Only four presidents' faces look down from the South Dakota mountainside upon America. Washington Jefferson, and Lincoln were probably pretty obvious choices at the time. The fourth face may perhaps seem less automatically obvious, the 26th (and youngest) President, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), President of the United States 1901-1909. TR's majestic presence on Mount Rushmore reflects the monumental impact his presidency had upon a changing country at the turn of the 20th century as well as the important part the American West played in forming him into the man and the president that he became. And, if Mount Rushmore were insufficient fame, TR is now the star of a two-night History Channel series, based upon historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s New York Times bestseller, Leadership: In Turbulent Times.
The History Channel describes the program as "a rich, panoramic portrait of the first modern President of the United States – Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of social justice, a passionate conservationist and the self-proclaimed “bull moose” who once delivered an 84-minute speech bleeding from the chest after being shot in a failed assassination attempt." There is so much to unpack in that description - "the first modern President," "a champion of social justice" (in the turn-of-the-20th-century Progressive-movement sense), "a passionate conservationist," who among other things gave us the National Parks, and the self-proclaimed “bull moose,” a reference to his outsized, energetic, engaged personality, which is widely and rightly remembered, both positively and negatively.
There are at least two lenses through which to view TR. The first, which obviously accounted for much of his popularity and still resonates on our personality obsessed celebrity culture today, is how larger-than-life personality, which he aggressively cultivated in part to overcome his physical weakness as a child and in part to overcome his personal experiences of familial loss and sorrow. Unlike so many modern celebrities, TR was the real thing - a patrician cowboy, who translated his outsized and extroverted personality into a force for making the American Dream a reality for more people than ever before and began the gradual 20th-century process of moving toward greater justice and equality in American life. The second, of course, is the public policy lens, the enormous transformation of the role of government in the United States, in which he played such a substantial part in making the federal government much more involved in ordinary people's lives and expectations, which his "Square Deal" came to personify, and made the presidency as JFK would later call it the center of action, as well as commitment to making the hitherto largely isolationist U.S. a Great Power on the world stage.
More than a century later, we as a nation still seem to be struggling with what those transformations mean and how both to reinvigorate the progressive spirit of TR's "Square Deal" and to maintain and adapt our increasingly complicated role in the wider world.