The first meeting in what would become a lengthy, lucrative, and often complicated relationship between the United States of America and Saudi Arabia took place on February 14, 1945, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the waters of Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake during a transit of the Suez Canal.
Roosevelt was returning home to the United States following the Yalta Conference in the Crimea where FDR had met with fellow Allied leaders Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to discuss plans for peace as World War II was finally drawing to a close. The conference and the lengthy travel required to get to the summit and arrive back home safely had taken its toll on the already-exhausted Roosevelt, who had been sworn in for his unprecedented fourth term as President less than a month earlier. Although FDR was tired and ailing — in fact, the President was dying; the 63-year-old had less than two months to live — he and King Ibn Saud instantly liked each other and enjoyed their discussions, which were translated by a remarkably fascinating man named Bill Eddy. Eddy, fluent in Arabic, was a Marine Colonel who was serving as the U.S. Minister to Saudi Arabia and would later help build and shape the CIA. Ibn Saud, who had never left Saudi Arabia in his life, was close to Colonel Eddy and personally requested that Eddy serve as the interpreter during the summit with the President.
The meeting between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was very successful and it helped set a tone which would be continued by their successors for decades to come in which personal relationships between the Presidents of the United States and the Kings of Saudi Arabia (all of whom, including current King Abdullah, have been sons of Ibn Saud, who fathered at least 68 children) would help solidify diplomatic ties between their two very different countries. Perhaps more critically to the interests of the United States, the meeting helped to forge an advantageous economic partnership with the oil-rich desert kingdom.
As President Roosevelt and the King prepared to part ways, they exchanged gifts. The King gave the President a solid gold dagger along with four luxurious, traditional Arab robes. Roosevelt gave the King a gold medal and informed Ibn Saud that the biggest part of his gift would be awaiting him upon his return to Saudi Arabia. FDR had arranged for Ibn Saud to receive a customized Douglas DC-3 airplane which was stocked with American crew members and featured a throne on board that was capable of swiveling in any direction in order to permit the King to face Mecca during prayers, as all Muslims are required to do. When Saudi Arabian Airlines was formed in September 1946, the aircraft that the King had been given by the President became its flagship plane.
The best is actually a trilogy — the three volumes written by Edmund Morris: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (focuses on TR from birth until McKinley’s assassination), Theodore Rex (focuses on TR as President), and Colonel Roosevelt (focuses on TR from the day he left the White House until the morning his wife Edith found him dead in January 1919). If you have the time and money to commit to the trilogy, that’s what I would recommend. Not only are the books what I would consider a definitive history of TR, but Morris is responsible for some beautiful writing.
If not (and I don’t blame you — three books that each clock in at north of 700 pages is indeed a commitment) and would rather read something in one volume, I’d suggest either David McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback or TR: The Last Romantic by H.W. Brands. You can’t go wrong with those two authors — as historians or writers — either.
Theodore Roosevelt was a shooting star — 5’8” of barely controlled frenzy. An energetic workaholic, familyaholic, and lifeaholic who lived every day of his relatively short life to its fullest and savored each and every battle throughout 60 busy years on Earth. As Thomas Riley Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s Vice President, said, “Death had to take Roosevelt while he was sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”
Every milestone in Roosevelt’s life was reached at a younger age than almost anyone else in American history. Elected to the New York State Assembly at 23; a delegate to the Republican National Convention at 25; a deputy sheriff in the Dakota Territory at 26; an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of New York City at 28; appointed to the U.S. Civil Service Commission by President Benjamin Harrison at 31; elected president of the New York City Police Board to clean up corruption in the police force at the age of 37; and appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President McKinley before resigning to volunteer for the Spanish-American War and then returning from Cuba as a war hero to launch a successful campaign for Governor of New York, all before his 40th birthday in October 1898.
Initially supported by New York’s Republican party boss, Thomas Platt, Governor Roosevelt quickly distanced himself from Boss Platt by ignoring his advice and pushing through an agenda aimed at reform in government, and laws protecting worker’s rights. After the Governor signed a new law implementing a state tax on New York’s corporations, Boss Platt worked hard to get Roosevelt nominated as Vice President on President McKinley’s ticket in 1900, mostly to get Roosevelt out of New York state politics and into an office where he couldn’t do any damage — the weak Vice Presidency of the late-19th/early-20th century. Roosevelt was not interested in leaving Albany to take the boring job of Vice President, but changed his mind after the encouragement of his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, who felt that it would expand Roosevelt’s profile nationally and help set up a future bid for the Presidency. McKinley and Roosevelt easily won the 1900 election, and Roosevelt kept himself occupied during the campaign by speaking in 567 cities and towns throughout 24 of the 45 states.
Less than a year later, 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, was President of the United States (and is still the youngest President in American history), thrust into the Presidency when an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley in Buffalo. At his side as he moved into the White House was his wife, Edith, and his six children. Roosevelt leaped into the role of President and had fun with the job while continuing to live what he called “the strenuous life”. For the rest of that “strenuous life” — including a “retirement” which was a retirement in name only — Roosevelt continued to practice politics, hunt, look for new challenges, write, and fight. But there was one battle that Theodore Roosevelt could not fight and would not face — and it started on the saddest Valentine’s Day of all-time.
