Newt’s World – Episode 178: 5 Days of Christmas Immortals – Day 4: Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. was from an elite New York family. He became a cowboy in the Dakotas and led the Rough Riders to victory. A charismatic politician and lifelong adventurer, he served as 26th President of the United States from 1901-1909. Part of the Immortals leadership series.


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Books:

ARTICLES:

The World of 1898: The Spanish American War – Rough Riders – Library of Congress

T.R. the Rough Rider: Hero of the Spanish American War – National Park Service

Theodore Roosevelt – The White House

Audio Recordings of Theodore Roosevelt – National Park Service

Theodore Roosevelt Speeches – Theodore Roosevelt Association

Theodore Roosevelt and the National Park System – National Park Service

Real Teddy Bear Story – Theodore Roosevelt Association

When Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot, a Speech May Have Saved His Life – History.com

Teddy Roosevelt Once Delivered an 84 Minute Speech After Getting Shot in the Chest – Business Insider

Transcript: 

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Newt Gingrich:

On this episode of Newt’s World. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. Was born in New York City on October 27th, 1858. He was born into a well-to-do family. He was homeschooled and went to Harvard college. He dropped out of Columbia Law School to enter local New York politics. In September 1901 at the age of 42 he became the 26th president of the United States after president William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt was a leader of the progressive movement, and he championed his square deal domestic policies, promising the average citizen fairness, breaking of trusts, regulation of railroads, and pure food and drugs. After leaving office, Roosevelt traveled the world including trips to Africa and South America. He was a lifelong conservationist. He passed away in his sleep at his home, Sagamore Hill, in Cove neck, New York on January 5th, 1919 at the age of 60

Newt Gingrich:

I want to share with you the human whirlwind that was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was amazing, both as an individual and because in some ways he personified the America that was emerging at the beginning of the 20th century. I find him to be one of the most extraordinary American presidents just because of the sheer range that he was capable of doing. He was obviously extraordinarily bright and wrote at a very early age, a guide to birds in New York state. He wrote a history of the naval war of 1812 which is still considered remarkable book, and that by the way, was done at a very early age. I think in his early twenties so here you have this guy who is born relatively weak, had asthma, and really went to work building up his physical strength became ultimately a cowboy, was driven to be successful, to be unique, and while he was doing all of that, he got involved in politics, but it’s fascinating because he didn’t fit any pattern that you could have imagined.

Newt Gingrich:

On the one hand, he was a Roosevelt and therefore in effect part of the aristocracy of that time, the kind of person who went to Harvard, the kind of person who had lots of nice outfits and went to nice events. On the other hand, he was a politician and he was determined to rise in politics. There’s a great line where one of his friends says to him, “how can you go out to these German and Irish bars and be hanging out with those normal working people?” And Roosevelt’s response was simple. He said, “look. Power in this city is in those bars. I want to be part of how decisions are made. Now, you don’t need to go to those bars, but then you’re always going to be on the outside and you always going to come to somebody who’s in the bar to get the decision. I want to be in that room. I want to do that.” And Roosevelt went out at a very early age and began developing a whole series of activities. He was always a reformer. I think it was partly because he’s had this edge to him. On the one hand, he’s sort of a puritan in his toughness and in his desire to fix things and improve things. On the other hand, he loved life so much that he just kind of bubbled over. I mean, you have to think of him almost as a pot on the stove where every day things are coming out of the pot and you have no idea what’s going to happen next. So for example, at one point he becomes the Police Commissioner of New York City, and he decides he’ll actually enforce the law. And the law said that you couldn’t have bars and saloons open on Sunday. So he closed him. Well, people were enraged because he was violating the way in which they had historically operated. And he said, “well, if you want them open, change the law. But as long as I’m the police commissioner, we’re closing them.” At which point of course they fired him because they didn’t want to get involved in this. And he had a certain lack of common sense in that sense that he was so driven that again and again, he would do things that would irritate people. He was very active in the Republican Party and in fact, in the election of 1896, it is Roosevelt and the Mayor of Syracuse, who come up with the best argument against William Jennings Bryan, an argument which was then picked up by William McKinley. And McKinley promptly, when the election’s over and he’s won, gives Roosevelt at the appointment as the number two person in the Navy Department and one weekend the Secretary of the Navy happens to be gone and Roosevelt, on his own hook, sends out a note saying that he wants the American fleet under Dewey, which at that point was sitting in Hong Kong, and he wants them to go to Manila. Now, he had no authority to do that. He just did it. And luckily for us, when the Spanish American war broke out, the American fleet was ready to defeat the Spanish at the Battle of Manila Bay. And Roosevelt was heroic even though he had totally exceeded his authority.

