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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.


What He Is Like Himself

NOW that by good luck I have after all presented in something like orderly fashion the main facts in Theodore Roosevelt’s career,—of which every one knows more or less, and which he regards as more or less significant, according to his attitude toward the old college professor’s prediction, many years ago, that his students might rate our people’s fitness for self-government by the headway Roosevelt made with his ideals and ambitions—now that we have got so far, I can hear my reader ask: “But about himself; about the man, the friend? You promised to tell us. We want to know.” And so you shall. I am going to tell you now,—at least, I am going to try. Here, a whole week, have I been walking about the garden, upon which winter had laid its rude hand and put all the flowers to sleep; only the wild thyme I brought down from the Berkshire Hills stands green and fragrant, as does the sunny field where I dug it, in my memory ever. A whole week have I walked about among the bare bushes, poking in the dead leaves, trying to think how. Something very learned and grand had come into my head. But how can you analyze your friend? Men’s minds and men’s motives you may analyze, if you care and have a taste that way,—and a pretty mess you will make of it more than half the time. But resolve a sun-beam, or a tear, into its original elements, and what do you get? So much oxygen, perhaps; so much salt—let the chemist tell in his learned phrase; and when all is told your sunbeam and your tear have escaped you. Whatever else you have, them you have not. No, I shall not try that. I shall tell you of him just as I knew him. I like him best that way, anyhow,—just as he is.

But first let me give fair warning: if there be any among my readers still-hunting for special privilege, let him get off right here; for he won’t like him. Whether it be the Trust that has nothing to conceal,—dear me, no!—yet most strenuously objects to the public knowing about its business; the corporation with franchises paying big dividends but no taxes; the labor leader who has stared himself blind upon the dividends, and to whom the pearly gates shall not swing unless they have the union label on them; or the every-day dolt who must have the railroad track between himself and his brother of darker skin, of different faith or tongue or birthplace; who, like the woman of the Four Hundred in Philadelphia, “must be buried in St. Peter’s churchyard because, really, on resurrection day she must rise with her own set”—whichever his own particular folly in this land of no privilege and of an equal chance, and wherever found, he will be against Roosevelt, instinctively and always. He will fight him at the polls and in the convention; he will bet his money against him, and pour it out like water across every party line that held him before, and by the measure of his success we can grade our own grip on the ideal of the Republic. That was what the professor I spoke of meant, and he was right. And so are they, according to their light. Roosevelt is their enemy, the enemy forever of all for which they stand.

Because he stands for fair play; for an even chance to all who would use it for their own and for their country’s good; for a broad Americanism that cares nothing for color, creed, or the wherefrom of the citizen, so that, now he is here, he be an American in heart and soul; an Americanism that reaches down to hard-pan. “Ultimately,” he said at Grant’s Tomb, when Governor of New York,—“ultimately, no nation can be great unless its greatness is laid on foundations of righteousness and decency.” And at Syracuse on Labor Day I saw ten thousand stirred by his words: “If alive to their true interests, rich and poor alike will set their faces like flint against the spirit which seeks personal advantage by over-riding the laws, whether that spirit shows itself in the form of bodily violence by one set of men or in the form of vulpine cunning by another set of men.” These are his professions. I know how they square with his practice, for I have seen the test put to him a hundred times in little things and in great, and never once did he fail to ask the question, if there was any doubt about it, after all was said and done, “Which is right?” And as it was answered, so was the thing done.

His ambition? Yes, he has that. Is it to be President? He would like to sit in the White House, elected by the people, for no man I ever met has so real and deep a belief in the ultimate righteousness of the people, in their wish to do the thing that is right, if it can be shown them. But it is not that. If I know anything of the man, I know this: that he would fight in the ranks to the end of life for the things worth fighting for, rather than reach out a hand to grasp the Presidency, if it were to be had as the price of one of the principles upon which his life has been shaped in the sight of us all. He might, indeed, quarrel with the party of a lifetime, for he would as little surrender his conscience to a multitude of men as to one, and he has said that he does not number party loyalty with the Ten Commandments, firmly as he holds to it to get things done. Party allegiance is not a compelling force with him; he is the compelling force. “I believe very firmly,” he said to the State Bar Association in New York, in 1899, “that I can best render aid to my party by doing all that in me lies to make that party responsive to the needs of the people; and just so far as I work along those lines I have the right to challenge the support of every decent man, no matter what his party may be.” That is his platform, always was. In matters of mere opinion I can conceive of his changing clear around, if he were shown that he was wrong. I should expect it; indeed, I do not see how he could help it. It was ever more important to him to be right, and to do right, than to be logical and consistent.