Valentine’s Day wasn’t always a tragic day for Theodore Roosevelt. On February 14, 1880, Roosevelt announced his engagement to Alice Hathaway Lee, a beautiful girl from Massachusetts three years younger than he was. Theodore and Alice had met on October 18, 1878 when Theodore, a student at Harvard, encountered her at the home of Richard Saltonstall — Alice’s neighbor and Roosevelt’s classmate and friend. Roosevelt was immediately taken by Alice’s beauty and intelligence, writing that “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked and how prettily she greeted me.” A month later, he was convinced that he wanted to marry her, but it took him much longer to convince her. He proposed in June 1879 and Alice finally said yes at the beginning of 1880. On February 13, 1880, Roosevelt spent the day and night with Alice’s family before returning home to Cambridge, Massachusetts to announce their engagement. That night, as he often did, Roosevelt wrote in his pocket diary about his feelings for Alice:
“She is so marvelously sweet, and pure and loveable and pretty that I seem to love her more and more every time I see her, though I love her so much now that I really can not love her more. I do not think ever a man loved a woman more than I love her; for a year and a quarter now I have never (even when hunting) gone to sleep or waked up without thinking of her; and I doubt if an hour has passed that I have not thought of her. And now I can scarcely realize that I can hold her in my arms and kiss her and caress her and love her as much as I choose.”
Theodore and Alice married on his 22nd birthday, October 27, 1880 at the home of Alice’s parents in Brookline, Massachusetts. Among the guests in attendance was Edith Kermit Carow, who later became Roosevelt’s second wife and the nation’s First Lady. The newly married couple spent their wedding night in Springfield, Massachusetts and a two-week honeymoon at the Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, New York before Theodore plunged right back into his work. Despite his busy, frenetic lifestyle, Theodore’s love for Alice never wavered. He wrote her long, loving letters and spent as much time as possible doting on his young wife. As his political career took off and he served in the New York State Assembly, politicians who called at his home in New York City were charmed by Alice, and Theodore’s feelings for her were as strong as they were during their courtship in Cambridge. As the Roosevelts celebrated their third wedding anniversary in October 1883, Alice was pregnant with their first child and Roosevelt was preparing a run for Speaker of the New York State Assembly.
Running for the speakership was tough work for a 25-year-old that had spent barely two years in the Assembly, but Roosevelt and some of his supporters felt that he had the votes necessary to win the Speaker’s chair. This campaign required Roosevelt to spend even more time in Albany lining up votes, and he would rush home whenever possible to visit his pregnant wife. Alice felt lonely at times, but understood Theodore’s drive and ambition. She only saw her husband on weekends and Roosevelt tried to help Alice out by having her stay with his mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt, and his sisters, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson (who had recently had a baby herself) and Anna “Bamie” Roosevelt Cowles, at the family home in New York City on West 57th Street. It was difficult at times for Alice, but she loved her husband’s family and supported her husband’s ambitions, and tried to bear the separation cheerfully.
The separation wasn’t easy for Roosevelt, either. On February 6, 1884, he wrote to Alice, “How did I hate to leave my bright, sunny little love yesterday afternoon! I love you and long for you all the time, and oh so tenderly; doubly tenderly now, my sweetest little wife. I just long for Friday evening when I shall be with you again.” Roosevelt had lost the race for Speaker, but immediately threw himself into an investigation of corruption within the government of New York City. In Albany on February 11, Roosevelt adjourned his committee’s investigation for a week and headed home to New York City for the birth of his first child. Arriving there on February 12th, it appeared as if Alice was still a few days away from having the baby. Roosevelt left her in the care of Bamie since his mother, Mittie, seemed to be suffering from a heavy cold, and then rushed back to Albany to work on a bill which proposed to give more executive power to the Mayor of New York City. At the Capitol the next morning, Roosevelt received a telegram notifying him that Alice had given birth to a baby girl the previous night. The telegram noted that Alice was doing “only fairly well”, but Roosevelt chalked that up to the difficulties of a young mother’s first delivery in the rough 1880’s. Roosevelt continued to try to get some work done for a few more hours before he planned to catch a train back to New York City to greet his loving wife and his new daughter.
Just a few hours later, Theodore Roosevelt was on a train heading to New York City, but the joyous visage of the brand-new father had been replaced by a worrisome and “worn” look cemented upon his face after receiving a second telegram in Albany. The contents of this telegram are lost to history, but they caused Roosevelt to rush home to his 22-year-old wife and their newborn daughter. In perfect weather, the train ride from Albany-to-New York City took five hours in 1884, and the weather on February 13th was not perfect. It was foggy and cold and Roosevelt finally arrived at Grand Central Station at about 10:30 PM, rushing home through the foggy New York City streets and finding the home at 6 West 57th Street dark other than a gaslight on the third floor.
