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Books: A loveable Teddy bear

Books | Although President Teddy Roosevelt was a rough rider, he was also a tender father

Issue: "Cloning: Double trouble," March 7, 1998

A new biography of Theodore Roosevelt runs roughshod over the Rough Rider. In H.W. Brands's new book, TR: The Last Romantic, Teddy Roosevelt is presented as a proto-New Dealer, an anti-capitalist, and a marginal Christian. Worse, according to Mr. Brands, he's anti-intellectual, an extremist, and he shoots helpless animals for the "satisfaction of blood lust." Each of these charges can be answered (even the last one, unless you consider a grizzly bear to be helpless). As other biographies demonstrate, TR was an accomplished historian, biographer, military tactician-and a faithful, orthodox Christian who taught Sunday School for many years. Though painted as a jingoistic hawk, TR actually worked hard for peace, both through diplomacy (he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906) and through quiet military strength (that was his "Big Stick"). But most bothersome in Mr. Brands's portrayal of TR is the notion that he was a bad father, remote from his children. His oldest daughter, Alice (whose mother died from complications of childbirth), is portrayed as a turn-of-the-century Patti Davis, a willful, rebellious girl. TR's second marriage, to his first love Edith Carow, is presented as a passionless compromise. The opposite is true, and the best proof comes from TR's own pen. That's what makes A Bully Father: Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to his Children a much better read. Joan Paterson Kerr dusted off a collection of letters that range from hilarious to instructive to touching. One missive was sent to his children from a Tampa training camp, when he and Major General Leonard Wood were preparing the Rough Riders for action in Cuba in 1898. Edith had slipped down from New York to spent a few cloistered nights with her husband (thereby disproving the charge that the marriage was passionless). He opens with the salutation, "Blessed Bunnies." He tells his daughter Ethel, "I do not know when I shall have another chance to write to my three blessed children, whose little notes please me so. This is only a line to tell you all how much your father loves you." And in 1905 he relates with delight to son Kermit (away at school) that the youngest of the clan, Quentin, was learning to be wary of the press: "The other day a reporter asked Quentin something about me, to which that affable and canny young gentleman responded, 'Yes, I see him sometimes, but I know nothing of his family life.'" The letters seem proof enough that TR was the original family-values president.

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