Newt Gingrich:

Before that, his wife who he adored had died. He was very depressed and he went out to the Dakotas, bought a ranch, and became a genuine rancher. Now again, remember this is a guy who starts in life sort of weak, physically, builds himself up, becomes a boxer, becomes a writer, ends up now leaving behind all of his social friends, all of the Harvard connections and is out there ranching and having a great time and recovering from the death of his wife. And a one point actually helps arrest several rustlers. He’s genuinely a man of the West. And that becomes an advantage to him when the war breaks out with Spain because he organizes what were called Colonel Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, a regiment that he pulled together of volunteers. Teddy’s bringing friends of his from the Dakotas who are showing up, Native Americans, cowboys, and the New York Polo Club is sending people because, after all, it’s Theodore Roosevelt. So he is blending together these very elegant Ivy league polo players and these very inelegant cowboys and Native Americans into the rough riders. And they actually ended up getting along very well and end up charging up San Juan Hill. Although technically it wasn’t San Juan Hill, but is in Kettle Hill towards the San Juan Heights. But everybody at the time said it was San Juan Hill. As somebody once said, “if you have to choose between fact and legend print the legend.” So Roosevelt comes home having led this heroic charge up the Hill and he’s a genuine war hero.

Newt Gingrich:

Next, the anticorruption candidate, Roosevelt becomes Governor of New York, then Vice President of the United States. And at the end of this episode I’ll give you an audio sneak peak of chapter one of my new novel, Shakedown.

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Newt Gingrich:

And here’s where it gets interesting. Roosevelt is a reformer, and the New York machine hated him, but they had a problem. They’d had a little bit of corruption, and they were going to lose the next governor’s race and all the patronage and all the contracting power and all the money. And so they needed somebody to be their front man. And so they went to Roosevelt and said, “look, you’re a hero and we want you to run for governor.” And Roosevelt, who always was willing to take the next opportunity that came along, and in that sense he’s a little bit like Winston Churchill in that his life has a continuing series of enormously energetic gambles. So he runs for the governor of New York and he runs with a train which is celebrating the charge up San Juan Hill. He has Rough Riders with him. They have people who can play the bugle. They basically are whipping up the patriotism. If you’re a Patriot, you are for Theodore Roosevelt. And if you just were one of those people who wanted Tammany Hall back with its corruption, then you’re going to vote for the other guy. So he wins. And he is now the governor of the largest state in the country. And that leads to a very different situation because it turns out that Roosevelt really is, as he has always been, a reformer. And so he uses the governorship to start reforming New York state government. Well, the machine is horrified. I mean they elected him to keep power so that they could use the power for their own enrichment. And here he is taking apart their system. So they want to get rid of him. They’re desperate to get him out of the state. And along comes an opportunity for Roosevelt to become the vice presidential nominee.

Newt Gingrich:

And there’s a great story that McKinley’s great advisor, one of the greatest managers of American political history, was not in town the day this decision was made. And he turned and he said when he was told about it, “do you realize there’s only one heartbeat between that damn cowboy in the white house?” And in fact, McKinley was shot and died, and here you are in 1901 with theater Roosevelt as president. Now, you could not possibly, in early 1897 before the Spanish American War, you couldn’t possibly have figured out how four short years later Theodore Roosevelt would end up being president. But he was president, and when he became president, he was the most sophisticated populist to occupy the White House in modern times. For example, he understood that the Associated Press, which at that time was the dominant method of communicating for the news media in the country. The Associated Press, every Sunday night, had a huge hole in what it was covering. There was nothing going on, and yet they had to fill up for the Monday morning papers. So every Sunday afternoon, Roosevelt would issue a statement which would get picked up and given huge coverage because it met the Associated Press’s need to have something. And so Roosevelt began to become much better known than any president since Abraham Lincoln. He was also just an amazingly personable guy. At one point, he’s boxing in the White House and the retina of one of his eyes is detached and he can’t see and he doesn’t want his wife to learn that he had just lost sight in one of his eyes. So he kept boxing, but trying to avoid the guy hitting him in that side of his head. And he would do stuff like this all the time.

