Mae Woods Bell

Mae Woods Bell

Roosevelt was a loving – and tough – father

By Mae Woods Bell
Book Reviewer

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Understanding Theodore Roosevelt’s relationship with his children, especially his youngest son, Quentin, tells us something about the ambitious, blustering, larger-than-life, former president that we might have missed in the myriad biographies on countless bookshelves. In “The Golden Lad” (Pegasus; $26.95); Eric Burns reveals Roosevelt’s more human, more sensitive side as a father.

Quentin was the sixth of the Roosevelt children, and like his father before him, he suffered from a series of ailments, including asthma. The elder Roosevelt recalled his own tough illness-prone childhood at the hands of his father, who demanded his son begin a regimen of strenuous physical activity to overcome his frailty. While it was exhausting, Roosevelt persisted, heeding his father’s words, “It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.” Thus, three generations of Roosevelt men were health conscious.

Body building and exercise became one of Theodore Roosevelt’s fetishes as his body became strong and sturdy. Writes Burns: “In simple terms, his thinking seems to have progressed as follows: Weakness is a danger. Strength provides protection. The greater the strength, the greater the number of dangers that can be thwarted. Ultimately, strength becomes a virtue in itself, and one begins to seek outlets to express it – for the sheer joy of exertion, the pleasure of feeling muscles ripple, whether there is just cause for these outlets or not.”

Burns starts the narrative with Roosevelt wanting the Spanish-American War to begin. He yearned to use those well-developed muscles in combat because war was “a way for society to work together for common ideals.”

“His trigger finger was itchy long before the Spanish-American War was even a glint in America’s eye,” Burns writes. “In 1886, then a New York State assemblyman ... Roosevelt wrote to Secretary of War William C. Endicott ‘offering to try to raise some companies of horse riflemen ... in the event of trouble with Mexico.’ There was no trouble with Mexico, not yet, and the offer seemed to have no purpose than to encourage it.”

Burns moves back and forth throughout the book. Some of the most heartwarming sections take place at Sagamore Hill, the estate loved by Roosevelt because it housed “all things beautiful ... rifles and children.” There, Quentin grew up and emerged as a thoughtful schoolboy and a strong young man, and Burns gives many anecdotes that bring Quentin to life in these pages.

There are sections in which we learn how much Quentin differed from his father and also how they were similar. Roosevelt instilled in his children an obligation to go to war; Quentin decided to join the Army’s fledgling aviation corps under Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker rather than engage in hand-to-hand combat in the trenches of World War I. Unfortunately, flying his plane in a dogfight with two German aircraft, Quentin crashed and died in France. Breaking the news in a letter sent to Kermit at the front, the elder Roosevelt concluded in his characteristic mindset: “It is dreadful that the young should die ... but after all how infinitely better death is than life purchased on unworthy terms.”

Roosevelt’s toughness and leadership of the Rough Riders propelled him from one important government position to another until he was selected as President William McKinley’s vice president. After elevation to president upon McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt became a reformer, broke the power of the railroad and oil trusts, passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, created national parks and forests, built the Panama Canal and was presented the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. He died in 1919, just six months after his favorite son had died in France.

Burns balances Roosevelt’s fabulous achievements against his serious character flaws in this thoughtful and stirring look at one of America’s most colorful and popular presidents and the society and mores of the late-19th and early-20th centuries in which he was such a prominent player.

Eric Burns is a former correspondent for NBC News and the “Today” show. For 10 years, he was the host of Fox News Watch and he has won an Emmy for media criticism. He is author of four previous books, two of which were named “Best of the Best” by the American Library Association. He lives in Westport, Conn.

Mae Woods Bell is the retired director of the Rocky Mount Children’s Museum and the longtime book reviewer for the Rocky Mount Telegram.

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