Upstairs, Theodore’s young wife and the mother of his newborn daughter, was gravely ill. The childbirth was rough, but Alice Roosevelt was also suffering from undiagnosed Bright’s Disease, a terminal illness during the time period, and an illness which was rapidly causing Alice’s kidneys to fail. Theodore held his love in his arms, barely noticing the new life that she brought into the world at the risk of losing her own. Alice fell in-and-out of consciousness, only sometimes recognizing the man at her bedside. As a child, Theodore Roosevelt was sickly, pale, and asthmatic and through sheer willpower and, yes, “strenuous” exercise, he built his body into a strong, robust, athletic man as solid as the bust that pays tribute to him today on Mount Rushmore. As February 14th — the fourth anniversary of his engagement to Alice — began, Theodore tried to summon that ability to conquer poor health in order to save the love of his life.
Downstairs, Theodore’s 48-year-old mother, Mittie, did not have a bad cold. She had typhoid fever, and in his rush to attempt to help nurse his wife back to health — if only with the ineffective tools of hope — Roosevelt had hardly noticed that his mother was also near-death. At 3:00 AM on February 14, 1884, the sadness in the Roosevelt home at 6 West 57th Street turned to devastation, when Mittie died shortly after Theodore kissed her goodbye. Before Theodore had arrived home from Albany, his brother Elliott left their mother’s home after telling Corinne, “There is a curse on this house. Mother is dying, and Alice is dying too.” As Theodore walked back upstairs to attend to Alice, he agreed with his brother’s statement: “There IS a curse on this house.”
Alice tried to fight, but her kidneys had failed her, childbirth had weakened her, and the melancholy mood in the house couldn’t help to strengthen anybody’s spirits. Theodore continued holding Alice in his arms and that’s where she was when she died at 2:00 PM on the fourth anniversary of their engagement announcement, less than two days after the birth of their still-unnamed daughter. Since he first cast his eyes upon Alice’s face in 1878, Theodore Roosevelt had filled pages of his diary by writing about her nearly as often as he thought about her. He noted the simplest expressions, the smallest acts of recognition, the quietest smiles, the loudest silences, and every action that resulted in a memory that they could replay again-and-again in the future that they had planned together. In his ever-present pocket diary on February 14, 1884, Theodore Roosevelt simply wrote an “X” above one striking sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”
Two days later, the dazed widower sat expressionless in his pew at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City as the two identical rosewood caskets of his mother and wife stood side-by-side at the altar. The day after the deaths, the New York State Assembly paid tribute by adjourning in sympathy after speakers eulogized the women and expressed support for their stricken colleague. In the days that followed, Theodore Roosevelt withdrew, unable to process the heavy pain he was feeling and showing no interest in his newborn baby, christened Alice Lee after her late mother. Friends worried about Roosevelt’s mindframe and newspapers predicted that he would never recover from the blow he had suffered.
We know now that he did recover. Just 27 years old when he lost his wife and his mother on the same day in the same house, Roosevelt couldn’t even bear to say the name of his new daughter because it reminded him of her mother. Instead of “Alice Lee”, he called her “Baby Lee” in her infancy and turned her care over to Bamie so that he could lose himself in the Dakota Territory. There he remained for two years, working as a cattle rancher and deputy sheriff, writing and recovering from his sudden, tremendously heartbreaking loss. He returned to New York in October 1886 and re-launched his political career, not stopping until he handed the Presidency over to hand-picked successor William Howard Taft in 1908. Even then, he was still involved, challenging Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912, bolting the party when Taft was nominated and running as a third-party candidate that fall, hunting, writing books, and preparing for another run for the Presidency when he died suddenly in January 1919.
Theodore Roosevelt recovered and made history, but the pain that he felt probably never dissipated. It was also never again mentioned. Two days after the funeral, he wrote a short biography of Alice in his diary, ending “For joy or sorrow, my life has now been lived out.” Roosevelt’s biographer, Edmund Morris, wrote that “Like a lion obsessively trying to drag a spear from its flank, Roosevelt set about dislodging Alice Lee from his soul. Nostalgia, a weakness to which he was abnormally vulnerable, could be indulged if it was pleasant, but if painful it must be suppressed, ‘until the memory is too dead to throb.’” Alice Hathaway Lee’s existence may have crossed his mind or remained in his heart, but her name never again passed through his lips. Their daughter — Alice’s namesake — entered adulthood without ever hearing her father speak of her mother. It was simply too painful for this, probably the bravest of Presidents. Following his Presidency, Roosevelt wrote his Autobiography, which was detailed and thorough, but he didn’t mention his first wife even once. Letters were destroyed, photographs were were burned, and Roosevelt’s only method of coping with her absence was pretending that she was never there in the first place. He once wrote of Alice that “I did not think I could win her, and I went nearly crazy at the mere thought of losing her.” Once he did lose her, he certainly lost a part of himself.