Newt Gingrich:

He was an archer, he was a hunter. One of the things that made him amazingly popular was in 1902, he went on a hunting trip out West and there was a bear cub that somebody had tied to a tree so Roosevelt could shoot. And Roosevelt said, “I’m not going to kill a bear cub, are you crazy?” Well, a Brooklyn toy maker decided that he would create a stuffed bear, which at the time was called “Teddy’s Bear.” And then became, of course, a Teddy bear, and it became wildly popular. And so here you have a president who is continuing to be sort of slightly a wild man, but he’s a wild man with a big smile and people love him. He has so much energy. He’s bouncing all over the place. So lots of people get to see him. In 1905 his daughter Alice marries Nicholas Longworth, the Congressman from Ohio, and it was the biggest social event of the decade. Somebody once said of Roosevelt that to truly understand Teddy, you have to recognize he wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. That literally was how Roosevelt operated. It was his whole excitement about life. He wrote constantly. He had published many books, and he had a pretty serious sense of what he believed in and what he was trying to do.

Newt Gingrich:

And he was faced with a huge crisis in 1902 because there was a big coal strike, and it became obvious during the coal strike that the mine owners thought that they were more powerful than the United States Government. And Roosevelt brought them into the White House and he said, “look, here’s the situation. I am the President of the United States. I am prepared to send the US Army in to take over your mines. So unless you want to lose control of your mines, potentially permanently, you’re going to sit down and work out a deal with the strikers. And I just want all of you remember I’m the president, and you’re not.” And it was the first really big imposition of executive power on large businesses in America. And it stunned them. They began also to create a gap between the reform Republicans and the old guard. And the old guard was in favor of the big businesses, and the reformers were in favor of the public interest at large and were willing to take on the big businesses. And Roosevelt clearly was in the group that was in favor of taking on a big business.

Newt Gingrich:

It wasn’t that he was for small things. It’s important to remember that there’ve been several efforts to build a canal across the isthmus both in Nicaragua and in Panama. And actually one of the more fun things was as they were trying to decide whether to go to Nicaragua or to Panama, one of the people who favored Panama convinced the Post Office to issue a series of stamps showing volcanoes going off in Nicaragua. And that was one of the more subtle examples of lobbying because people began to figure out, “well gosh, if they have all those volcanoes, maybe that’s not the right place to put the canal.” However, Panama was owned by Columbia. Columbia had a contract with the French who had failed. There were a number of technical problems digging the canal. And in addition, yellow fever killed the workers at an alarming rate. And in 1903 probably with the encouragement of the United States, there was a rebellion in Panama and the United States happened to have a warship nearby, which happened to block the Columbia Navy from going back to impose order. And therefore it was fair to say that Roosevelt invented Panama in order to build the canal. He then undertook a project which would take until 1914 to complete. And if you’ve ever been to the Panama canal, you realize what a huge engineering achievement this was. It was also a huge public health achievement because in fact, Walter Reed was the medical doctor for the US Army and he discovered how to stop yellow fever. And the result was an enormous improvement in health. So Roosevelt undertakes what is an enormous project and changes history. I mean, the Panama canal has been a major part of world commerce. It’s been a major part of American national security because it allows us to move ships back and forth between the Atlantic and Pacific dramatically faster than if you have to go all the way around America.

