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Bully for You
By Margaret Black

I Rose Like a Rocket: The Political Education of Theodore Roosevelt
By Paul Grondahl
Free Press, 448 pages, $30

‘I rose like a rocket,” crowed Theodore Roosevelt, flushed with exuberant self-congratulation after his first year as a New York state assemblyman. Well, he was only 24, and as given to hyperbole then as later. It’s a more than appropriate title for Paul Grondahl’s entertaining new book, which focuses on that vainglorious neophyte in politics as he transforms into the man who became the nation’s youngest president 19 years later.

Grondahl begins with a flourish, comparing the contending forces of the New York State Legislature with plate tectonics. “It represents an ancient clash of opposing forces: downstate versus upstate, Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal, insurgent versus incumbent, reformer versus party-liner.” The Legislature was also “a den of feral politics,” with Democratic and Republican machines controlling candidates, legislation, appointments and lucrative contracts. Everyone paid the machines, either directly or indirectly. Skinny, bespectacled Harvard graduate Roosevelt met his first challenge at the Assembly in the form of a huge thug named McManus, who’d been told to knock the pipsqueak about a bit. “By God!” said Roosevelt, standing his ground. “If you try anything like that, I’ll kick you, I’ll bite you, I’ll kick you in the balls. I’ll do anything to you—you’d better leave me alone.” And McManus backed off.

Just about everyone knows that Teddy Roosevelt started life as a weak, asthmatic child, and that he escaped a life of invalidism by punishing physical exercise, what he would later epitomize as “the strenuous life.” Grondahl makes horribly real just how sick young Teddy could be, and how frantic his earnest, principled father was. When Teddy insists on boxing himself bloody over and over again, you can see him struggling with the demons that Grondahl lists: “fear of losing control during the terror of ongoing asthma attacks; desire to be accepted by his peers even though his interests were generally solitary pursuits; the desperate need to live up to his father’s stern expectations and the fear of falling short; eagerness to be viewed as rugged and manly even while frightened and insecure.”

The physicality of Roosevelt’s response to the world characterized him throughout his life and won him thousands of supporters. The author shows how when Roosevelt fled personal tragedy in New York to try ranching out West, his unquestionable courage, undaunted persistence, and uncomplaining willingness to take on grueling labor won over the hard men on the frontier. Men such as these, as well as his big-game-hunting Eastern friends, formed the core of his Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War.

Grondahl draws out how “his father’s stern expectations” made Roosevelt equally assiduous in pursuing a moral, ethical, and intellectual life. Perforce, he spent much of his childhood quietly buried in books. Although he probably prided himself more on his attempt at the lightweight boxing title at Harvard, he actually wrote most of his first book there, publishing The Naval War of 1812 shortly after graduation. His fluent ability to write kept his financial boat afloat as time went on, because Roosevelt did not inherit a huge fortune and a goodly portion of what he did inherit froze to death on the Western prairie. He had extremely wealthy friends and the benefits of having grown up rich, but money was frequently a concern, and by the standards of the time his family life was not lavish.

Grondahl’s best work comes in his clear analysis of Roosevelt’s slow political maturation. He’s particularly insightful regarding Roosevelt’s brilliant use of the press, as you might expect of Grondahl, a longtime newspaper reporter. Roosevelt made himself totally accessible, and his flamboyant rhetoric—although nearly all the political language of that era was more outrageous and extreme than today’s—made super copy. But the fickleness of press infatuation comes up as well. The author shows how Roosevelt was at first so deeply committed to certain sorts of reform that he would not countenance any horse-trading whatsoever. And he found political life to be just about as bad as everyone in his social set said it was: “A great many men deteriorate very much morally when they go to Albany,” he noted sourly after his second term.

Over time, he learned to pick his battles, and perhaps more importantly, he learned to look realistically at the actual state of affairs. He came to appeal “across many lines, as a progressive but a Republican, an aristocrat but an antimonopolist, an easterner beloved in the West.” If some of Roosevelt’s statements about blacks or “hyphenated Americans” can infuriate the modern reader, he was also moved by horrendous tenement conditions when he saw them and worked against his political well-being to improve them.

When, in 1900, the New York Republican machine managed to get rid of reforming governor Roosevelt by putting him up as vice president, the national Republican Party chairman, Mark Hanna, who detested Roosevelt just as much, told President McKinley, “Your duty to the country is to live four years from next March.” McKinley lasted less than a year.

Grondahl makes McKinley’s lingering death dramatically real. When after several days McKinley seems to rally, Roosevelt heads off to the Adirondacks, where he is hiking on Mount Marcy when McKinley suddenly takes a turn for the worse and dies. With positively cinematic breathlessness, Grondahl describes Roosevelt’s dangerous race out of the Adirondacks to go take the oath of office, a deed of physical prowess that most appropriately marks the beginning of Roosevelt’s presidency.

I Rose Like a Rocket abounds in colorful characters and marvelous scenes. For years Grondahl has consistently been one of the Albany Times Union’s best writers, and his skill shows here. This book is as richly grounded as his first, Mayor Corning, but it is a tighter book, with all the fat trimmed away. It’s a great read.


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