I’ve lost another close friend…
At least it feels that way. I finished a biography of a great man yesterday. Everytime I read about someone who I truly respect and connect with I start experiencing the same sense of fear when the right side of the book keeps shrinking and the left side grows. I know how every biography ends and when it’s really someone of consequence, I fantasize that the dreaded page will never come.
This guy falls into my top 3 characters I have read so far. What makes him unique from the others is that this one was wealthy as a youngster. I have always felt that it is difficult for truly wealthy and priviliged people to become exceptional, but this man debunked my theory.
I have a hard time connecting with the Washingtons, and the Madisons, who achieve great things but exude an inhuman perfection of character and aversion to risk. I am drawn to the egostistical, charismatic, beligerent and opinionated bordering on dangerous characters. You know, the people who I can relate to. The people like me.
The man who said his father “hesitated whether to tell me something favorable because he did not think a sugar diet was good for me” teaches us that there is no value in building confidence in our children that is not well earned. We need only to watch episodes of American Idol to realize that making our kids feel good has become more important than instilling humility and the ability to reflect upon one’s self realistically. Hurting a child’s feelings is the worst of offenses today. This is why our kids are slower, dimmer, and better looking than any past generation. Don’t worry though, they love themselves.
This man grew up near the top of the metaphorical hill of race relations in the US. He spoke about equality and rights extended to all but failed to reconcile his platform with his personal view of the “lesser races”. What could be considered highly racialistic views today were nearly progressive in this era. He managed to see through almost impenetrable stereotypes and class distinctions and stick with an unpopular position which made him very unpopular in the Racist South of the Democrats. He was nearly ruined for dining with Booker T. Washington.
This man held very new and conflicting ideas about women. Before and during his presidency he prophetically introduced the idea of “race suicide” citing women’s independence and man and woman’s self satisfaction and laziness in a declining birthrate. It is ironic to consider birthrates during this generation and think that he was alarmed 110 years ago, but he was. On the other hand, while extolling the woman’s primary role as mother, he also became the first in the executive to champion the women’s suffrage campaign. Women far and wide from every walk of life dropped their old alliegances like soft apples and became loyal followers for life.
Politically it is complicated to assess this man’s platform and compare it to anything today. If I had to suppose, I would offer that he would be socially very liberal by today’s standards. He was a pro-labor president but you must consider that during this time period only a greedy monster would oppose organized labor. Men were literally working themselves to death a la Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and had I lived during this time I might have recognized the virtues of the bargaining unit. He was agressive when it came to foreign policy. He advocated a moral reform code that would exemplify his muscular christian upbringing that would scare the pants off your next door neighbor, but he did it out of love. He believed that Americans were in danger of becoming soft, weak, dumb, and evil. He introduced the strongest third party the nation has ever seen when he felt the Republican Party was starting to veer off track, and he almost won. Is this not a convenient time to consider this idea?
Personally, he advocated a “strenuous life”. Not just that he intended on living one, but that all American men should. This brought the man home for me. I’ve struggled to put words to my feelings on the man’s role in a world without substantial struggle. This man who predated me by nearly 75 years captured it. Speaking to “all that is most American in the American character” he urged upon the young American soul “not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife.”
He faced a time that we should relate to. A time between catastrophes. The Civil War was over and it seemed that it was time for rejoice and satisfaction. The time to reap the rewards. Much like today so many great generations had sacrificed to allow us to rest and prosper. He realized that when we rest and prosper we decline. We begin to take for granted our blessings, undermine those who gave them to us, and disgrace the strenuous path of those who could only dream of our comforts.
He was brutally hard on his sons to the point where he expected every one of them to come home wounded from The Great War in order to make him proud. Sadly, they all made Dad proud and came home wounded, except one who did not come home. Near the end of his short life while his children were being maimed he mourned for them. While he suffered from gout and rheumatism he told Edith he wanted nothing more than to have the boys home. The impact of his militaristic and roughhouse raising of his boys could be argued in vain without resolution. My view: they lived hard, fast, and proud because of their father.
He issued a warning to his adoring public that men and women today desperately need to hear, urging them not to go into the future “content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders, taking no interest in what goes on beyond them, sunk in scrambling commercialism, heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk.” I would add to his list of shallow preoccupations the life of the three story townhouse, the trophy kid with the hispanic nanny, and the “stop and smell the roses” outlook on life. I would add that pleasure is a weekend relief, but not a life goal. These are my feelings, but I am glad to have them supported by a great President in our history. A hunter, a roughhouser, an egomaniac, a writer, a motivator, and a leader.
Thank you TR, I’m glad I got to know you.
Thank you Kathleen Dalton, a fine historian, for bringing him to life.