Immediately following Alice’s death, Theodore told a friend that he was “beyond healing and time will never change me in that respect”. Roosevelt remarried in 1886 and had five more children, but his silence about Alice’s impact on his life is just as striking as the words he wrote about her while she was alive. In August 1974, President Richard Nixon — one of Roosevelt’s successors and biggest admirers — resigned from the Presidency and in his final speech as President, to White House staff gathered in the East Room, quoted from one of only two references that Roosevelt made to Alice following her death:
"She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; As a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for the bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving , tender, and happy. As a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her—then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever."
Theodore Roosevelt went on to achieve his ambitions and realize great success, but his tribute to Alice bears witness to his pain and gives extra symbolism to the lion’s last words before his heart gave out in 1919: “Please put out the light.”
It was the most colossal misfortune of the century that in this great crisis…our President should be an absolutely selfish, cold-blooded and unpatriotic rhetorician.
Wilson has a great deal of ability of the most sinister type…above all in appealing to whatever is evil or foolish in the average man…
Theodore Roosevelt, on Woodrow Wilson’s leadership during World War I, letter to Arthur Lee, August 17, 1917
Alice Roosevelt Longworth, oldest daughter of Theodore Roosevelt (and Eleanor Roosevelt’s first cousin), explaining why she set up dinner dates between Franklin D. Roosevelt and his mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, at Alice’s home when Eleanor was out of town.
Eleanor first learned of the affair between FDR and Lucy, who Eleanor had originally hired to serve as her personal secretary, back in 1918 when FDR was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. At the time, she threatened to divorce Franklin unless he stopped seeing Lucy immediately. FDR agreed because he was still building his political career and a divorce on grounds of adultery would be a lethal blow to his ambitions.
FDR may have kept his promise to Eleanor for a short time, but the affair eventually continued. Alice Roosevelt Longworth wasn’t the only Roosevelt family member who helped facilitate meetings between FDR and Lucy — FDR and Eleanor’s daughter, Anna, also helped the two find time to spend together. Anna Roosevelt said that Lucy helped her father relax and loved him unconditionally, which was not something FDR found with Eleanor.
Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was with FDR literally until the end of his life. When the President died suddenly in Warm Springs, Georgia, Lucy was in the room with him. His trip to Warm Springs was meant to be one of rest and relaxation, so a visit from Lucy had been arranged. After FDR died, Lucy quickly left Warm Springs in order to guard against any impropriety.
Lucy also wanted to be gone before Eleanor Roosevelt arrived in Warm Springs to escort her husband’s body back to Washington. When Eleanor arrived at the “Little White House” in Georgia, the newly-widowed First Lady learned, just hours after her husband died, that he not only continued the affair that she had threatened divorce over nearly two decades earlier, but that the woman she had forbidden Franklin from seeing was with him in his final hours, sharing his final laughs, and at his bedside as he took his final breaths.
Learning of Franklin’s treachery would have been difficult at any time because Eleanor believed that his 1918 pledge to cut all ties with Lucy Mercer had been given in earnest. She felt that FDR’s desire to maintain a strong family unit and accomplish his ambitious political goals was far more powerful than any weakness for womanizing or simple fling with a social secretary. The fact that Franklin was willing to risk everything by continuing his affair must have been sobering to Eleanor because it clearly meant that Lucy was far more to FDR than a “simple fling”. And, as devastating and humiliating as it must have been to follow up the news of FDR’s sudden death by learning the shocking news that the affair survived, could you imagine a more agonizing detail than the revelation that Eleanor’s only daughter happily helped facilitate meetings between FDR and Lucy?
Over the next few days, as she accompanied FDR’s casket on a special train from Georgia to Washington, stood tall through traditional state funeral ceremonies in the nation’s capital, and brought the longest-serving President in American history home for burial at his Hyde Park estate on New York’s Hudson River, Eleanor Roosevelt displayed a quiet elegance and stoic dignity that never once hinted at the pain or frustration she must have felt at being betrayed by a husband whose ambitions she always put first, even if they conflicted directly with Eleanor’s own political beliefs or ideological aims.
Knowing now what Eleanor Roosevelt learned in the wake of her husband’s death, her poise and selflessness is remarkable. No matter what she was feeling personally, she recognized (via political instincts that were often as keen as FDR’s) that the nation had lost the President who led them through the Great Depression and most of WWII. While FDR may have betrayed her, the American people loved their deceased President and she was their conduit to his memory. With Americans still dying in Europe and the Pacific, Eleanor understood she had a part to play during the mourning period. She was up to the challenge and exceptional in the role.
"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.
To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.
— Theodore Roosevelt, Kansas City Star, May 7, 1918.
TR, the 26th President of the United States (1901-1909), died exactly 95 years ago today (January 6, 1919) at his beloved home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, on the North Shore of New York’s Long Island.
Roosevelt was just 60 years when he died in 1919, and with a wide-open Presidential election just a year away, TR was heavily-favored to finally return to the White House. After pledging to serve just one term in office when he was elected in his own right in 1904, Roosevelt turned the Presidency over to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, in 1908.