Newt Gingrich:

The Russians and the Japanese have been fighting a very, very tough war. The Russians had been losing, but the Japanese were running out of money. And so they were pretty desperate to find a solution. And Roosevelt invited them both to come to New Hampshire to Portsmouth where they had a peace conference in 1904, and Roosevelt got them to sign an agreement ending the war. And in 1906 he got the Nobel Peace Prize. Here’s a, in many ways, a militaristic personality, a guy who cheerfully went off to war in Cuba, a guy who cheerfully sent the Navy off to war in Manila, and yet he is a very, very good diplomat, very successful. And as you can imagine, somewhere between the Panama canal, Teddy’s bear and everything else he was doing, he was wildly popular. And in 1904 and the only time he really had run up to that point nationally, cause he was the vice presidential nominee under McKinley in 1900, but he beat the democratic contender out in Parker 336 to 140 and electoral votes. And the margin was just enormous. I would say Roosevelt may have, at his peak, been the most popular American president since George Washington. The people just really liked him. They thought he personified American nationalism, that his energy has drive.

Newt Gingrich:

He was also daring in 1909 he becomes the first president to ride in a car, which at that period was a fairly daring thing to do. I’ve always liked the story that in 1906 Roosevelt was eating breakfast while he was reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which has a scene in which a worker falls into a vat and becomes sausage. And Roosevelt was halfway through his breakfast sausage as he read this scene, and he promptly sent up a note to create the Food and Drug Administration. Now, I don’t know that that’s totally true, but it’s always struck me as such a wonderfully apocryphal story that it should be true. Roosevelt was an activist in foreign policy. In 1905 he forced the Dominican Republic to install an American economic advisor who’s really, for all intents and purposes, the country’s financial director running it as an economic protectorate. In 1906 he set up a military protectorate in Cuba. He put pressure on Canada in a boundary dispute over Alaska. So again, he’s constantly doing things. Because he loved the outdoors and because he was part of the progressive reform wing of the Republican party, he urged Congress to create the Forest Service so that the government would manage their forest reserves in a professional way. He developed almost five times as much land as all of his predecessors combined. In fact, Roosevelt set aside 194 million acres. By 1907 he has a real diplomatic quarrel because the Japanese government is very angry about anti-Japanese sediment, California, and he works out what was called the gentleman’s agreement in which in effect, we would not pass laws against the Japanese, but the Japanese government would restrict Japanese immigration, so sort of a face saving win-win.

Newt Gingrich:

In 1908, his handpicked successor succeeded him and this was one of the sad moments, if you will, in American politics. William Howard Taft was a remarkable man, physically enormous, and had been a very successful Governor of the Philippines, came from a very successful Cincinnati legal family, would ultimately later in his life become the chief justice of the Supreme court. Taft was a very smart, very sincere guy. Roosevelt thought he would act as Roosevelt’s disciple, and after Taft won in 1908 Roosevelt left the country in order to give Taft the time to be on his own to get things done without Roosevelt looking over his shoulder. The thing that’s fascinating is Roosevelt tours Europe where they’re all thrilled to see him and he’s received as a gigantic celebrity. He goes to Africa where he shoots everything he can and sends it back to the American museum of natural history of the Smithsonian. Then he comes home and he realizes the Taft has in fact fundamentally undermined what Roosevelt was doing, and it’s a fact that Roosevelt really thought the Taft would be his disciple. Taft really came to the conclusion that Roosevelt was wrong, and the Taft actually was part of the traditional wing of the party that did not favor reform. And so Taft was in many ways siding with the old guard against Roosevelt. So Roosevelt decides that he has an obligation to run for president and take on Taft.

Newt Gingrich:

Next, on the campaign trail, Roosevelt survives an assassination attempt, and stay tuned. At the end of this episode, I’ll give you an audio sneak peak of my new novel, Shakedown.

