Feb. 2, 2003: A Conversation with Teddy Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favorite characters in American history. Like Harry Truman, another of my heroes, Teddy Roosevelt had a reputation for speaking his mind. I don’t think they had public opinion polls or media advisers when he was president, but if they did, I doubt it would have made much difference to TR. The man had a lot of great qualities, but subtlety was not one of them.

I would love to talk to Teddy Roosevelt about some of the things going on in the country today. I suspect his observations, some made more than a century ago, would be as appropriate now as when he first uttered them and would remind us that when our teachers say that the study of history is an important and relevant subject, we should listen to them.

DY: Mr. President, a major issue in our country today is the possibility of war with Iraq. What are your thoughts?

TR: “It may be that at some time in the dim future of the race the need for war will vanish, but that time is yet ages distant. As yet no nation can hold its place in the world, or can do any work really worth doing, unless it stands ready to guard its right with an armed hand.”

DY: In the years since you were president, we have had some very evil people on earth. We tried to appease them to no avail and ended up at war. Now we have a nutcase in Iraq capable of doing some very nasty things. Yet, there are people who still advocate appeasement.

TR: “Cowardice in a race, as in an individual, is the unpardonable sin.”

DY: Any advice you would give our current president about whether or not to stay the course on Iraq?

TR: “We need the iron qualities that go with true manhood. We need the positive virtues of resolution, of courage, of indomitable will, of power to do the rough work that must always be done.”

DY: From reading up on your administration, I know you were the scourge of greedy robber barons and crooked politicians. It is hard to believe that we are dealing with very similar people today. Any comments?

TR: “This country has nothing to fear from the crooked man who fails. We put him in jail. It is the crooked man who succeeds that is a threat to the country.”

DY: There are questions about how we are treating our environment today. I know the environment was important to you. Why should we care?

TR: “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”

DY: How do we get our government to understand that?

TR: “The government is us … you and me.”

DY: Our country is putting a great deal of money into public education. What is your philosophy of education?

TR: “To educate a man in mind, and not in morals, is to educate a menace to society.”

DY: On a personal note, sir, I have strong feelings about not hyphenating Americans. My philosophy is that you are either an American, or you are not. Do you agree?

TR: “There is no room for hyphenated Americans. The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”

DY: Finally, Mr. President, we have just been through a horrible tragedy that would have been unimaginable in your day. We lost our space shuttle Columbia and seven brave souls with it. This is not our first space disaster and some wonder if space exploration is too risky.

TR: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

DY: On behalf of all Americans, and especially our history teachers, thank you, Mr. President.