And that really is his ambition, has been since the day he rose in the Assembly Hall at Albany and denounced the conspirators of his own party and of the other to their faces: to do the right, and to so do it in the sight of his fellow-men that they shall see that it is the right and follow it; that the young, especially, shall make the high and the right choice at the beginning of life that puts ever more urgent questions to the succeeding generations. That is the mainspring and the motive. “Because he thinks he is so much better than all the rest?” I can hear my cynical neighbor ask. No, but because to him life is duty first, always; because it gave him certain advantages of birth, of education, of early associations for which he owes a return to his day and to his people. I wish to God more of us felt like that; for until we do our Republic will be more of a name and of an empty boast than we have any right to let it be. Sometimes, when, in the effort of class privilege to assert itself here as everywhere, the fear comes over me that it will not last, I find comfort in the notion that it has hardly yet begun, and that it cannot be that He in whose wise purpose men must grow through struggling, will let it pass so soon. A hundred years of the Republic, and we are only beginning to understand that what it was meant to mean, and alone can be made to mean, is opportunity; that the mere fact of political freedom is in itself of little account, but can be made of ever so much; that different levels there will be in a democracy as in a monarchy, but not of rank nor, indeed, of wealth, though for a while it may seem so; but according to our grasp of the idea of the responsibilities of citizenship and its duties and standards. There is the cleavage, and his is the highest level who would serve all the rest. Service to his fellow-men: that is the key-note to Roosevelt’s life, as faith in the Republic and love of country are its burning fire. Well did President Eliot, when he bestowed upon him the degree of his Alma Mater, call him a “true type of the sturdy gentleman and high-minded public servant in a democracy.”

There! I freed my mind, anyhow. I was thinking, when I spoke of consistency, of the fellows who mistake stubbornness for principle, and what a beautiful mess they make of it. There came one of that kind to the Board of Health in Brooklyn, and wanted his landlord compelled to put a broken window-pane in. The landlord said it was not in the lease and he would n’t do it. And for two weeks his wife had been sleeping under it, in danger of pneumonia every hour of the night.

“But,” said they, “have you let her sleep there all this time without putting in the pane?”

“Yes, sir!” said he. “Yes, sir! I did it on principle!”

But about himself. You know how he looks. To my mind, he is as handsome a man as I ever saw; and I know I am right, for my wife says so too, and that settles it. Which reminds me of the time I lectured in a New York town with a deaf man in the audience who was no friend of Roosevelt. The chairman introduced me with the statement that he had heard that the Governor called me “the most useful man in New York.” My friend with the ear-trumpet did n’t quite catch it, and was in high dudgeon after the meeting.

“Did n’t I tell you Teddy Roosevelt ain’t got no sense?” he cried. “The idea of calling that man Riis the most beautiful man in New York! Why, he is as plain as can be.”

By handsome I do not mean beautiful, but manly. Stern he may, indeed, appear at times, though to my mind nearly all his portraits do him hideous injustice in that respect. I have seen but two that were wholly himself. One was a pen sketch of him on horseback at the head of his men, climbing some mountain ridge. There he had on his battle face, the dark look I have seen come in the middle of some pleasant chat with gay friends. I knew then that he was alone and that the burden was upon him, and I felt always as if, upon some pretext, any pretext, I would like to get him away where he could be by himself for a while. The other, curiously, was an old campaign poster from the days when he ran for Governor. It hung over my desk till the boys in the office, who used to decorate the volunteers’ slouch-hat with more bows than a Tyrolese swain ever wore to the village fair, made an end of it, to my great grief. For it was the only picture of him I ever saw that had the smile his friends love. There was never another like it. And it is for them only. I have come into a room packed full of people crowding to speak with him, and seen it light up his face as with a ray of sunshine from a leaden sky, and his hand go up in the familiar salute I meet out West nowadays, but nowhere else. Odd how people, even those who should know him well, can misunderstand. “I saw him several times in Colorado,” wrote one who likes him, after his recent Western trip, “and he pleased me very much by his growing tenderness toward men and animals. His chief weakness has always seemed to me his almost cruel strength.” To me he has always seemed as tender as a woman. Perhaps they had been on the hunting-trail together; or on one of his long Washington walks that were the terror of his friends. I am told they lay awake nights, some of them, trembling for fear he might pick them out next.

