One hundred years ago next week, on July 1, 1898, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. But his more unusual feat occurred several months earlier in a Washington, D.C., that even then seemed to some a cesspool of cynicism.
Here are the words from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt that stunned official Washington: "My power for good, whatever it may be, would be gone if I didn't try to live up to the doctrines I have tried to preach."
Roosevelt had pushed hard for the United States to go to war against Spain, but when the war actually began in 1898 everyone expected him to stay at his bureaucratic post. Instead, he enlisted, insisting that he could not stand being called an "armchair and parlor" warrior who would send others to fight in his stead.
Few Washington officials a century ago approved of his logic, and few would now. "I really think he is going mad," one official said, and another merely asked, "Is he quite mad?" Secretary of the Navy John D. Long noted in his diary that Roosevelt "thinks he is following his highest ideal, whereas, in fact, as without exception every one of his friends advises him, he is acting like a fool."
Secretary Long concluded, "He has lost his head," but noted concerning such criticism, "how absurd all this will sound if, by some turn of fortune, he should accomplish some great thing and strike a very high mark"-and that's exactly what happened.
TR aimed high and struck high. He first gave several speeches asking Americans to enlist and follow him in a special unit that became known as the Rough Riders. Many did, and they followed him through training and then aboard ship to Cuba.
Then came the July 1 payoff: Colonel Roosevelt, on a horse and an easy target for Spanish marksmen, led his enlistees up Kettle Hill east of Santiago. The fighting was hard. Mauser bullets killed men all around Roosevelt and many survivors wanted to retreat, but he shamed them into following by rasping at them, "Are you afraid to stand up when I am on horseback?"
A bullet grazed Roosevelt's elbow, but he shot back and led his men to take Kettle Hill. Then it was on to San Juan Hill about 700 yards away. Roosevelt started briskly but forgot to order his soldiers to follow him, so only five did. Two were shot while Roosevelt rushed back to his regiments and yelled, "Are you cowards?"
Then he gave the order to charge. Roosevelt attacked under heavy fire at the head of his troops. As they approached the top, the Spaniards gave up or ran. "I would rather have led that charge than serve three terms in the United States Senate," Roosevelt later wrote.
The nation's newspapers gave the exploits of the Rough Riders front-page placement. The New York Sun reported, "Bullets were raining down on them, and shot and shell from the batteries.... Up they went in the face of death.... Roosevelt was a hundred feet in the lead ... shouting for the men to follow him.... Finally his horse was shot from under him. He charged up the hill afoot. At last the top of the hill was reached ... the position won."
Roosevelt's political elevation was instant. He returned home to New York just in time to receive the Republican nomination for governor. One of Roosevelt's sergeants, Buck Taylor, introduced him at campaign stops: "Ah want to talk to you about muh colonel. He kept ev'y promise he made to us and he will to you. When he took us to Cuba he told us ... we might meet wounds and death and we done it, but he was thar in the midst of us. When it came to the great day he led us up San Juan Hill like sheep to the slaughter and so he will lead you."
That's just where Theodore Roosevelt was-"thar in the midst of us"-and the slaughtered sheep over the next few years were Democratic candidates: Roosevelt became governor in 1898, vice president in 1900, president the following year after an assassin took out William McKinley, and president by election in 1904.
"Thar in the midst of us" came about because Roosevelt had the moral certainty to be willing to practice what he preached. How different that seems from everyday Washington, where words and actions are so frequently divorced. So here's to you, Teddy Roosevelt: On the 100th anniversary of your memorable charge, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.