Oct. 27, 2011
I thought of President Theodore Roosevelt as I attended a wreath-laying ceremony in Annapolis recently. We were observing the 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknowns at St. Johns College. Those unknowns are not American soldiers and sailors but those of France who died fighting for our freedom in the War of Independence. Theodore Roosevelt cared deeply about such things. As president, he presided over the return of the remains of John Paul Jones from France.
And he was more than willing to have his own body buried in France. Yes. Former President Roosevelt went hat-in-hand to the White House in 1917. There, he almost begged President Woodrow Wilson to let him go to France to fight against Germany.
Wilson demurred, saying it would be too dangerous to let a former President of the United States be captured or killed in combat. I would be more than willing, T.R. told his long-time adversary, to have my epitaph read: Roosevelt to France.
Wilson didnt turn T.R. down then. He said to his faithful aide Joe Tumulty after his rival left the presidential office: Theodore is like a big boy. Hopeful, T.R. said he thought the professorial Wilson might relent.
Today is Theodore Roosevelts birthday. T.R. is getting beaten up a good bit among conservatives these days. His embrace of national health care when he ran as the Bull Moose (Progressive Party) candidate for president in 1912 is seen, with some justification, by President Obama as an early endorsement of his own takeover of one-sixth of the nations economy.
T.R. was wrong about that. He referred in 1912 to his own Progressive ranks as the usual assortment of reformers, do-gooders, and, of course, the lunatic fringe. With humor, T.R. gave us that wonderful phrase.
Still, Theodore Roosevelt might justly be called the first pro-family president. He pored over Census reports. He was appalled by rising divorce rates and declining birth rates. He cared deeply about the American family. He constantly held up the role of mothers and fathers as important to the nations well-being. He honored marriage.
His own role as husband and father endeared him to the nation. T.R.s lively brood was the youngest First Family in decades. Coming into the White House at just 42, in the wake of a beloved presidents assassination, Theodore reveled in the power of the presidency. He was the first to make The White House the official name of the Executive Mansion. He put it on the stationery. Edith Kermit Roosevelt was a most lovely and amazingly patient First Lady. She had to be.
T.R. was forever leading the family on romps. He would interrupt Cabinet meetings to retrieve a stray snake that his impish boys had let loose on the stuffed shirts. He would promptly usher official visitors out of his office to make time for his six children at the end of a hard days work.
If Abraham Lincoln was the first president to invite black men to the White House for meetingsand give respectful ear to the advice of the great abolitionist editor Frederick Douglass, Theodore Roosevelt was the first to have a black man to dinner. The almost universally respected Booker T. Washington, president of the Tuskegee Institute, came to advise President Roosevelt on what was then called the color line.
So vitriolic were some Democratic Senators in denouncing the presidents courteous gesture that T.R. felt he had to go down to Mississippi to mend political fences. He accepted an invitation to go bear hunting. His hosts were unable to scare up any proper game for the New Yorker president. So, they collared a sickly black bear female and tied her to a tree.
Refusing to do anything so cowardly as shoot a trapped beast, T.R. put his footand his rifledown. Washington Post cartoonist Cliff sought to poke fun at the episode, saying Roosevelt was drawing the line in the South. He meant it about race.
But readers took it up as a comment on the sportsmanlike conduct and tender heart of their beloved Teddy. Soon, the whole world knew the story of Teddys Bear. Today, we remember our 26th president in the Teddy Bear. (I actually think we might make this a symbol of our pro-family movement. Teddy would surely approve.)
Former President Roosevelt never got to fight in France. The vindictive Woodrow Wilson made sure of that. But all of his sons fought bravely in World War I. The youngest, Quentin, was shot out of the skies over German-occupied territory in Northeast France. He was buried with full military honors. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was seriously wounded in that war and was honorably discharged with a full disability. In World War II, this cousin of the Commander-in-Chief, FDR, volunteered and was among the first to land on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Medal of Honor winner, died of a heart attack just days later. He is buried in France beside his younger brother. In the end, for American freedom and the cause of justice in the world, it was indeed: Roosevelts to France.