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Newt Gingrich:

This was the very beginning of the period when there were primaries. Most states still pick their delegates in closed systems where the power, the boss, really had control. Where there were primaries, Roosevelt won decisively. Where the people could directly express themselves with their votes, Roosevelt won. But there weren’t enough primaries, and so where there weren’t primaries, William Howard Taft won. Well, Roosevelt wasn’t about to allow the party bosses to cheat him of the nomination. So Roosevelt decides that he has no choice except to run as a third party candidate. And he becomes the most important third party candidate in American history, and in fact gets more votes than William Howard Taft. In the middle of that is a perfectly Rooseveltian moment. He’s out campaigning as a third party, and it was called the Bull Moose Party, and sort of in honor of Roosevelt himself. And on October 14th, 1912 and he’s campaigning in Milwaukee, he’s giving a speech, and he’s shot. Now the fact is that the bullet went through his overcoat, a 50 page manuscript, a steel eyeglass case, and then lodged in his chest. He coughed into his hand. There was no blood. So he had concluded that the bullet did not enter his lung. So he ignored the effort to get him to go to a doctor and finished his speech. Well imagine the electrifying effect of a guy who was that strong, that courageous. His line was, “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” The doctors actually, when they did finally look at him, decided it was safer to leave the bullet in his chest, and it stayed there for the rest of his life. The person who shot him, was John Fleming Shrank. Shrank opposed a sitting president’s ability to seek a third term in office, and he had a bizarre dream where he was advised by the ghost of William McKinley to avenge his death while pointing to a picture of Theodore Roosevelt. Actually in Shrank’s case, the doctors decided he was suffering from quote, “insane delusions, grandiose in character”, declared him insane and he was sentenced to a mental hospital in Wisconsin where he remained until his death. After he loses the presidency in 1912, splitting the Republican vote in such a way that Woodrow Wilson becomes the first democratic president since 1892, Roosevelt then goes off to Brazil. He goes up the Amazon catches several really bad diseases, almost dies. The remarkable story of his entire trip on the Amazon. It’s one of the places where he just pushed his luck and he was getting older. He was sort of a little bit worn down, and then he almost really did have a serious problem and took a long time to recover. When World War One broke out, Roosevelt was very pro-English, really wanted to help the allies, tried to convince Woodrow Wilson to let him serve. Wilson would not do that. His sons did serve in the military, and in fact, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. landed at Normandy in 1944 carrying a cane, wandering around as a Brigadier General helping get people off the beach. So the Roosevelt family tradition continued.

Newt Gingrich:

I think that to really understand Theodore Roosevelt’s importance, you have to go almost to psychology and culture. He came for most Americans to personify a sense of certainty, a sense of can-doism. A sense of optimism. He was adamant that we all are Americans, that he did not want hyphenated people. He didn’t want Greek Americans or Italian Americans or African Americans. He wanted everyone to be an American. He was enormously proud of the country. People, I think, identified with him. They identified with his energy. They identified with his good humor. They identified with his sense of grandiose dreams. He thought big. He thought we were a big country, and he wanted us to do big things. He also wanted people to live a big life, so he pushed people pretty hard to say, get out there and get involved. One of his most stirring statements was about the man in the arena, the person who actually is trying to get the job done and that nobody else outside the arena understands what it’s like to be the man in the arena. I once had the remarkable experience of having Richard Nixon read me that passage, and you could tell that after his resignation from office and trying to rethink and sort of recenter his own life, that Nixon found Roosevelt comforting in the idea that he, Nixon, had also been in the arena. And I think it was this sense for most Americans that Roosevelt was in the arena every day of his life. And in a sense he woke up each morning and tried to figure out where the arena was and he went there, and he carried people with him. And I think that of all the presidents, you can make an argument that no one so captured our imagination between Lincoln and FDR as Theodore Roosevelt did and that he personified a kind of reform republicanism that was very much in favor of national parks, of the scientific management of forests, of concern for conserving animals. While he was a hunter, he was a hunter who wanted to make sure that the species flourished and that every generation had an opportunity to be out in the wilderness. He was also an American nationalist. Part of that probably came because he was a child of the Civil War era and had grown up surrounded by people who fought for the union and took it very, very seriously. Partly because, you know, seeing in his generation, we were now the biggest economy in the world. Roosevelt sponsored the development of the Navy, both as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under McKinley, and then as President. He sent the Great White Fleet around the world. It only had enough money to get halfway around the world and he said, well, Congress has a choice. They can either pass the rest of the money and we’ll bring them home, or they can let the fleet stay in Japan, knowing that of course Congress would collapse and pay for it. But that was typical of Roosevelt, that he would send the modern battle fleet of the United States without congressional approval, using up all the money to get them halfway around the world, and then dare the Congress to not finish it up. And of course, they caved into exactly what he wanted. Roosevelt I think would have been successful in any part of American history because he had the energy, he had the intelligence, he had the drive, he wanted it that badly, and he was really good with people. So on the one hand you have this huge intellect. On the other hand you have this frenzied physical behavior and then you have this guy who just is charming, and all of it comes together. If you get a chance someday to go to his home in Long Island, it’s absolutely worth the visit and you get a flavor of just a guy who jumped up in the morning living life to the fullest, ran all day long, collapsed the end of the day, got enough sleep to jump up the next morning and live life to the fullest. And I think that’s the kind of America that theater Roosevelt hoped we would become. And why I think he really is in many ways an immortal.

