“I’ve had a bully time and a bully fight. I feel as big and strong as a bull moose,” Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt ebulliently told reporters when he returned to New York after the famous charge up San Juan Hill in the summer of 1898. Avid for publicity, Roosevelt had arranged for two photographers to accompany him and his Rough Riders to Cuba and had led favored reporters with him into battle. “Up, up they went in the face of death,” wrote one of them, “men dropping from the ranks at every step…. Roosevelt sat erect on his horse, holding his sword and shouting for his men to follow him.”
On February 15, 1898, an explosion on board the battleship USS Maine, anchored in Havana harbor, had killed 262 Americans and sparked the Spanish-American War. It was “an act of dirty treachery on the part of the Spaniards,” fumed Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt. Though a spontaneous fire in a coal bunker likely caused the blast, the explosion gave Roosevelt the green light for the war he hungered to fight. “Of course I feel that we ought to have interfered in Cuba long ago,” he had written in mid-January. Promptly quitting the Department of the Navy, he led his own regiment to Cuba—and to glory.
If there is one enduring symbol of Theodore Roosevelt’s leadership, it is surely the spectacle of the man on the horse charging up San Juan Hill. When he and his troops, some limping, some on stretchers, returned home and marched down the pier, TR took center stage, incarnating the courageous, righteous lone warrior. His war memoir, The Rough Riders, appeared in 1899. “Tis Th’ Biography iv a Hero,” observed political satirist Finley Peter Dunne’s surrogate Mr. Dooley. “If I was him, I’d call th’ book, ‘Alone in Cubia.’”
As president, too, Roosevelt would view himself as the hero of the people—with the emphasis on the hero, not on the people. “I believe that whatever value my service may have comes even more from what I am than from what I do,” he wrote in 1908, as his presidency drew to a close. The chief service he could render to the “plain people who believe in me is, not to destroy their ideal of me.”
At the onset of World War I, that heroic leader devolved into a demagogue as his hypermasculine, martial values ran amok. In letters to his son and others, he blasted Woodrow Wilson for not throwing the country into the war, excoriating the president for being “at heart an abject coward” whose soul was simply “rotten through and through.” The majority of Americans fared no better. “They have no keen point of honor,” he sneered. “They are horror-struck by the thought of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.