Almost immediately, Roosevelt began to regret giving up the Presidency. Even worse, he felt that President Taft was a poor choice to carry the torch for TR’s legacy. The once-close relationship between Roosevelt and Taft broke out into a vicious war of words, escalated by TR’s decision to challenge the incumbent President Taft for the 1912 Republican nomination.
When Taft was victorious in the battle for the Republican nomination, things got even uglier. Roosevelt and his supporters bolted from the GOP Convention, formed a third-party — the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party — and nominated TR for President under that banner.
Neither Taft or Roosevelt had a chance to win in 1912. The split in the GOP meant that Taft and TR siphoned votes from each other in an election where the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, was already drawing interest from a number of Progressive Republicans. Taft and Roosevelt focused on attacking each other and Wilson was so confident of victory he didn’t even have to campaign for himself near the end. In the final days of the campaign, Wilson hit the trail in support of a strong Democratic majority in Congress.
The wounds of the 1912 election took time to heal (one of those wounds was a gunshot wound to the chest that Roosevelt suffered during an assassination attempt in Milwaukee in the closing days of the campaign). TR’s break from the GOP angered many Republican leaders who had supported and defended Roosevelt for years. Taft was especially hurt from some of the mean-spirited comments Roosevelt made about him because he considered TR one of his closest friends.
Roosevelt’s actions in 1912 likely cost him the Presidency in 1916. Despite his comfortable victory over Roosevelt and Taft four years earlier, President Wilson was vulnerable as he sought reelection. Despite Wilson’s vulnerability, Roosevelt recognized that he still had to make amends and that 1916 was out of the question for him. The GOP nominated Charles Evans Hughes and Roosevelt healed more wounds several days later when he turned down a Presidential nomination from the party he formed four years earlier, the Progressives, and signaled his support for Hughes, who narrowly lost to Wilson.
Although he frequently denied it, friends and foes alike were convinced that Theodore Roosevelt had his sights set on the 1920 Presidential election. TR had healed most of the wounds caused by his break with the GOP, including the biggest and most personal — he reconciled with William Howard Taft. TR had also been an even more outspoken and vehement critic of Woodrow Wilson than he usually was of political opponent.
When World War I broke out, Roosevelt attacked Wilson for not offering assistance to American allies in Europe. As the U.S. drifted closer to war, TR criticized Wilson for not putting American soldiers on a war footing. And once Americans started fighting and dying, Roosevelt slammed Wilson for not having our soldiers better prepared.
Roosevelt may have been getting ready to run for President when he died. He was certainly seen as the frontrunner and considering the eventual nominees in 1920 (Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox), it’s difficult to imagine him losing a nomination or general election to either man.
But TR was also in terrible health despite being relatively young and living a famously active lifestyle. In fact, that lifestyle may have been the cause of his troubles. While exploring a tributary of the Amazon in 1914, TR was stricken with malaria and almost died in South America.
What Roosevelt really wanted was to reprise his military glory with the Rough Riders regiment that had served so well during the Spanish-American War. When Roosevelt offered his services to President Wilson and requested a commission in Europe, the President quickly turned him down.</p>
Roosevelt felt that Wilson took glee in rejecting TR’s request for a military commission, and he very well might have. The two men shared a mutual dislike and distrust of each other at that point.
But in fairness to Wilson, Roosevelt had barely survived a bout with malaria, was shot in the chest at close range on the campaign trail in 1912, was overweight, suffered from crippling rheumatism, and happened to be blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. Had he lived, these may or may not have been issues on the campaign trail, but they were definitely liabilities on the battlefield.
Theodore Roosevelt never
made it to the 1920 Presidential campaign that most Americans expected him to easily win. It’s a wonder that the former President made it through 1918 at all. TR kept his name in the news through regular editorial columns, but his health was failing. Early in 1918, he spent a month hospitalized for a relapse of malaria and a debilitating ear infection. Late in 1918, as his political friends began planning his next campaign, Roosevelt’s closest friends worried as he spent another six weeks in the New York hospital named after his philanthropist father.
Friends who visited TR in late 1918 noticed a marked change. His physical condition had been weakening, of course, but the bigger concern was a dimming of the radiant optimism that had long been a Roosevelt trademark. The reason why that light wasn’t shining as brightly was no secret, however. His assorted physical ailments were difficult for even his doctors to keep track of. But everyone knew why Theodore Roosevelt’s heart was broken in 1918.
While President Wilson promptly shut down any chance of the old Rough Rider joining one last fight, TR had four healthy sons of fighting age during World War I and none of them were about to miss out on a chance to make their father proud. TR’s second oldest son, Kermit, was so anxious to take up arms that he actually joined the British Army and fought in the Middle East while awaiting U.S. entry into the war.
TR had great pride in his sons and was personally fearless in his own wartime experience. But there is no sense of fearlessness when four of your children are fighting on the frontlines of what had become the deadliest war in human history up to that time. Instead, TR felt helpless.
