Sunday, February 14, 2021

Enjoying the Presidency

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919)
From Theodore Roosevelt: Letters & Speeches

Left: Quentin Roosevelt and Roswell Pinckney seated on the White House steps, 1902. Roswell was the son of White House Steward Henry Pinckney. Both boys were members of the White House Gang (under the names Q and Pinky), as was Charlie Taft (Taffy), the son of Secretary of War William Howard Taft. President Roosevelt was an honorary member. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952), courtesy of Library of Congress. Right: Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, posing with one of the Roosevelts’ many pets, c. 1904. Photographer unknown. Library of Congress.
“The President seems to get whole heaps of fun out of the Presidency,” a visitor to the White House remarked months after William McKinley’s assassination unexpectedly elevated Theodore Roosevelt to the office.

It was a recurring theme in reports and memoirs that came out of the Roosevelt administration. Amid the meetings, the arguments, the disappointments, the calamities, and the triumphs, the Roosevelts and their six children were having heaps of fun, and the gossip surrounding their adventures made front-page news for eight years and beyond. “After all, life is lovely here,” the President wrote to his oldest son, Ted. “The country is beautiful, and I do not think that any two people ever got more enjoyment out of the White House than Mother and I. We love the house itself, without and within, for its associations, for its stillness and its simplicity. We love the garden. And we like Washington.” Toward the end of Roosevelt’s tenure, the journalist William Bayard Hale (remembered today for being a German propaganda agent during the First World War) spent a week with Roosevelt and wrote an article for The Washington Post filled with his impressions of the goings-on in the White House:
He is by nature severe—he is severe with himself—and he is masterful; but he has learned to find recreation in the indulgence of a sense of the ridiculous, and he has grown kindlier.

For the President is a joker, and (what many jokers are not) a humourist. He is always looking for fun—and always finding it. He likes it rather more than he does a fight—but that’s fun too. You have to remember, then, two things to see the picture: a room filled with constant good-humour, breaking literally every five minutes into a roar of laughter—and a neck of steel.
Roosevelt’s practical jokes and his escapades with the children sometimes got as much press as his skirmishes with diplomats and politicians. All too often, there was overlap between the two spheres. He wrote to his son Archie, away at school, about an otherwise humdrum workday livened up by his youngest boy, Kermit, who arrived in the White House with a large king snake and two smaller ones:
I was discussing certain matters with the Attorney-General [Charles Joseph Bonaparte] at the time, and the snakes were eagerly deposited in my lap. The king snake, by the way, although most friendly with Quentin, had just been making a resolute effort to devour one of the smaller snakes. As Quentin and his menagerie were an interruption to my interview with the Department of Justice, I suggested that he go into the next room, where four Congressmen were drearily waiting until I should be at leisure. I thought that he and his snakes would probably enliven their waiting time. He at once fell in with the suggestion and rushed up to the Congressmen with the assurance that he would there find kindred spirits. They at first thought the snakes were wooden ones, and there was some perceptible recoil when they realized that they were alive. Then the king snake went up Quentin's sleeve—he was three or four feet long—and we hesitated to drag him back because his scales rendered that difficult. The last I saw of Quentin, one Congressman was gingerly helping him off with his jacket, so as to let the snake crawl out of the upper end of the sleeve.
Snakes kept popping up in unexpected places. Shortly after Roosevelt’s party nomination to a second term, he gave a speech to an outdoor gathering of Republican dignitaries in New York. His daughter Alice, twenty years old at the time, milled around with the guests, many of whom soon noticed Emily Spinach, her pet green garter snake, poking its head out of her sleeve. In addition to snakes, the Roosevelt menageries at both the White House and at Sagamore Hill, their summer home in New York, included several dogs and cats, horses, two ponies, a one-legged rooster, Peter the rabbit, Jonathan Edwards the bear, Mame the pig, Josiah the badger, Bill the lizard (a horned toad occasionally spotted in the honeysuckles outside the White House), innumerable guinea pigs, a parrot, and a macaw. Many of the animals would accompany the family when they traveled between the two homes.

