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TR: The Story of Theodore Roosevelt

Paramount // Unrated // February 14, 2006
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Louis Howard | posted February 24, 2006 | E-mail the Author
This PBS American Experience documentary focuses on our nation's 26th president, the inimitable Teddy Roosevelt. The right man for the times, he embodied the face of America at the turn of the century. New ideas, new inventions, an America on the move saw TR as the man of the times- confident, exuberant, boisterous, a man of larger than life proportions, he was president by his 42nd birthday. One could hardly invent a character the likes of Teddy Roosevelt on the grand scale upon which the man invented himself.

On the morning of July 1st, 1898 American troops in Cuba readied to make their assult on the Spanish forces holding San Juan Hill, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at the fore. The moment the order to take the hill was given, Roosevelt mounted his horse and told his men, "Gentlemen, the almighty God and just cause are with you- gentlemen, charge!" What happened that day in the Cuban jungles made TR one of the most recognized and renowned men of the day.

Born in New York City on October 27, 1858 into a family of great wealth, there was some doubt as to whether he would live to see his fourth birthday, suffering from asthma so severe he could at times not blow out his own bedside candle. His father often walked the floor with him, hoping to ease the agonizing breathlessness his son was stricken with. A moral man who was a champion of causes for the poor and sick, his father's philanthropy was something his son watched with reverence. A precocious, irrepressible, odd little boy with dreams of becoming a great naturalist when he grew up, he kept all manner of animals in his home and stuffed his own birds. Still, Asthma was consuming him. At 11, his father took him aside and told him he had to take charge of his body and his life, lest he would not live to see adulthood. Teddy started spending his days going through monotonous daily exercise, boxing lessons, hiking, whatever could be done to bring his body to the healthy state of his mind.

At 17 TR left for Harvard still suffering, but thicker of neck, chest, body. A serious student at college who took an 8 mile walk each day, he always seemed to lecture on any subject to anyone who would listen. At this time his father died of stomach cancer- shattered for months, he missed his father terribly and in time started to do the things his father moved him to do- exercise, get out and get busy- live and get more out of life. At Harvard he stayed busy- boxing, beginning a book, and fell in love with Alice Lee, tall and golden haired, he told his friend he was going to marry her whether she wanted him or not. Perseverance paid off and they did indeed marry on October 27th, 1880. At around this time TR also decided to enter politics, determined to be one of the governing class. Using his wealth and some part of his father's influence, he became the youngest man in the Albany legislature. He made decisions on any number of issues in the way he felt his father would.

In 1884 he received a telegram letting him know that his wife had given birth to a baby girl, but then a second more sinister telegram arrived causing him to rush home to his family. His mother AND wife were both dying- his wife of Bright's Disease and his mother of typhoid fever. Both women died within a matter of hours, his mother 48, his wife only 22 years of age. This is the kind of tragedy the likes of which no one ever truly gets over. He never mentioned his wife to anyone ever again, even his daughter, who was taken at this time by his sister. Devastated, Roosevelt spent most of the next two years on his ranch in the Badlands of Dakota Territory. He lived in the saddle, driving cattle, hunting big game and even capturing an outlaw, gaining the respect of his peers in spite of his refined eastern manner by showing grit and a will to accomplish whatever he set his mind to. His asthma only rarely returned at this point in his life, having built a strong body something akin to a bull moose.

Upon return trips to New York he began to take a renewed interest in Edith Carow, something of a childhood sweetheart. Not an advocate of second marriages, he nonetheless began a quiet courtship and married her on december 2nd, 1886. His 3 year old daughter was brought into the marriage family at this point in spite of the fact that TR refused to speak of the child's mother. While seemingly opposites the couple adored each other, living on Sagamore Hill and writing books on a number of subjects, one a best seller. Edith eventually bore him 5 children. Unable to resist public office, in 1886 he lost an election bid for Mayor of New York. In 1895 he took on a new kind of corruption as an appointed New York Police Commissioner, cleaning up and number of questionable practices in the faction. The Roosevelt legend was growing. In 1897 he was offered the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy and jumped at the opportunity.

