If it had been a different time, I’d say Eleanor Roosevelt would probably be the one, but as a woman in the male-dominated political world of the mid-20th Century, Eleanor would had trouble breaking through the glass ceiling that female political leaders are still trying to shatter today.
Several of FDR’s sons had political careers, but they were also scandal-ridden and couldn’t rise to the level of their father or distant cousin. So, the Roosevelt with the best chance would have been Theodore “Ted” Roosevelt, Jr., who was a highly-decorated soldier in both World Wars, New York State Assemblyman, Assistant Secretary of the Navy (like his father and FDR), Governor-General of the Philippines, and Governor of Puerto Rico. Ted Roosevelt was also the Republican candidate for Governor of New York in 1924, but lost the election during a nasty campaign where he faced attacks from Franklin and Eleanor. Ted’s military career could have helped him in future elections, but he died young (he was only 56) while serving during World War II.
When he won the 1904 election, TR said that he wouldn’t run again, and he instantly regretted it. Why did he do it? He probably got caught up in his victory and believed that the honorable thing to do was to say he’d stick to George Washington’s two-term tradition. Technically, Roosevelt was elected to only one term of his own (1905-1909), but since President McKinley was assassinated so soon into his own second term, Roosevelt’s succession felt like a full term. That’s the only reason that we can think of for why he refused to run in 1908; everyone has been scratching their head since he made the statement. As the second episode of The Roosevelts noted, when he made the statement, Alice Roosevelt cringed because she knew it was a mistake. It haunted him for the rest of his life because he loved being President and could probably stayed in office for at least two more terms. It especially haunted him once World War I rolled around and he grew disgusted by a lack of American preparation and the foreign policy of the Administration of President Wilson and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.
I don’t know about you, but beginning on tonight I’ll be spending every night of the next week glued to PBS while watching the latest documentary from Ken Burns and Florentine Films: "The Roosevelts".
Focusing on the three most significant and impactful members of one of America’s great political dynasties — Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Eleanor Roosevelt — "The Roosevelts" is a seven-part, 14-hour-long documentary, and I can’t imagine it being a disappointment to history-lovers.
Here’s the schedule for "The Roosevelts" on your local PBS affiliate. Encore performances of each episode immediately follow the new episodes each night. The schedule below is for Pacific Daylight Time (PDT), so be sure to check your local listings for the air time and PBS affiliate in your area:
•Get Action (1858-1901): Sunday, September 14th, 8:00 PM
•In the Arena (1901-1910): Monday, September 15th, 8:00 PM
•The Fire of Life (1910-1916): Tuesday, September 16th, 8:00 PM
•The Storm (1920-1933): Wednesday, September 17th, 8:00 PM
•The Rising Road (1933-1939): Thursday, September 18th, 8:00 PM
•The Common Cause (1939-1944): Friday, September 19th, 8:00 PM
•A Strong and Active Faith (1944-1962): Saturday, September 20th, 8:00 PM
In August 1876, 48-year-old James Roosevelt was absolutely devastated when his 45-year-old first wife, Rebecca, suffered a massive heart attack and died at their home in Hyde Park, New York. James mourned Rebecca’s death for nearly three years before deciding to try to end his loneliness and attempt to fill the void left by Rebecca’s passing. The widower — now north of 50 years old — even had a a particular woman in mind, and she happened to be a distant cousin. James, a member of the Hudson Valley branch of the Roosevelt family, began visiting the Long Island branch of the Roosevelt family, hoping to win the interest of 23-year-old Anna Roosevelt — better known as “Bamie” — Theodore Roosevelt’s older sister.
James’s efforts were unsuccessful. Bamie was not interested. However, his visits to Long Island were not entirely fruitless. The mother of Theodore and Bamie, Mittie, felt sorry for James and decided to play matchmaker. At a dinner party that Mittie hosted, she introduced James to 26-year-old Sara Delano and the two quickly hit it off. They married on October 7, 1880, and on January 30, 1882, Sara gave birth to their only child, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the future President of the United States.
When he was 23 years old, Franklin D. Roosevelt did what his father was unable to do years earlier — he joined the Hudson Valley Roosevelts and the Long Island Roosevelts by marriage. On March 17, 1905, Franklin married Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, the niece of Bamie and Theodore. Since Eleanor’s father had died in 1894, the bride was escorted down the aisle and given away by her uncle Theodore, who just happened to be President of the United States at the time. At the wedding, the first President Roosevelt congratulated the future President Roosevelt on the marriage between the two distant cousins by telling FDR “Well, Franklin, there’s nothing like keeping the name in the family.”
No, I haven’t read The Alienist (BOOK | KINDLE). I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but that’s solely because I simply don’t have enough time to read all of the non-fiction books that I want and need to read, so it’s hard to squeeze in a genre that isn’t at the top of my list. The premise of the book sounds interesting, though, set during Theodore Roosevelt’s time as Police Commissioner in New York City.