First came word that Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. — “Ted” — who would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War II’s Normandy Invasion, had been wounded in France. Over 200 of Ted’s fellow soldiers were killed, but Ted refused to surrender, even after the Germans used chemical weapons to gas Ted and temporarily blind him. The elder Theodore Roosevelt was relieved to hear that Ted was recovering and would be rewarded a Croix de Guerre from the French and a Silver Star, Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Medal, and Distinguished Service Cross from Uncle Sam.
While Kermit was made artillery captain under General John J. Pershing (after being awarded the British Military Cross in recognition for his service with the Allies), the third Roosevelt son, Archibald Bulloch Roosevelt — “Archie” — also earned France’s prestigious Croix de Guerre, and it didn’t come easily. An initial telegram from the War Department said that Archie had been “slightly wounded”. In fact, Archie had been seriously wounded — a compound fracture of his left arm also severed his arm’s main nerve. Even worse, shrapnel had blasted into Archie’s left leg, splintering his kneecap and leaving it in such bad shape that his French doctors decided that amputation was the best bet. Fortunately for Archie, one of the other patients convinced the doctors otherwise — that helpful patient was Archie’s older brother Ted. While he kept his leg, Archie was classified as “disabled” and discharged. A quarter of a century later, Archie was once again nearly killed by shrapnel in another World War, classified as “disabled” and discharged.
In another French hospital, TR’s youngest son, 20-year-old Quentin, was recovering from a broken arm suffered in a rough landing. While his brothers were old-school soldiers, Quentin was one of the early American combat pilots. Quentin was also impatient, hoping to end up a war hero like his father and brothers. But as the war continued, Theodore Roosevelt’s fears lengthened. His boys had faced enough close calls. He was ready for them to return home. When he heard that Quentin had started flying missions in German territory, he had an uneasy feeling. When he heard that Quentin recorded his first kill in action of an enemy pilot, TR was proud, but cryptically wrote to his youngest daughter, “Whatever now befalls Quentin, he has had his crowded hour, and his day of honor and triumph.”
It was a cable directly from General Pershing that notified Roosevelt that his youngest son was missing in action, and a reporter from the Associated Press the next morning who confirmed that Quentin was dead. Roosevelt, devastated, wondered aloud how he was going to break the news to his wife.
Quentin had been shot down in a dogfight with a German fighter. When his plane crashed, German troops on the ground checked his identification and recognized that the young man was the son of the former American President. They gathered his belongings to send to President Roosevelt and buried Quentin with full military honors.
Theodore Roosevelt’s health had been failing, but Quentin’s death broke his heart and seemed to accelerate the end. When TR saw his sister Corinne for the first time after Quentin was killed, she worriedly asked if he was ill. “No,” the former President said, “but I am not what I was.”
In the six months he had left to live following Quentin’s death, the spark — the urge to fight one last battle appeared from time-to-time, particularly when Woodrow Wilson was mentioned. And there were times when Wilson wasn’t mentioned at all where TR brought up his hatred rival to seemingly fire himself up. Back in the hospital as the Holidays approached in December 1918, TR’s longtime friend Margaret Chanler mentioned her concern for him. “I am pretty low now,” he confessed before stoking his fire for Wilson again, “but I shall get better. I cannot go without having done something to that old gray skunk in the White House.”
On the night of January 5, 1919, Roosevelt was having so much trouble sleeping that one of the nurses who had been helping monitor the former President’s health since his return home from the hospital shortly before Christmas gave him a shot of morphine. James Amos, a former valet of TR’s who was also helping out as Roosevelt recovered, helped the former President into bed. As his eyes finally grew heavy, Roosevelt asked, “James, will you please put out the light?”
Archie Roosevelt notified his siblings of their father’s death with a simple telegram: “The old lion is dead.”
Woodrow Wilson learned of his rival’s death while on a train traveling through France. Reporters on the train noted that Wilson’s expression changed from being surprised to being satisfied or triumphant.
Roosevelt’s former rival, William Howard Taft, was neither satisfied or triumphant — he was devastated, but felt fortunate that he and TR had reconciled and once again become friends. When Archie Roosevelt noticed former President Taft in the back of the church at TR’s funeral, Archie urged Taft to sit up front with the Roosevelt family. Following the graveside service on the hill where Roosevelt was to be buried, Taft lingered long after other mourners had left, crying near his old friend’s casket.
President Wilson’s official representative at Roosevelt’s funeral was the always quotable Vice President, Thomas Riley Marshall, who didn’t disappoint. Vice President Marshall also didn’t miss the irony in the notoriously feisty Roosevelt dying peacefully in his sleep:
"Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake, there would have been a fight."
Yes. They happened to run into each other in a Chicago hotel a couple years after Taft left office, and basically squashed their beef right there.
