If you’ve been tearing through Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts, as we have, you already know what a small-time pundit like George Will thinks of Teddy and Franklin and Eleanor. (He attributes to FDR “the hope that complex problems would yield to charisma”; sounds like the Tennessee Valley Authority to me.) Perhaps more contemporaneous (and nuanced) appraisals are in order. Here are ten pieces, ranging over almost seventy years, that The Nation published about the Roosevelts.
“The Week,” May 11, 1893
The announcement that President Cleveland has requested Mr. Roosevelt to retain his place as Civil-Service Commissioner, and that he has consented to do so, will be received with joy by all reformers, and with equal dismay by spoilsmen throughout the country. Mr. Roosevelt has been the moving spirit of the Commission ever since he entered it. He believes not only in the theory of civil service reform, but also in putting it into practice. Throughout the Harrison Administration he pursued the spoilsmen ‘with a sharp stick,’ although they belonged to his own party, and he will not be any easier with them now that he will have to deal with Democrats. Mr. Cleveland would not ask such a Republican to continue on the Commission unless he himself ‘meant business’ in the matter of civil-service reform, as Mr. Roosevelt would not remain unless he had entire confidence in the President’s sincerity.
“President McKinley’s Death,” September 19, 1901
The rational hope with which we wrote last week of the President’s condition was quickly falsified. On Friday, the reaction set in, and on Saturday, in the early morning, he passed away pathetically, without a struggle. Already his successor is at the helm, and the ship of state is on its way to unknown ports….
If President McKinley’s role was opportunism, his successor’s is strenuousness. This doctrine, long preached by Mr. Roosevelt, he was given the chance of his life to put in practice by the bringing on of the Spanish war; and his military prominence won him, by steps needless to enumerate, the place he now occupies. How far strenuousness may carry him, especially in foreign affairs, we shall not venture to predict. Visions of what is possible have mingled with the humane and sympathetic motives for desiring President McKinley’s recovery.
Roosevelt quickened the pace of national life by his own mental and physical speed. His special contribution, however, was not the discovery but the direction of strenuousness. The captains of industry had been strenuous enough. He found a new object for physical and mental energy on the grand scale. More than any other man of his time he made political eminence a prize of the first order by his own unequivocal preference of public service and glory to private opulence and ease…. This alteration of the national psychology was of profound importance. It marked the difference between a nation headed for decadence and a nation entering upon a renaissance; and Roosevelt’s service in bringing it about can hardly be overvalued. Some appraisers of his merits say that his most notable achievement was building the Panama Canal. I should say that his most notable achievement was creating for the nation the atmosphere in which valor and high seriousness live, by clearing the air of the poisonous emanations of ‘superior’ people.