Perhaps the most infamous incident occurred when Pete, either a bulldog or bull terrier—it’s not clear from the reports—chased the French ambassador Jean Jules Jusserand (who had become one of Roosevelt’s closest friends) through the White House grounds and up a tree, ripping the seat of his pants in the process. For some reason, the story didn’t get much coverage until Pete was allowed back to the White House after a year-and-a-half’s exile. When the dog escaped the grounds one day during the summer of 1907, the city half-jokingly went on high alert. He was found a day later and shepherded back home by a wary captor, but two weeks later Pete attacked the leg of a telegraph lineman and was re-banished to Sagamore Hill. Before an audience a few years later, Jusserand recalled his close escape, which several newspapers had improbably inflated into a diplomatic conflagration, and jokingly denounced the “canard” that he had had “trouble with one of the White House residents,” adding that “Pete is a gentleman” defamed by “calumniators of a noble bulldog.”

Of the Roosevelt children, Quentin most often attracted the spotlight, particularly when his three brothers were away at boarding school. With Charlie Taft, Secretary of War William Howard Taft’s son, Quentin headed up the White House Gang, a group of local boys that held meetings in the attic. They were very much supported by the President, an “honorary member” who became the “Supreme Commander” when the boys got too far out of line and who often participated in their pillow fights and other shenanigans. (His wife Edith understandably referred to the President as her “seventh child.”) To relieve the stress of his job, Roosevelt loved having them around for sleepovers, although the boys were occasional sources of serious mischief. One typical night was a “continuous rough-house,” during which (as Roosevelt reported to Archie) the Supreme Commander had to interfere to “stop an exquisite jest of Quentin's, which consisted in procuring sulphureted hydrogen to be used on the other boys when they got into bed.” Reporters would bother Quentin for gossip about the President and the household antics; one time, to the delight of his father, the boy wearily responded, “I see him sometimes; but I know nothing of his family life.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s letters are filled with his family’s exploits and monkeyshines, as well as evidence of his obvious love of the job. For our Story of the Week selection, we present two letters from either end of his presidency. The first letter, describing his enjoyment of his responsibilities after the first year, was sent to Maria Longworth Storer. She and her husband, both friends of President McKinley, had helped secure Roosevelt’s appointment as assistant secretary of the navy in 1897; her nephew, Nicholas Longworth, would marry Alice Roosevelt in 1906. The second letter, from the last year of his presidency, is a report to his son Archie concerning the White House Gang’s latest spot of trouble—an episode guaranteed to make art curators cringe.

Notes: In the first letter, Roosevelt thanks Storer for the gift of a portrait in his Rough Rider uniform painted by German artist Fedor Encke, which had been done at her instigation. During his presidency, Roosevelt often consulted Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890), a monumental ten-volume work coauthored by Lincoln’s personal secretaries John Hay and John G. Nicolay.

Also in the first letter is a noteworthy paragraph describing Roosevelt’s early and very much mistaken impression of King Leopold of Belgium’s reign of the Congo State—a rosy opinion reinforced among the world’s leaders by a well-oiled publicity machine defending Leopold’s feudal (and privately owned) monopoly of the rubber trade in the region. As the horrific killings, maimings, and enslavement of Africans in the Congo were more widely exposed, largely by British journalist E. D. Morel, Roosevelt initially expressed a desire to do something but could not “see how we can interfere.” After several meetings with Morel, Mark Twain, and others, however, he formed an alliance with the British government in December 1906 to force Leopold to relinquish control of the region—a pivotal if belated act that resulted in the transfer of the Congo State from Leopold to the Belgium government in 1908.

Quentin Roosevelt served in the army as a pilot during World War I and on July 14, 1918, was shot down over France—the only child of a U.S. president ever to be killed in combat. The event and its aftermath are described in “A Very Sad Thing,” a previous Story of the Week selection.

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