Teddy Roosevelt–and Oscar Wilde?

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Today’s excerpt from Delancey Place reminds us that political  image-making and remaking long preceded today’s sound-bitten politicians. And it recalls the words of a character in a Western movie I bet you can’t name: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s what they did for Teddy Roosevelt. (Answer at bottom of page.)


In  today’s excerpt – Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, a New Yorker born to extraordinary wealth, was the first master of the political imagery made possible by the new mediums of photography and mass produced books. He used this skill adroitly in his rise to be America’s 26th president:

“Teddy was an oddity in nineteenth-century Albany. Politics at that time was a game played by beer- and whiskey-drinking men, not aristocrats. To New York’s political press and players, Teddy was a shrimp-size dandy, dressed in tight-fitting, tailor-made suits, a rich daddy’s boy who read books and collected butterflies. Teddy made a bad first impression when he appeared on the assembly floor dressed in a purple satin suit, speaking in a high-pitched, Harvard-tinged voice. The other assemblymen took one look at the rich kid and laughed.

“In 1880s Albany, it would have been acceptable to be wanting in areas of intelligence or legislative ability. But being seen as effeminate was a death sentence for an aspiring politician. This was, after all, forty years before American women were even allowed to vote. Roosevelt’s assembly colleagues hung the demeaning nickname ‘Oscar Wilde’ on him, a mocking reference to the disgraced British homosexual. One newspaper went further, speculating whether Theodore was ‘given to sucking the knob of an ivory cane.’

“During the years 1884 to 1901 – from the time young Teddy thought of how to reform his effeminate image to when he became a manly man president – William Cody’s extravaganza Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was the leading cultural sensation in the United States.. … Recognizing that a frontier adventure of his own could remedy his wimpish reputation, Roosevelt galloped west, following Buffalo Bill’s tracks.

Thus began one of America’s great political makeovers. After returning to Manhattan in 1884, Teddy boasted to the New York Tribune: ‘It would electrify some of my friends who have accused me of presenting the kid-glove element in politics if they could see me galloping over the plains, day in and day out, clad in a buck-skin shirt and leather chaparajos, with a big sombrero on my head.’ Wrote Roosevelt, ‘For a number of years I spent most of my time on the frontier, and lived and worked like any other frontiersman. … We guarded our herds of branded cattle and shaggy horses, hunted bear, bison, elk, and deer, established civil government, and put down evil-doers, white and red … exactly as did the pioneers.’ …

“In fact, Roosevelt had commuted west aboard deluxe Pullman cars, staying for short periods of time to check on his investments and gather material for his books. Ranchman Teddy was to Theodore Roosevelt what Buffalo Bill was to William Cody: a spectacular fiction concocted with an audience in mind.
[In 1885], Teddy published Hunting Trips of a Ranchman. Three years later, he published Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail. Both books were action packed, beautifully illustrated adventure tales about the ‘real’ West. …

“Until his death, Teddy would repeat these mythical accounts of his Western adventures, passing them along as fact. But despite his claims to the contrary, Roosevelt spent the majority of his ‘Western years’ in Manhattan. Notes John Milton Cooper Jr. in The Warrior and the Priest, ‘His commitment to western ways was neither permanent nor deep. Between the summers of 1884 and 1886 he spent a total of fifteen months on his ranch. He did not stay for an entire winter in either year; his longest stretch there came between March and July 1886. The rest of the time he shuttled back and forth to the East Coast.’…

“Teddy’s ranches went bust within two years and he finally abandoned the West. By the end of 1886, half his inheritance was gone. Teddy knew his ranching days were over. John Milton Cooper Jr. writes: ‘In his subsequent career on the national scene, no aspect of Roosevelt’s life except his war service made him more of a popular figure than his western sojourn. Nothing
did more to make him appear a man of the people. He himself liked to recount how ranching had augmented politics in ridding him of all snobbish inclinations. Actually, his experience was more complicated. In going west, Roosevelt was following a well-beaten track among the upper crust on both sides of the Atlantic. One of his Dakota neighbors was a French marquis, while two others maintained dude ranches for scions of the best British and American families.’

” … In 1886 – one year into the creation of the Ranchman myth – Roosevelt ran for mayor of New York. Newspapers hailed the ‘blizzard-seasoned constitution’ of the ‘Cowboy of the Dakotas.’ “

Author: James Bradley
Title: The Imperial Cruise
Publisher: Back Bay

Quiz Answer: John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.


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