His Legacy Was a Series of Remarkable Firsts, Including the Nobel Prize
BY BOB BROWN
President Obama isn’t the first American President to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The first President, as well as the first American, to receive that coveted honor was a one-time member of the Montana Stock Grower’s Association. Theodore Roosevelt was also the first and only President to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Roosevelt was awarded the peace prize for successfully mediating the end to the bloody Russo-Japanese War. He received the Medal of Honor for leading his Rough Rider’s in their hell-for-leather assault on San Juan Hill.
In my opinion Theodore Roosevelt (he disliked the moniker “Teddy”) was the most remarkable American who ever lived. His portrait has been on my office wall for three decades. I have over 60 volumes by him or about him.
He was also the first President to drive a car, pilot a submarine, and fly in an airplane. He still holds the Guinness record for shaking 8,150 hands in a single day. He was the first and only President to box and engage in jujitsu in the presidential mansion, which he named the White House. He was also the author of 33 books and scholarly articles.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first American President to have an African American as his dinner guest in the White House. He was the first to appoint a Jewish cabinet member, and to personally meet a pope. He was the first President to use executive power to establish national monuments, including the Grand Canyon and Lewis and Clark Cavern.* In the face of powerful opposition he expanded land reserved for public use from 43 million to 194 million acres.
He created the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Commerce and the Panama Canal. (“I took the canal zone and let Congress debate, and while the debate goes on the canal does also.”) He was the “trust buster” who courageously broke oil and railroad monopolies. He successfully championed safer and cleaner working conditions and laws for inspections of food and drugs.
In his September speech to the nation on health care, President Obama noted that in his “Bull Moose” Progressive run for the Presidency in 1912, Roosevelt was the first presidential candidate to propose a nationalized system of health care. Had he been elected, with his will and fighting spirit, Roosevelt might have accomplished that goal. The United States might have been the first industrialized democracy to recognize health care as a human right rather than eventually, maybe, the last.
He would not have “molly-coddled” the health insurance monopoly. He knew that a leader can never succeed in anything of consequence by trying to make everyone happy. And as a leader he had the toughness to stand in the public arena and fight for his convictions. Shortly after leaving office he said, “Power undirected by high purpose spells calamity, and high purpose by itself is utterly useless if the will to put it into effect is lacking.”
The great Theodore Rex died in his sleep in 1919, shortly after World War I. Upon receiving the news, Vice President Thomas Marshall observed, “It is well that the grim reaper chose to take Theodore while he was sleeping because if he had been awake there would have been a hell of a battle.”
It is amazing what can be accomplished by a true leader who earns the people’s trust and has the guts to actually fight for them. Theodore Roosevelt could give inspirational speeches. More importantly, he acted on them.
*Transferred into the Montana state park system in 1937.
Bob Brown, former Montana Senate President and Secretary of State, is currently a Senior Fellow at The University of Montana Mansfield Center.