By contrast there comes to me the recollection of a walk we took together in the woods out at Oyster Bay. It was after I had been sick, and some one had told him that I could not walk very fast, and must not, any more. So I infer; for we had not gone five furlongs at the old clipping gait, he a little ahead, thrashing through the bushes, when he suddenly came back and, taking my arm, walked very slowly, telling me something with great earnestness, to cover up his remorse. I have never anywhere met a man so anxiously considerate of a friend’s weakness as he ever was and is, though happily in this instance there was no need of it. I have been learning to ride these days, and ride hard, to show him, and also to have the fun of going out with him again. I cannot think of anything finer.

It seems to me, when I think back now, that all the time I have known him, with all the burden and care of such a career as his on his shoulders, he was forever planning some kind act toward a friend, carrying him and his concerns with him incessantly amid the crowding of a thousand things. His memory is something prodigious. I happened once to mention to him that when next I came to Washington I would bring my little boy.

“And don’t forget,” I said, “when you see him to ask if he goes regularly to Sunday-school.” To his laughing inquiry I made answer that the lad would occasionally be tempted by the sunshine and some game up by the golf-grounds, whereupon I would caution him to keep his record clear against the day when he would see the President, who, being the boys’ as well as the papas’ President, would naturally ask him if he “went regular.” And of course he must back me up in this; for little boys remember, too. The thing had long since gone out of my head when I brought Vivi to the White House; but not so with him. He took him between his knees and asked him, first thing, if he went to Sunday-school like a good boy; and so the day and my reputation were saved, and the boy made happy; for he had kept his slate clean.

It was at that visit that, after a thorough inspection of the premises, the President asked the lad what he thought of the White House.

“Pretty good,” said he. “But I like better to ride up and down in the elevator at the hotel.” It was his first experience with an elevator, and he made full use of it.

The President considered him thoughtfully a moment. What visions of politicians and delegations passed before his mind’s eye I know not; but it was with almost a half-sigh that he said: “So would I, my boy, sometimes.”

That slouch-hat of his, by the way, at which some folks took umbrage, at the Philadelphia Convention, I don’t believe he gave as much thought to, in all the years he wore it, or one like it, as did those good people in the three or four days of the convention. He did not wear it because the rough-riders did, but because it is his natural head-gear. He began it in Mulberry Street, and he has kept it up ever since. He hates a stovepipe, and so do I; but I thought to honor him especially one day, when I was going traveling with him, by putting on mine; and all I got for it was, when General Greene got into the carriage with a straw hat on, a deep sigh of relief and an “Oh, I am so glad you did n’t come in a top-hat,” with a malicious gleam toward me. Next time I leave it home. Perhaps it was to pay me for being late. He had arranged to pick me up at my home station, when going through to the city; but his train was a full half-hour ahead of time, and who could have fore-seen that? What other President, do you suppose, would have waited fifteen minutes at the depot with his special train while he sent up to the house for me, and then received me with a laugh?

That was characteristic of him, both the waiting and the being ahead of time. It was night, and there was nothing on the road to hinder, so he just slammed through. In that also he is a typical American in the best sense: given a thing to be done, he makes a sure of the way and then goes ahead and does it. “The way to do a thing is to do it,” might be his motto; it certainly is his way. But the man who concludes from that that he runs at it head-long makes the mistake of his life. I know absolutely no man who so carefully weighs all the chances for and against, ever with the one dominating motive in the background—“Is it right?”—to steer him straight. In the Police Department he surprised me over and over again by his quick grasp and mastery of things until then foreign to his experience. He would propose some action and turn it over to me for review because I had been there twenty years to his one; and I would point out reefs I thought he had forgotten. But not he; he had charted them all, thought of every contingency, and done it all in an hour, when I would be poring over the problem for days, perhaps weeks. And when it had all been gone over he would say:

“There! we will do it. It is the best we can do. If it turns out that there is anything wrong, we will do it over again.” But I do not remember that he ever had to.