There’s a wonderful story about Taft at TR’s funeral. When Roosevelt died, Taft traveled to Oyster Bay to attend the funeral and found a seat with the Roosevelt family’s servants in a pew near the back of the Episcopalian church where TR’s service was held. Archie Roosevelt, TR’s second-youngest son, noticed Taft, said, “You’re a dear personal friend and you must come up further,” and had the former President sit with the Roosevelt family.
After the service, TR was buried in a grave on a hillside near his home on Long Island. Mourners paid their respects and pretty much everybody headed home, but Taft remained at Roosevelt’s grave while his casket was lowered and buried. While everybody else left, Taft lingered for a long time, weeping for his friend/rival/friend.
President Clinton and Bob Dole being Senate Spouses is pretty great. Clinton and Dole are right up near the top of the list when it comes to former campaign rivals who enjoyed a friendly relationship afterward. I think it would probably have to be Clinton and George H. W. Bush, though. I love reading about how close they are and how Clinton’s basically been adopted into the Bush Family.
Honorable mentions would go to Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford who bonded after their 1976 campaign against each other. Also, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. Despite losing to FDR in 1940, Willkie gave Roosevelt his support as the U.S. entered World War II. FDR even sent Willkie to Europe as a special envoy during the war. Of course, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had themselves a little bit of a beef that turned into one of history’s most fascinating friendships as they aged.
Worst? The relationship between Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams was pretty nasty and I’d be stunned if there wasn’t some animosity between George W. Bush and Al Gore, but I’m going to go with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover. At one point, FDR and Hoover were quite friendly, but issues heated up between them during the transition after FDR beat Hoover in the 1932 election. Once FDR was President, Hoover was treated as if he were radioactive. Despite Hoover’s massive success in relief efforts during the first World War, FDR asked nothing from Hoover. After FDR died, it only took a few days before President Truman contacted Hoover for advice and to put him to work.
It’s absolutely true.
Truman was urgently called to the White House on the evening of April 12, 1945 and when he arrived, Eleanor Roosevelt told him that FDR was dead. A few minutes after 7:00 PM, Truman was sworn in as President in the Cabinet Room and had a brief meeting with Roosevelt’s Cabinet (which was now Truman’s Cabinet). Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson lingered after the other Cabinet members left and, when he and the new President were alone, basically told Truman, “So…there’s something you should know…”
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but it really wasn’t much more than that at first. Truman was already overwhelmed by being thrust so suddenly into the Presidency — many people don’t realize that Truman was only Vice President for 82 days. Everything was a whirlwind in April 1945. FDR died on April 12th. The Allies were meeting in San Francisco to form the United Nations on April 25th. Mussolini died on April 28th. Hitler died on April 30th. American, British, and Soviet forces were closing in on Berlin as the month came to an end. And, through it all, Truman took the reins of government, attempting to fill a seat held by a President and Commander-in-Chief who had held the White House longer than anyone else in history ever had and ever would.
Imagine, in the midst of all of that, being told for the very first time — and only because he unexpectedly became President — of a massive and devastating weapon that was so new and so unheard of that Truman wasn’t only informed about it, but he had to be educated about how it worked and what it might be able to do (if it worked, of course). Secretary Stimson gave Truman a bare bones description on the night that Roosevelt died. It wasn’t until he was able to get more in-depth briefings over the next few days with other FDR Administration insiders and scientists involved with the bomb’s development that Truman gained a real understanding about exactly what the bomb might be capable of. Pretty crazy, right? Welcome to the White House, Mr. President.
On the night of March 18, 1917, several hundred Republican leaders gathered in the Union League Club in New York City. With German U-boats engaging in unrestricted warfare and sinking American ships on the high seas despite United States neutrality in World War I, the Republicans demanded that President Woodrow Wilson declare war against Kaiser Wilhelm II’s belligerent empire, infuse fresh warriors into the stagnant European war, and prove that the U.S. was a truly international power that was only getting stronger in the midst of the American Century.
After the meeting, three of the nation’s most influential and powerful Republicans sat down to dinner in a nearby cafe. Charles Evans Hughes was a former New York Governor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and had narrowly lost the 1916 Presidential election to President Wilson four months earlier in one of the closest elections in American history. Theodore Roosevelt was also a former New York Governor, had served as President from 1901-1909, and his third party challenge for the Presidency in 1912 had split the GOP, sabotaged the re-election chances of his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and ensured Wilson’s first Presidential election victory. Elihu Root, 72, had stepped away from the Senate two years earlier, had previously served as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and then Secretary of State, and was frequently mentioned as a potential Presidential contender.
As they discussed the crisis at hand and envisioned American entry into the war, Roosevelt — a vicious critic of President Wilson, who disliked TR just as strongly — passionately spoke of his hope to lead American soldiers into battle in Europe much like he had done nearly 20 years earlier with the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. At 58 years old, Roosevelt was overweight, nearly deaf, blind in one eye, and had never fully recovered from a near-fatal bought of malaria that he contracted during a seven-month-long expedition in unexplored jungles of Brazil a couple of years earlier. Partly due to his age, but mostly due to their contentious relationship, it was unlikely that President Wilson would grant Roosevelt his wish. But with tears welling in his eyes and his voice breaking, the former President told Hughes and Root how badly he hoped to serve his country one last time. ”I must go,” said Roosevelt, “but I will not come back.”
