facing the Washington Monument, and Roosevelt was new in office, and he had no idea how deep that pond was; and there it was in front of them, and these two very proper Englishmen in their full dress uniforms proceeded with the president of the United States, to walk straight into the duck pond, down, down, down, and fortunately it was only about this deep. So across the pond they went with just their heads appearing above the water, and in that day they used to put a skim of oil across the pond to keep mosquitos from breeding on it, so on top of all the water was this skim of goo, and they come out of the water all dripping with this stuff, walk up to the White House, and — none of them ever saying anything that isn’t this unusual that we’re doing this — very politely and formally said goodbye to one another, and that was it.. Now, imagine that appearing on the seven o’clock news?

Bill Moyers: (V/O) The turn of the century equivalent to our 7 o’clock news was this: the nickelodeon. With slides to admonish and advertise and a pianist to underscore the mood, the nickelodeon was where we went to take a gander at the brightest stars in the emerging firmament. Film had become far more than a parlor trick. Thomas Edison restaged the Corbett Jeffries fight so those who missed the match could see the film. Like many of the inventions of the time, motion pictures were helping to make this world a far, far, smaller place. The images might blur and jiggle, but they made accessible to ordinary people the most remote places, the most exotic scenes. As always, TR was quick to absorb the shock of the new. To his list of presidential firsts he added movie star. When he became the first president to leave the country during his term of office, he took cameras with him to record the trip. It was to Panama, where Americans were

digging a path between the seas. TR thought of the canal, with some justice, as his personal gift to the nation. His ultimate point-to-point march, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, giving no quarter. It was an inspiring conquest of mountain and jungle, malaria and yellow fever. The supreme example of the can-do spirit at its lustiest, ready to crow, “We did it!” Or in TR’s words:

Teddy Roosevelt (port.) I did it! I took the Canal and let Congress debate. And while the debate goes on, the canal does also.

Bill Moyers: (V/O) Our neighbors were less than overjoyed. They were loathe to see the Caribbean become an American lake — but helpless to stop it. TR had enlarged and modernized our Navy and made it possible for us to snatch Panama from Columbia, through “revolution” stage-managed by — you guessed it — TR himself. He really did believe, I gather, that we have a moral duty in the world?

David McCullough: Absolutely, and he felt that we had to play a part in the world, like it or not.

Those who argued that we really had no business doing these things, that our concerns should be internal and parochial, were being blind, he said, to the realities, that it wasn’t up to us: we were going to have to play this part whether we were ready for it or not, and we better get ready.

Bill Moyers: (STUDIO) So Theodore Roosevelt’s big stick became the new American baton and we would use it to claim full membership in the big power club. That’s stating it starkly, perhaps, and journalists like historians should beware the terrible simplifiers. Roosevelt the imperialist waved that stick so forcefully that we are apt to forget Roosevelt the idealist. The man who submitted boundary disputes to arbitration, tried to smooth down quarrels between allies, and even negotiated a settlement of the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, thus becoming the unlikely winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. And although he wanted another term in 1908 and was then popular enough to win it, he kept his earlier promise not to run again for a third term, and withdrew to Oyster Bay briefly.

His idea of retirement was vintage TR: he hunted in Africa, wrote more books, explored the Amazon — his last chance to be a boy, as he put it. He even ran again for the Presidency, on a third-party ticket, in 1912. He lost, but his progressive platform would be enacted, piecemeal, in the years to come. Maybe TR believed that the world would always live in the warm summer sunshine of Oyster Bay. But the seeds of the time yielded a 1914 crop he never dreamed. The old chief stirred to the sounds of war. He wanted America to take the side of the Allies and he fretted and chafed that Woodrow Wilson took so long to do it. When we did go to war in 1917, Wilson turned down TR’s offer to lead an expedition. So he had to watch as the young men – including his own four sons — marched off to fight.

David McCullough: Theodore was a romantic. That’s one of the reasons he’s so appealing. We’re all that way, to some degree, I hope. And there was nothing romantic about what happened in World War I:

The slaughter, the incredible devastation that was brought about by the mechanization of war, the advent of the machine gun, the advent of the tank, the French losing 300,000 men in four days, even before the Somme in August of 1914. This was the end to progress. Barbara Tuchman uses the expression “A burnt path across history”: that’s what World War I was.

Bill Moyers: It was also the war in which we learned to use the airplane as a weapon. TR had foreseen the military potential of air power years before, when he was still assistant secretary of the navy. It was to prove a heart-scalding prescience: his youngest son, Quentin, barely 20, was shot down in a dog fight over France.

David McCullough: Theodore’s speeches about glory on the battlefield, going to die for the great causes, all have a very naive, hollow ring after that. And he, died in 1919, died of a broken heart I think, probably, as much as anything else, burnt out by the experience of the war, and by a loss of — that boy, his youngest son.

Bill Moyers: Theodore Roosevelt was 60 when he died. Said Vice President Marshall, “Death had to come to him when he was asleep. Otherwise, Theodore would have put up a fight.”

Bill Moyers: (STUDIO) He was such a complex man, that all these years later we are still issuing interim reports on Theodore Roosevelt. One recent study includes him among the most overrated Americans of all time. Yet other evaluations of the presidency rank him among the near-great, that group just below Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and his own cousin, Franklin. That, I shall leave to the historians and political scientists. As a journalist I can only look at TR and his times and say, “Good copy.” It’s hard to hear his words with the old-time enthusiasm, and impossible to look at our century with the feelings that prevailed when its pages were waiting to be filled in. So you may have assigned Roosevelt to the glass museum case along with the bustle, the buggy and the gas lamp. Not so fast, as Mr. Dooley would say. Since 1941, we have fought three wars on those Asian shores to which he projected our power. And, we still have bases in the Philippines, are still entangled in Central America, and still don’t know how to dispose of the legacy of the charge up San Juan — sorry, Kettle Hill. The presidency has never been the same since he filled it. And fill it he did. We’re still debating the imperial presidency.

Bill Moyers: (STUDIO) History may not repeat itself, but the closer you look, the more clearly you can see that vast subterranean connection which joins one age to another. TR’s story is our story. I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on March 26, 2015.

  • submit to reddit