Mere pride of opinion he has none. No one ever estimated his own powers, his own capacities, more modestly than he. Something I said one day brought this matter up, and few things have touched me as did the humility with which this strong man said: “I know the very ordinary kind of man I am to fill this great office. I know that my ideals are common-place. I can only insist upon them as fundamental, for they are that. Not in the least doing anything great, I can try, and I am trying, to do my duty on the level where I am put and, so far as I can see the way, the whole of it.” And I thought of his talk to the New York Chamber of Commerce on the “homely virtues” as a solvent of our industrial and other problems, and his counsel to every good citizen to be able and willing to “pull his own weight.” He has to pull the weight of all of us along with his own. If these plain sketches help some who do not know him to make out how patiently, how thoughtfully he labors at it, how steadfastly he is on guard, I shall be glad I wrote them.

As I am writing this now, there comes to mind really the finest compliment I ever heard paid him, and quite unintentionally. The lady who said it was rather disappointed, it seemed. She was looking for some great hero in whom to embody all her high ideals, and, said she, “I always wanted to make Roosevelt out that; but, somehow, every time he did something that seemed really great it turned out, upon looking at it closely, that it was only just the right thing to do.” I would not want a finer thing said of me when my work is done. I am glad I thought of it, for I know that he would not, either. And it comes as near as anything could to putting him just right.

Perhaps a good reason why he grasps things so quickly and correctly is that he looks for and tries to get at the underlying principles of them; deals with them on the elementary basis of right and fitness, divested of all the conceit and the flummery which beset so many things that come to the Executive of a great nation. I had gone out to see him at Oyster Bay, heavy with the anxieties of mothers all over the land who had sons soldiering in the Philippines. There was news of fighting every day, but only the names of the killed or wounded officers came by cable. There was a War Department order against sending those of the privates who fell, or who died of cholera; and it resulted that when, say, Company H of the Fifteenth Regiment had been in a battle, every mother who had a boy serving in that command went shivering with fear for six long weeks before the mails brought word whether her boy was among the “thirteen private soldiers” who fell, or not. I had been asked to put the case to the President, and get him to cut the red tape, if possible; but, against expectation, I found a tableful of soldiers and statesmen at lunch, and I saw clearly enough that it would be hard to get the President’s ear long enough.

But, as luck would have it, I was put beside General Young, fine old warrior, whom I had met before, and I told him of what was on my heart. He knew of no such order when he was in the Philippines, and we got into quite a little argument about it, which I purposely dragged out till there was a lull in the talk at the President’s end of the table, and I saw him looking my way. I asked him if he knew of the order.

“What order?” said he; and I told him—told him of the mothers fretting for their boys all over the land. He looked up quickly at Adjutant-General Corbin, who sat right opposite. It was what I wanted. He knew.

“General,” said Mr. Roosevelt, “is there such an order?”

“Yes, Mr. President,” said he; “there is.”

“Why?” President Roosevelt wastes few words when in earnest about anything.

General Corbin explained that it was a measure of economy. The telegraph tolls were heavy. An officer had a code word, just one, to pay for, whereas to send the whole name and place of a private soldier under the Pacific Ocean might easily cost, perhaps, twenty-five dollars. The President heard him out.

“Corbin,” he said, “can you telegraph from here to the Philippines?”

The General thought he might wait till he got to Washington; he was going in an hour.

“No,” said the President; “no, we will not wait. Send the order to have the names telegraphed, now. Those mothers gave the best they had to their country. We will not have them breaking their hearts for twenty-five dollars or for fifty. Save the money somewhere else.”

And he sent one of his rare smiles across the table, that made my heart light, and many another, from Maine to Texas. The order went out from the table, then and there, and, before we had finished our luncheon, was speeding under the sea to the far East.

I was an unintentional listener that day to the instructions Generals Young and Corbin received for their interview with Emperor William; they were about to go abroad. I doubt if ever greeting from the Executive of one great country to the head of another was more informal than that, and, equally, if there ever was a heartier.

“Tell him,” said the President,—“tell the Emperor that I would like to see him ride at the head of his troops. By George, I would! And give him my hearty regards. Some day we shall yet have a spin together.”