Newt Gingrich:

At a time when many Americans are divided, unsure the nature of our country, not certain about the future, there are few presidents who can offer us more hope, more insight, and a greater sense of what being an American, potentially, is all about. And Theodore Roosevelt and that’s why I think it’s particularly useful to look at Teddy’s life, think about what Teddy did, and ask ourselves what is it we can learn from him that could make our future and our children’s future even better?

Newt Gingrich:

You can read more about the life of Teddy Roosevelt on our show page at NewtsWorld.com. Newt’s World is produced by Gingrich360 and iHeart Media. Our executive producer is Debbie Myers and our producer is Garnsey Sloan. The artwork for the show was created by Steve Penley. Thank you to the team at Gingrich360. Please email me with your comments at newt@newtsworld.com. If you’ve been enjoying Newt’s World, I hope you’ll go to Apple podcast and both rate us with five stars and give us a review so others can learn what it’s all about. Thanks for listening to Newt’s World. And now, a special sneak peek of my new novel, Shakedown. Here is Chapter One.

Shakedown Preview:

The old man bent down, tried, but couldn’t slip the envelope under his neighbor’s door. Check the empty hallway, turned and began walking toward the floor’s elevator while pulling a pistol from under his jacket. Press the call button and took a deep breath to calm his nerves. Ding. He tightened his index finger on the handguns trigger, anticipating the opening doors, sucked in another calming breath. No one was inside. Tucked to his hand gun between his belt and watermelon belly, stepped inside. The building’s lobby was empty. The security guard had gone home at 10:00 PM. The condo board didn’t believe it necessary to have him stay longer. They’re Roslyn, Virginia neighborhood was relatively crime-free. The man walked to a wall of mailboxes directly across from the elevator, ran a finger along the tenants’ mailboxes, stopping at the second box in the third column: his neighbors. He inserted the envelope into it from his jacket. He drew a second envelope, which he dropped in the outgoing mail. Behind him, the sound of laughter, a couple entering the building through its double glass doors. The man at the mailboxes noticed that the woman was younger, giggling, holding her male companions arm. Her loud chatter and wobbly walk suggested she was drunk. A Saturday night date, perhaps a one night stand. The condo building was across the Potomac river from the nation’s capital, an inexpensive Uber ride from popular Georgetown pickup bars. The approaching couple appeared harmless. Still. The man returned to the elevator and pushed the call button hoping to board and depart before they reached him. The couple of quickened their pace, the old man reached inside his jacket, resting his hand on his pistol. He noticed that she was wearing a gray wool stocking cap and scarf. He wore a red Washington Nationals baseball cap and the color of his dark blue coat was turned up, difficult to see faces the elevator doors open. The woman straightened, lunged forward, grabbed the old man’s left arm. At the same moment her male accomplice slipped in front of him. A blade before the old man could draw his handgun directly into his heart. One thrust, one twist, no time to cry out. Who would hear? The woman’s steadied him pushed the man’s body forward. He hit the elevator floor hard face first. It’s doors shut.

Newt Gingrich:

I’m Newt Gingrich. This is Newt’s World.

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