By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-Residence
Working at the Presidential Pet Museum a fun job, particularly for a person like me who loves history. One of the best things about the work is the chance to really dig into the presidents’ lives, to better understand the men who have shaped this country for good or for ill.
Of course, some presidents are more interesting than others. How much can you say about Chester A. Arthur? He had horses and some cool facial hair, but that’s about it. His legacy is limited to some civil service reforms that would fit in a footnote in a history textbook. (I anticipate a few angry pro-Arthur emails for that.)
Not so with Theodore Roosevelt. With TR, you have a larger-than-life personality, a man who barreled through life with the exuberance of a dozen lesser men. I would wager that at the mention of his name, most of you probably pictured a barrel-chested and mustachioed man in a cowboy hat waving a big stick and yelling “Bully!” while standing next to a lion he had just killed with his bare hands. Sure, it’s a caricature, but it’s not too far off the mark.
Here was a man so tough, so resilient, that when he was shot in the chest while campaigning as the presidential nominee of the Progressive (or Bull Moose) Party In 1912, he refused medical attention and gave a ninety-minute speech with blood seeping onto his shirt. He began this speech by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” (Meanwhile, if I feel myself getting a hangnail, I’ll be cutting this post short.) I could probably cite that incident as proof enough that you can overcome any obstacle with enough determination and grit, but in fact, Roosevelt was even more remarkable.
When he was a young child, Teddy suffered from debilitating asthma. At night, his sleep was sometimes interrupted with asthmatic attacks so severe that he felt as if he was being smothered to death. Doctors had no cure, and his parents were, as any of us would be, terrified. Young Teddy was certainly frightened, too, but he was determined not to let his fear keep him from doing what he wanted to do, and, oh, there were a lot of things he wanted to do. He taught himself taxidermy and created his own museum using animals he had hunted. He traveled with his family to Europe and Egypt. When he was eleven, he hiked through the Alps with his father, which is no small feat for a person with asthma. He took up boxing to strengthen a body he believed was too weak. This youthful love of adventure and activity carried him the rest of his life, even through that would-be assassin’s bullet.
Yes, the sickly little boy made himself physically strong by sheer force of will. And maybe I could end my rant here and everyone would get the point I’m trying to make, but there’s more to TR’s story than that.
In 1884, what should have been one of Roosevelt’s happiest moments became one of the darkest he ever experienced. Two days after giving birth, to their first daughter, his wife died of kidney failure. The symptoms of her illness had been masked by her pregnancy. That same day, his mother, who was living in the same house, died of typhoid fever. In his diary that evening, he drew a large black X on the page with a brief notation: “The light has left my life forever.” He was 25 years old.
Roosevelt decided to charge forward. He threw himself into public life. In ten years, he was the head of the police commission for New York City, where he worked at ending corruption and increasing standards for the hiring of officers. Seven years after that, he became the President of the United States. His life exemplifies Newton’s law that objects in motion tend to remain in motion. Or, as his friend Henry Adams remarked upon TR’s death in 1919, “He was Pure Act.”
How difficult it is for most of us to act at all! I find myself putting my goals off for two, three, maybe even four years, as lesser ambitions distract me. When it comes to long-term focus, I have the perseverance of a cat watching a laser pointer. I run here, scamper there, and end up pouncing on nothing, Then I do it again.
I’m not alone. As you’ve probably heard, a reported 92% of Americans fail with their New Year’s resolutions. We represent that other Newtonian idea—that objects at rest tend to remain at rest. We get frustrated with the results of our efforts, and we stop. Anything that makes us uncomfortable is avoided. We seek comfort and ease above all else.
This is not good for us or for our community. If we never risk failure, if we never dare to flop, we will never experience real, gratifying success. As Richard Nixon said in his final address to the White House staff in 1974,
We think sometimes when things happen that don’t go the right way; we think that when you don’t pass the bar exam the first time… We think that when someone dear to us dies, we think that when we lose an election, we think that when we suffer a defeat that all is ended. We think, as T.R. said, that the light had left his life forever.
Not true. It is only a beginning, always. The young must know it; the old must know it. It must always sustain us, because the greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes and you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.
I don’t mean to make it sound like we are in full control of our own destinies. After all, Teddy Roosevelt didn’t ask to get shot before he gave that speech. What we are in control of is the way we respond to the forces more powerful than us.
I do not think we need to become, like Roosevelt, Pure Act. In a lot of ways, that’s foolish. If you are shot in the chest, for example. I would encourage you to seek immediate medical attention, even if it means cancelling your plans, no matter how important you think they are. Roosevelt believed in a masculine ideal that does not fit with the way most of us see the world. He believed that bravery in battle was the highest virtue, that war was a good way to test one’s spirits. That Romantic idea died with the First World War, and should have died sooner.
Rather, I would encourage you to learn simply to move forward thoughtfully, with joy, toward your goals, practicing and failing and trying again until you are happy with where you are. It will be stressful. It will not, most often, be fun. You will be battered and bruised. Don’t let go of hope. Keep moving. And when you do accomplish your goals, take a moment to see how far you’ve come. Stand on the peak of that mountain and look at the valley from which you have just climbed. Celebrate. And then push onward.