I hope they may. Those who know Mr. Roosevelt and have met the Emperor say that in much they are alike: two strong, masterful young men of honest, resolute purpose, and the faith in it that gets things done. But they face different ways: the one toward the past, with its dead rule “by the grace of God”; the other to the light of the new day of the living democracy that in its fullness shall make of the man a king in his own right, by his undimmed manhood, please God.

I am told that the generals carried out their instructions in the spirit in which they were given, to the great delight of the Emperor, who asked General Corbin if he had ever before been in Germany. The General said not in that part of it.

“Which part, then?” asked the Emperor.

“In Cincinnati and St. Louis, your Majesty,” responded the General, and the Emperor laughed till his sides shook. His brother had told him about those cities.

We went home in the same train, and General Young and I sat together in the car. I had been reading the “Sunday-school Times,” and it lay on the opposite seat so that the General could read the title. He regarded it fixedly for a while, then poked it cautiously with the end of his stick, as who should say, “I wonder—now—what—” I read him like a book, fighting-man to the finger-tips that he is, but said nothing until curiosity got the better of him and he asked some question about it. Then I reached out for the paper.

“Oh, yes, General! This is the paper for you. See here,”—and I pointed to a column telling of all the big fighters in the Old Testament, the Maccabees and the rest, with their battles in chronological order, and what they were about. The old warrior’s eyes kindled.

“Well, I never!” he said, and took the paper up with an evident respect that contrasted comically with his gingerly way of before. The General of the Army will forgive me for telling on him. He has my heartiest friendship and regard. I expect to see him yet conduct a Sunday-school on Maccabean lines, and we shall all be glad. For that is what we and the Sunday-school want.

But though ordinarily President Roosevelt is the most democratic of men, he does not lack a full measure of dignity when occasion requires it. The man whom I had seen telling stories of his regiment to a school full of little Italian boys in the Sullivan Street slum, had, a little while after the interview with the generals, to receive a delegation from the French people, and it happened that one of the guests of that day was present. He told me that he never was prouder of the President and of his people than when he saw him meet the distinguished strangers. And so were they. They spoke of it as the honor of a lifetime to be received by President Roosevelt.

It is just the human feeling that levels all differences and makes kin of all who have claim to the brotherhood; searches out and lays hold of the good streak in man wherever it is found. It accounts for the patience I have known him to exercise where no one would have expected it; and it accounts, to my way of thinking, for the friendships that have existed between him and some men as far from his way of thinking in all other respects as one could well imagine. I know. I ever had a soft spot for “Paddy” Divver, with whom I disagreed in all things that touched his public life as fundamentally as that was possible. But there was a mighty good streak in “Paddy,” for all his political ill-doings. As a police judge he came as near doing ideal justice in all matters that had nothing to do with politics as any man who ever sat on the bench, and he was not bothered in his quest by the law half as much. I remember—but no, “Paddy” is dead, and the story shall remain untold. Some would not understand; but I did, for I had in mind the Kadi administering justice in the gate, and this fellow needed that kind if the law was powerless to reach him.

I told the President when, at his recent visit to Ellis Island, he had personally heard the case of a woman detained under the rules, but whom my friend on the police bench would have discharged with a ten-dollar bill in her pocket, that his judgment was almost equal to “Paddy’s,” whereat he laughed in amusement, for our dealings—“Paddy’s” and mine—had been the cause of his poking fun at me before. But when I told him of what befell me in Chicago on a visit there, he said he should presently have to cut my acquaintance, and I was bound to agree with him. I had gone to the ball of the Hon. Bath-house John’s constituents, to see the show; and when their great leader heard of my being from New York, nothing was too good for me. Evidently, he took me for “one of the b’ys,” for when the champagne had opened wide the flood-gates of liberality and companionship, he addressed me confidentially in this wise:

“B’y, the town is yours! Take it in. Go where ye like; do with it what ye like. And if ye run up against trouble—ye know, the b’ys will have their little scrap with the police—come to me for bail—any crime! any crime!”

Say not that the freedom of the city by the lake has not been conferred upon me. It has. Even Mayor Harrison will have to own it.

But this chapter has outrun its space, and I have n’t yet said what I had in mind concerning Theodore Roosevelt. I will drop reminiscences and settle right down to it now.