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Top Presidents Ranked - The Man in the Arena

Published in Blog on September 27, 2023 by Jakob Fay

Welcome back, students of history, to part two of my personal ranking of our top 5 U.S. presidents.

As I recorded in part one, the U.S. presidency is a uniquely and beautifully American institution. “The intricate tapestry of United States history finds an inseparable weave with the chronicles of the presidency,” I wrote. These men—some heroic, cowardly, broken, admirable, illustrious, great, shameful, forgotten, and immortal—represent us. And for generations, we have revered them. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. We need heroes and we need reminders of where we have come from; the presidents, particularly the ones laid out in this series, serve both purposes for us.

Previously, I listed Ronald Reagan as my fifth favorite president, noting that he narrowly edged out Founding Father James Madison on the list. Keep in mind that in this series I am ranking the men themselves, not necessarily their presidencies, although their years as chief executive certainly factor prominently into any honest appraisal of their lives. That note is particularly relevant to today’s figure, with whom I might disagree politically but who is, nevertheless, highly qualified to be remembered among the greats.

4. Theodore Roosevelt

To describe Teddy—a name he hated, preferring, instead, to be called T.R.—as “larger than life” is, perhaps, cliché. But there’s no better way to say it—Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, was larger than life on an almost mythological scale. The lengthiest Roosevelt biographies can scarce do better than to encapsulate his Brobdingnagian persona with the modest summa that he was, in fact, larger than life.

But Theodore Roosevelt was also just a man. A man propelled to the status of American folk hero and legend, yes. But a mere mortal nevertheless. At times, he was, in fact, a deeply broken mere mortal, but Teddy the man never would have let it show.

As a child, “Teedie,” as he was then called, did not seem to be particularly exceptional in any way—except in that he was exceptionally sick.

“Renowned for his vigor as president, Roosevelt possessed little of it as a child,” observed historian Christopher Klein. “Malnourished from a lack of appetite, the scrawny boy with a sunken chest suffered from frequent colds, coughs, nausea, headaches, cramps and fevers. Let alone dream that their young “Teedie” could one day occupy the White House, Roosevelt’s parents feared he wouldn’t survive his fourth birthday.”

In short, T.R. was weak. Dangerously weak.

SEE ALSO: Top Presidents Ranked pt. 1

“I was a sickly, delicate boy,” he later recalled, “suffered much from chronic asthma, and frequently had to be taken away on trips to find a place where I could breathe.”

Recovering gradually, the frail boy took a keen interest in the natural world, evidencing, eventually, a sharp, even exceptional, mind. However, he was still physically weak. In her Roosevelt biography, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts a time when the young boy was humiliatingly bullied and beaten by two boys while on a stagecoach ride to Maine. “The injury to his self-respect was such that he was determined never again to be so helpless,” she wrote.

“Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body,” his father told him frankly, “and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.” Teedie knew he would do it, too. “I’ll make my body,” he vowed. And he did.

The ill, timid, frail boy threw himself into strenuous training and boxing, noting he “worked two or three years before I made any perceptible improvement whatever.” Additionally, he conquered his timidity. “There were all kinds of things of which I was afraid at first,” he said, “ranging from grizzly bears to “mean” horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.” Such a mindset—virile agitur—nods perceptibly to his future “Man in the Arena” speech.

From this point on, Roosevelt steadily transformed into the robust giant history remembers him as. The ailing, fearful Teedie became the man who led the charge up San Juan Hill, the man who spoke softly and carried a big stick, receiving both a Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Honor (posthumously). He became the man who trekked the treacherous River of Doubt, an uncharted, 1,000-mile river in the Amazon, that nearly claimed his life. He was the man who was shot in the chest, saw to it that his would-be assassin was apprehended (but not hurt), and then continued with a pre-planned speech, noting almost casually, “I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” Regrettably, he informed the crowd, “The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best."

Try his best he did—the speech lasted 84 minutes.

SEE ALSO: MECKLER: Convention of States is for anyone who loves the Constitution

In everything he set his hand to—from conservation to trust-busting to hunting and writing—T.R. was determined to succeed. He was determined to be great. In this determination, he embodied the American spirit of pioneers and adventurers in a way few could match.

“Americanism means the virtues of courage, honor, justice, truth, sincerity, and hardihood,”
he once wrote in a letter, “the virtues that made America.” In his book, he elaborated, “Americanism is a question of spirit, conviction, and purpose, not of creed or birthplace.” If he was correct in this assertion, then Teddy himself was the quintessential American—he typified these cardinal virtues.

And naturally, if a man like Roosevelt believed in these principles, his life would reflect them as well. He was perpetually a man of action. To describe him as a man of few words would be inaccurate—he wrote prolifically—but he could not tolerate words without action. He was a man of few, if any, wasted words.

“It is not the critic who counts,” he famously declared, “not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

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