On a warm day in 1900 a special train pulled into Union Station in Atlanta, Georgia. The train was carrying vice presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt, who was crisscrossing the country, campaigning hard to help get President William McKinley re-elected for a second term. During 1900 Mr. Roosevelt would visit 567 cities in 24 states, making more than a dozen speeches a day. He was young, ebullient and irrepressible, a whirlwind of energy who invigorated crowds everywhere he went. A throng had formed in anticipation of Mr. Roosevelt’s arrival, and when the train had stopped they crowded about the car where “Teddy” bounded out to the railing and began his rapid-fire speech. He spoke for 45 minutes and then the people eagerly reached for him as he began personally greeting as many as he could.
(George) Martin Fishback, my great-grandfather, wanted to see young Mr. Roosevelt in person and took his little daughter, my grandmother Lucie, with him for this once-in-a-lifetime event. He held tight to her hand as they waded through the mass of people swirling about the railroad car, and he listened intently to the speech, though Lucie began to tire after a time and complained that she couldn’t see anything. He picked her up then and stood her on a crate next to him so she could see better. When Mr. Roosevelt finished his speech and began to move into the crowd, he glimpsed my grandmother waving and made his way toward her. He grasped her small hands in his and kissed her on the cheek, exclaiming, “God bless you, honey!” and shook my great-grandfather’s hand before he moved on. As Mr. Roosevelt released Lucie’s hands she gazed after him as he swept away, and Martin said, “That man’s going to be our president one of these days.”
I remember my grandmother telling me this story the first time when I was very young, and I loved hearing it again when she related it from time to time over the years. I imagined how Teddy Roosevelt had kissed her and could feel her excitement. As soon as I was old enough, I looked up Mr. Roosevelt’s biography at the library and gazed at his picture, thinking how he’d spoken kindly to her and that she’d never forgotten it. The biographies I read as a child told of his exciting exploits, and I marveled at this man who always seemed larger than life to me.
I thought about this story again while watching Ken Burns’ excellent 14-hour documentary film on PBS, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.” I’ve read a number of Roosevelt biographies over the years, but this new film brought out information and insights that were new to me. I felt a thrill as I watched photos and footage of Teddy Roosevelt campaigning, both for President McKinley and then for his own elections. I admired Eleanor’s fortitude in conquering her fears, pushing herself to do the things she was sure she couldn’t, and her desire to keep going and keep doing, no matter what. I was in awe of Franklin’s political shrewdness and deftness and how he was truly the right man at the right time to lead this country.
But what I admire most about all three Roosevelts is their sense of altruism, their constant sense of duty and service towards others, the desire to make life better for as many people as possible. They had their faults and shortcomings and certainly made their share of mistakes, but they kept at it, they kept trying, kept moving forward, as they moved a country and a people forward, helping them to think and to reason and to stretch in ways they might not have otherwise. They changed the way government works in this country, and proposed and implemented most of the social programs that benefit all of us today, such as conservation of natural resources, food inspections, Social Security, unemployment benefits, the right to organize labor unions and their right to negotiate, the 40-hour work week, our national park system, the FDIC, to name only a few.
It is this sense of altruism that is missing in so much of American government today. Too many elected officials seem interested only in blocking beneficial legislation, in cutting benefits to Americans stretched to the limit, and in downgrading another political party when they’ve done so little good in their own. Theirs is not an attitude of service, but of self-serving childishness and pettiness, wasting their terms in office by failing to adequately serve the needs of their states, districts and constituents.
Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt made countless enemies during their presidential terms in office, usually because of their brashness in pushing legislation through, in going above and beyond the Constitution when needed and possibly overstepping their executive powers at times. But these bills were written and pushed through so they could benefit the largest number of people in the shortest time possible. If they erred, it was in the best possible way, always making the needs of the people, of their own generation and of future generations, the most important factor. Would that more of today’s politicians had more mercy towards others in their souls, rather than hardness in their hearts; the Roosevelts never forgot those they were elected to serve.