There is a great non-fiction book on that subject and era, however, that I would highly recommend: Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York by Richard Zacks (BOOK | KINDLE). Anyone interested on TR’s time as NYC’s Police Commissioner (or those of you who might have read the The Alienist and found the idea to be fascinating) should check out Island of Vice.
Stoddard was very, very close to Theodore Roosevelt. People today frequently talk about how certain media members are too cozy with certain political officials or way too easy on them. Well, Henry L. Stoddard was basically TR’s mouthpiece after leaving office. If TR wanted a message sent or a story written, Stoddard was the vessel through which that message traveled. Stoddard published As I Knew Them during the Coolidge Administration (around 1926 or 1927, I think), and with Roosevelt dead, Stoddard didn’t hesitate to take it upon himself to try to shape TR’s legacy and make it look like Roosevelt was drafted into the 1912 Presidential campaign, or that TR had to be dragged kicking-and-screaming into a fight for the Republican nomination in 1912 against President Taft.
If that was true, Theodore Roosevelt would have happily went home to Sagamore Hill when his challenge of Taft at the 1912 Republican National Convention failed, and supported his party’s candidate for the re-election as President — the incumbent President that TR had hand-picked to succeed him. Instead, when Taft walked out of the 1912 Republican National Convention with the GOP nomination, Roosevelt and many high-level Progressive Republicans (including Henry L. Stoddard) bolted from the party and formed their Progressive/Bull Moose Party and ran for President anyway, ensuring a split in the traditional Republican vote and virtually guaranteeing the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, a victory.
Theodore Roosevelt regretted his pledge that he would not seek re-election in 1908 as soon as he made that declaration in 1904. He felt strongly that he couldn’t go back on his word about 1908 and he positioned Taft to succeed him, but he hovered over the Taft Presidency like a vulture for most of Taft’s term. After Taft was inaugurated, TR went on an African safari, so the fact that he was out of the country gave President Taft some breathing room, but once TR returned, he set his eyes on the Presidency again for the 1912 election. Roosevelt probably had his eyes on the 1912 election since 1904 and he probably should have just gone back on his 1904 pledge because he really hurt Taft and the Republican Party with what happened in 1912. Taft wasn’t a great President, but he deserved better, especially since he had always remained so loyal to Roosevelt and turned down several appointments to his dream job — the Supreme Court — to follow through on positions that Roosevelt had appointed him to within his Administration. And despite the fact that Taft deserved better, the biggest disappointment is that Roosevelt probably would have been re-elected in 1908 and again in 1912 and probably as long as he wanted to run, and he certainly would have done a better job than Taft and Wilson from 1909-1921.
Theodore Roosevelt stepped aside in 1908 because immediately after winning the 1904 election, he announced that he wouldn’t run for President in ‘08. It was one of those situations where he probably wanted to grab the words out of the air and take them back as he was saying them. TR loved being President and he regretted his 1904 declaration to not run in 1908 for the rest of his life. But Roosevelt also strongly believed that a person’s word is their honor and he couldn’t bring himself to break the promise he made in 1904, even if the electorate would have not only forgiven him for it, but would have preferred that he run again.
TR definitely would have won in 1908, and if he had been re-elected that year, he would have probably implemented a progressive agenda and neuter the basis for Woodrow Wilson’s successful 1912 campaign for the Presidency. Plus, Roosevelt wouldn’t have had to torpedo poor William Howard Taft and split the Republican Party, which likely would have helped him win re-election again in 1912 because the electoral landscape would have been very different. TR probably could have been elected again-and-again if he had run in 1908 and held on to the job. Roosevelt was still popular and even though he kept his promise in 1908, many Republicans urged him to reconsider — including Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, Taft. Unfortunately for TR, keeping his promise in 1908 complicated his political future, especially because of the break with establishment Republicans and President Taft.
As it was, TR had a remarkable showing in 1912 considering his party split into separate factions and he had to run as a third-party candidate for a party that was basically just thrown together at the last minute when Taft was renominated by the GOP. TR didn’t run in 1916 because he still had to heal some wounds within the Republican Party and wanted to show solidarity by staying out of that race and supporting the GOP nominee, Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes lost that 1916 race to Wilson with one of the narrowest Electoral College margins in American history (Wilson 277, Hughes 254), so even with the lingering intraparty bad blood, Roosevelt probably could have won the 1916 election. He was not going to sit out the 1920 election and he was the clear frontrunner for 1920 basically from Election Day 1916. Roosevelt would have won the 1920 election — and won big considering the fact that the comparatively unknown (and exceedingly unqualified) Warren G. Harding ended up winning over 400 Electoral votes.
Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, and that shook up every projection of the 1920 Presidential election. We mention Roosevelt’s popularity as one of the reasons he could have been elected President on several occasions, but another important factor was his age. When TR assumed the Presidency upon the assassination of President McKinley, he was just 42 years, 322 days old; he was the youngest President in history. He’s still the youngest President in history. In fact, Roosevelt was younger when he LEFT office after 7 1/2 years as President (50 years, 128 days old) than most Presidents have been upon their inauguration! TR was 60 years, 71 days old when he died, meaning TEN Presidents were older on the day of their inauguration than Roosevelt was on the day that he died.
I imagine that you’re probably right and that Roosevelt’s health — like LBJ;s — would have benefited from TR staying active and engaged through the important work that he was doing everyday. There are a couple of differences, though. Roosevelt remained a lot more active than LBJ did after leaving office. TR was very involved in politics nationally and in New York; he continued his amazingly prolific output as a writer; he dedicated significant amounts of time and energy on his expeditions as a naturalist and hunter; and let’s not forget that he actually did run for President again (and was so active during that campaign that he was shot in the chest in an assassination attempt and then gave an hour-long speech before heading to the hospital). LBJ let himself go in a way, but TR couldn’t stop going full-steam ahead on multiple projects.
But in Theodore Roosevelt’s case, that active and adventurous lifestyle probably contributed to his death. In 1914, TR spent nearly eight months on a scientific expedition in Brazil exploring a destination so remote that it was called the River of Doubt since few explorers had ever successfully reached it (Brazil later renamed it “Rio Roosevelt” in TR’s honor). During the Brazilian expedition, Roosevelt suffered a nasty cut on his leg that became so infected that there were worries it might have to be amputated in the field. Even more worrisome was the fact that Roosevelt was stricken with malaria so severe that he was hallucinating and had a dangerously high fever which reached 106 degrees. Roosevelt was convinced that he was dying and urged the other members of his expedition, which included his son, Kermit, to carry on without him because he worried that he would hold the party back and expose all of them to further danger. The rest of the expedition refused and eventually got Roosevelt out of the Amazon and back home to New York.
TR had recurring bouts of malaria for the rest of his life and never fully recovered from that or the serious infection which nearly cost him his leg. Roosevelt was famously energetic and physically active — his exercise regiments in the White House often included boxing, wrestling, and jiujitsu (TR basically the first American mixed martial artist). But he was weakened by the illnesses from Brazil and was hospitalized for weeks at a time when he had relapses, even though he was not quite 60 years old. Roosevelt still had his eye on a run for the White House in 1920 despite his health problems, but he really began to decline rapidly after July 14, 1918. All four of his sons saw combat in World War I and made their father immensely proud; his three oldest sons, Theodore Jr., Kermit, and Archibald had been wounded in action. But on July 14th, the former President’s youngest son, 20-year-old Quentin Roosevelt, a fighter pilot in the early American Army Air Force was shot down by a German fighter in a dogfight over France.
Theodore Roosevelt had spent his life seeking military glory and praising the heroic action of “the man in the arena”, but when his son was killed in action, the horror of war truly came home for him. Roosevelt was devastated by Quentin’s death and his already-declining health seemed to fail even more quickly. The chronic health problems stemming from the expedition in Brazil, constant physical pain from a life filled with dynamic exercise of his body and mind, and a broken heart from the death of his youngest son sapped him of his strength and stripped him of two things that Theodore Roosevelt always had in abundance — endless energy and iron will. TR was only 60 years old when he died, but he was the oldest 60-year-old man who had ever lived.
Does the President have to be dead? Because I was always a big fan of President Clinton’s dog, Buddy, who passed away not too long after Clinton left the White House.
Theodore Roosevelt’s menagerie was pretty impressive, too, and I think that it should be a misdemeanor if any conversation about Presidents and their pets fails to include Calvin Coolidge’s raccoon, Rebecca. Yes, you read that sentence correctly: President Coolidge had a pet raccoon named Rebecca. Seeing our more recent Presidents walking their dogs around the White House grounds is a familiar sight to us today, but if we had been around during the Coolidge Administration, we probably would have seen “Silent Cal” roaming the halls of the White House with Rebecca the raccoon hitching a ride by hugging the President’s neck.
(Incidentally, there is a fantastic website which focuses solely on Presidents and their pets — the Presidential Pet Museum! The website is a fun virtual destination for the history and stories of Presidential pets, but the curators are also in the process of building an actual Presidential Pet Museum in Virginia which is slated to open sometime in 2015.)
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
Political Party: Republican
State Represented: New York
Term: September 14, 1901-March 4, 1901 (Assumed the office upon the death of William McKinley)
Age at Inauguration: 42 years, 322 days
Administration: 29th (Completed the term of President McKinley) and 30th
Congresses: 57th, 58th, 59th, and 60th
Vice President: Charles Warren Fairbanks (1905-1909)
Died: January 6, 1919, Sagamore Hill estate, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York
Buried: Young’s Memorial Cemetery, Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York
2012 Dead Presidents Ranking: 5 of 43 [↓1]
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, which would have been good for the war effort and might have even improved his already-impressive position in the rankings..
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