Roosevelt’s emotional declaration dramatically silenced his fellow Republican statesmen at the table. Hughes, who would later become Secretary of State and then Chief Justice of the United States, solemnly looked at Roosevelt (who had once said that the sober, reticent Hughes was a “bearded iceberg”) without saying anything. It was Root, who had served in Roosevelt’s Cabinet throughout almost all of TR’s Presidency, who finally spoke up.
"Theodore, if you can make Wilson believe that you will not come back, he will let you go!"
Yes, I did read Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (BOOK•KINDLE) and I thought it was one of the better FDR biographies that I’ve read, which is saying something because there are some damn good books about FDR in print. I personally thought that Brands should have won the Pulitzer that year (2009, I believe) for Traitor to His Class, but the award instead went to Jon Meacham for American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (BOOK•KINDLE). That’s not to say that Meacham didn’t deserve the prize. American Lion was also an excellent book and there are far less in-depth biographies of Jackson than FDR, so it’s not as if Brands was robbed of the Pulitzer or anything; Traitor to His Class was just more of a personal preference of mine than American Lion.
If you’re looking for a recommendation, I give it without hesitation. There are two other books about FDR that I would also highly recommend. The first is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II (BOOK•KINDLE), which is more of a dual biography of the First Couple and their extraordinary partnership rather than a traditional biography focusing mainly on the President. The other book I would recommend is the massive, exhaustively-researched Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT
32nd President of the United States (1933-1945)
Full Name: Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Born: January 30, 1882, Hyde Park, New York
Term: January 20, 1933-April 12, 1945 (Died in office)
Political Party: Democratic
Vice Presidents: John Nance Garner; Henry A. Wallace; Harry S. Truman
Died: April 12, 1945, Little White House, Warm Springs, Georgia
Buried: Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site, Hyde Park, New York
I think the toughest decision to make on my Presidential Rankings was who to rank #2 and who to rank #3. I have a clear-cut #1, but who came next was difficult. The easy, cop-out way to go would have been to have a tie at #2 and, believe me, I considered it. But I figured it wasn’t conceivable to have a tie when there is nobody else taking a vote in these rankings, there are no statistics or metrics that might result in a tie, and these are my rankings alone. So, I made myself pick. I said that #4, #5, and #6 are pretty much interchangeable, and that the distance between #6 and #7 is pretty wide. I would say that the distance between FDR at #3 and James Monroe at #4 is also pretty expansive, and that I could easily be talked into FDR at #2. FDR was probably the best politician to ever serve as President. His political skills allowed him to overcome a physical handicap that most Americans never realized he even had. That wasn’t an accident — it was carefully orchestrated. Roosevelt tackled two of the biggest challenges in American History — the Great Depression and World War II — and he did it with an optimism and confidence that was infectious. When the 1940 election came around, he recognized the dangers on the horizon, ignored opposition within his own party and pushed through the two-term tradition set by George Washington. It wasn’t out of a need for political glory; it was because he felt that he was the best-prepared person in America to lead the nation into World War II. And he was right. In fact, he was rarely wrong. Even the decision to run again in 1944, when he was clearly dying, was probably the right decision because his leadership was important and he gave us an able successor in Harry Truman. FDR was a monumental leader and we’re lucky that the timing of the crises that we faced in the 1930’s and 1940’s were somehow matched with the rise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 3 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 3 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 2 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 1 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 3 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 2 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 4 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 3 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 3 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 1 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 1 of 40
26th President of the United States (1901-1909)
Full Name: Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.
Born: October 27, 1858, 28 East 20th Street, New York City, New York
Term: September 14, 1901-January 20, 1909
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: Charles Warren Fairbanks
Died: January 6, 1919, Sagamore Hill estate, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York
Buried: Young’s Memorial Cemetery, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York
Theodore Roosevelt is one of those Presidents that you know is great, but very few people can name specific accomplishments that occurred during the Roosevelt Administration. TR, despite being a bombastic leader, guided the country through a relatively peaceful, prosperous time and helped calm the country in the wake of President McKinley’s assassination even though he was the youngest President in history. Because of his personality, Roosevelt helped expand American influence and power, and was something like a promoter for the American brand as this country became the great power of the 20th Century. TR’s Progressive shift modernized industry, politics, civil rights, and immediately made the 20th Century seem like an advanced time, even in comparison to the 1890s. Building the Panama Canal and mediating the peace talks between Japan and Russia (which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize) expanded American influence just as much as the Great White Fleet. Where would TR be on this list if he had never made the pledge not to run in 1908? It would have changed a lot of things, and possibly put TR in office as World War I broke out rather than Woodrow Wilson.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: 7 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: 7 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: 4 of 38
1990: Siena Institute: 5 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 6 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 4 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 3 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 5 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 4 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 2 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 5 of 40