What transpires after this is a whirlwind number of events that seem to make Theodore Roosevelt assention to the nation's highest office pre-destined. After McKinley declares war on Spain TR immediately resigns his office and joins the military, being given permission to form his own regiment, which he does- culling 1000 varied, notable men from a list of some 10,000 applicants. Showing incredible fearlessness in command as well as battle which culminates on the hills in Cuba, and the States win the war in less than two months. TR comes home as a force to be reckoned with politically, being spurred by Boss Tom Platt and the Republican party to run for the office of New York State Governor. He does so and wins a close election. After this he proves to be more unwieldly than he had given the Republican party cause to believe- so they promptly made moves to nominate him as Vice President of the United States. The ticket of McKinley and Roosevelt win election by a landslide. Only seven months later, McKinley was assassinated in office and on December 22nd, 1901 Teddy Roosevelt suddenly became our nation's leader.

Roosevelt's presidency was a breath of fresh air for the country, having come off of a stream of uninteresting and seemingly unnotable politicians who had held the office before him. Thus began the "Bully Pulpit" years and TR's hand in the changing of America. Seeing the rich grow richer and the poor become poorer, he acted to change this trend for American workers by butting heads with J.P. Morgan and The Trusts he symbolized. Seeing monopolies abound, he brought anti-trust suits against Northern Securities, stunning Morgan and the corporate powers that be. While believing in corporations, he saw a need for them to be regulated to serve the nation rather than control it. In his eyes no one was above the law and no business was more powerful than the government.

In 1902 the Coal Workers Union threatened to go on strike, effectively freezing America. On one side hating the vastly rich who preyed on the lower classes and on another having a profound disliking for unmanagable unions, Roosevelt called both union and mine owners to the White House to talk. Unwilling to come to any agreement, he stepped in with the army ready to take control of the mines and put the union back to work. The mine owners backed down and the strike was over, workers getting a raise in wages and shorter workdays.

In the next eight years he made the American Navy one of the world's most powerful, proclaiming that America should "Walk softly and carry a big stick" when it came to world politics and prevention of foreign aggression. Mindful of the strategic need for a bridge between the Atlantic and Pacific, he ensured the building of the Panama Canal. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation in the Russo-Japanaese War. Always aware of the need for conservation, he was instrumental in the adding land to the national forests in the West, reserved lands for public use and was the force behind many irrigation projects as well. Throughout his presidency he was a champion of the people, railing endlessly against corporate monopoly and corruption with new laws to protect consumers.

Theodore Roosevelt dominated American politics, widening the power of his office and getting the nation behind him in a way that had not been seen since the days of Lincoln. A 'steam engine in trousers', his face and name were everywhere. A brilliant man, he was the first true intellectual to hold the presidential office since John Quincy Adams and was a man of surreal proportion. Horseback rider, hunter, boxer, writer, naturalist. The public face of TR was exuberance, but in privacy bore a sense of empathy for those oppressed was very prominent as well. He thrived at the top and wished to be 'the president and congress too, if only for 10 minutes'. Also covered is his later years after retirement from office, going on an extensive African safari, traveling abroad throughout Europe, actually running for President once again as an Independent candidate of the Progressive "Bull Moose" party in 1912, an assassination attempt during his campaign, and his death in 1919.

Told over the course of some 225 minutes, TR is finely narrated by Jason Robards. With interviews by always fascinating commentator, historian and narrator David McCullough as well as figures such as fellow historians, grandchildren, and cousins this documentary is indicative of the series itself- drawing upon a number of sources in order to give the viewer a wonderfully detailed, always engaging portrait of Roosevelt and to some degree the times in which he lived.

Video-

This presentation is rendered in 1:33.1 format. Video here is clean and sharp with a number of pictures taken throughout TR's life and the era. Modern video looks fine and is more than adequate for documentary purposes.

Audio-

Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Clear and easy to understand, this is a fine track for documentary purposes.

Extras-

No extras here.

Final Thoughts-

This piece is,as Teddy Roosevelt himself is known for having said, "Bully!". Over the course of the past month or so PBS Home Video has released a slew of titles on DVD garnered from their excellent American Experience series, with several dealing with various American presidents throughout the 20th century. I have yet to find an installment of the series to fall short of excellence on whatever the subject matter it has taken on, and TR is certainly no exception. History buffs and students of TR's years should enjoy this immensely. Recommended.
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