Story of Theodore Roosevelt - J. W. McSpadden




Apostle of "The Strenuous Life"

We have already mentioned two of the phrases by which Roosevelt came to be identified in the popular mind, "the big stick" and "the square deal." A third phrase no less intimately associated with him was "the strenuous life." It came from a book by this title, which he wrote and which attracted wide attention. Among other things, he said:

"I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life—the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife."

All his life long he was a living example of this doctrine. He had used it as a youth to overcome sickness; and in middle age it became second nature with him. The man's capacity to do things was astounding. Every minute found him active.

Here is the program of a typical day while President: Rises at 7:30; through breakfast at 9:00; opens mail and dictates, 9:00 to 10:00; receives visitors, 10:00; receives callers by appointment, 11:00 to 1:30; luncheon, 1:30 to 2:30; transacts executive business, 2:30 to 4:30; outdoor exercise, 4:30 to 7:30; dinner, 7:30 to 9:00. The evening hours were devoted to reading or quiet study of legislative problems.

Such a program would be exhaust even the most robust constitution, and Roosevelt stood up under it only because he never neglected his outdoor exercise. He enjoyed a lively bout at tennis, and the men who faced him, young military officers or even dignified diplomats like M. Jusserand, the French ambassador, were called the "tennis cabinet."

At times the members of the tennis cabinet would vary the program by taking a long hike across country, and they made it a point of honor never to turn aside at anything which barred their progress—"for instance," says Roosevelt, "swimming Rock Creek or even the Potomac if it came in our way. Of course, under such circumstances, we had to arrange that our return to Washington should be made when it was dark, so that our appearance might scandalize no one."

On more than one occasion on an early spring walk they swam across Rock Creek when it was running ice. They took a chance on this small stream of leaving their clothing on, and running briskly to keep warm. For the Potomac they removed most of their clothes, making a bundle of them high up on their shoulders. M. Jusserand, on one such jaunt, failed to remove his gloves, and the President called his attention to the fact.

"Yes," replied the ambassador, glancing at them. "I think I will leave them on; we might meet ladies!"

To be invited by the President to go on one of these walks was, to the uninitiated, a huge compliment. The favored mortal felt justly inclined to strut. But once accepted, if the visitor were not in the pink of physical condition, such walks were likely to prove a nightmare to him.

One young fellow, a smart army officer, told his experience ruefully. Roosevelt who looked, and was, as hard as nails, grinned at him and said, "Come ahead!" They did not keep to the beaten paths but crossed gulleys, climbed over and under tree-trunks, negotiated barbed-wire fences, went across plowed ground, and finally ended by wading a creek which came up well above their waists. Seeing a bridge not a quarter of a mile away, the young officer ventured to suggest that a less damp route might have been undertaken.

"What difference does it make?" asked the President, with a wicked look in his eye. "It was the shortest route, and a little wetting does no harm."

This was the method by which he chose his secret service men, the husky, young fellows whose duty obliged them to follow their Chief everywhere; and a lively assignment it was. Most of them came to like it. Only the sluggards rebelled, and they did not last long.

Roosevelt saw, with great disapproval, that the army was filled with "arm-chair officers"—men who had been in routine, department life for so long that they had forgotten how to walk or ride. He knew that such officers were valueless in case a war arose, and he believed too deeply in preparedness to overlook it. He suddenly startled officialdom by issuing an executive order that every officer on the active list should prove his fitness for duty by walking fifty miles in three days, or riding one hundred miles in the same length of time.

A tremendous stir followed, and the President was accused of harsh, tyrannical methods. His answer to this was twofold. One cold day in February, in the face of a driving sleet storm, he rode quietly out from the White House stables, accompanied by only one or two others. All day they rode down across Maryland and at its close they had—with one change of horses—a hundred miles chalked up to their credit. He had proved that under adverse conditions it was possible to do in one day what he had allowed for in three.

The other instance was no less typical—this story, by the way, having been told the present writer by one of the participants. Roosevelt sent an informal note around to the War Department stating that he was going out for a little walk the next Saturday afternoon, and that he would be pleased to have any and all commissioned officers then stationed in Washington accompany him. While it was not a command, the officers young and old "felt that they had better go."

A typical Roosevelt stroll it was. He himself led the way, and made a veritable obstacle race of it. At one place in Rock Creek Park there is a little rise surmounted by rocks with a narrow cleft between—a wicked "fat man's misery." Up went Roosevelt like a mountain goat and clambered through. Up went the younger officers one by one, with more or less success. But it was "cruelty to dumb animals" when it came to the stodgy brigadier generals! Some of them never forgot that walk to their dying day.

The lesson while harsh was salutary. Its only moral was, "Keep fit!"

Roosevelt intermingled walking with riding, and was always fond of a good saddle-horse—one with "pep" and go that would take a four-rail fence if necessary. When he first inspected the White House stables he was disgusted. They had some good-looking mounts, sleek, well-groomed animals, but too sleepy to suit him.

"I asked for horses, not rabbits!" he said.

During the indoor days of winter his favorite exercise was boxing. He tried wrestling also, but having cracked two ribs of a young college man who undertook to "take him on," he decided to stick to boxing. His favorite instructor was Mike Donovan. The first time Mike faced him with the gloves, his respect for his opponent's official position prevented him from fighting very hard. He contented himself with countering all of Roosevelt's blows, and when he himself had openings he administered only "love taps." Roosevelt dropped his hands.

"Oh, I say!" he exclaimed, "fight fair!"

"What do you mean?" asked Donovan.

"You know what I mean. You're not half trying."

Thereupon, Donovan put on a little more steam, and was surprised to find that Roosevelt was keeping up with him. Before the end of the bout both men were going their hardest.

Roosevelt's "strenuous life" was by no means limited to physical exercise, however. "A sound body, a sound mind," was his motto, and he saw to it that the latter was constantly nourished. He was fond of reading, liking history and biography especially. His list of well-read authors was wide, ranging from Herodotus and the classical Greek writers to Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle and later dramatists and poets. He was counted one of the most widely read men who ever held public office.

"He knows a little bit about more different things than any man I have ever met," said one college president of him.

When on his hunting trips out West he invariably had a choice volume in his saddle-bags. And during his most crowded days as President he left an open book on his dressing-table for the odd moment's perusal.

Best of all, the whole outdoors was an open book to him. He knew most of the birds by plumage and song. On one of his rambles near his home at Oyster Bay he listed the names of twenty-five or more birds seen that morning, and those marked with a star had been heard singing.

He knew the animals small and large, and once while President engaged in a lively controversy which was amusing to everybody except those immediately concerned. A writer of animal stories who was gifted with a lively imagination was hotly accused by Roosevelt of "nature faking."