Youth has always been a double-edged sword for America's presidents. It tends to inject the White House with fresh ideas and energy, but it can also lead to impetuousness and a disregard for the tried and true. To fully examine the effect of youth on the presidency, U.S. News Chief White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh takes an in-depth look at the five youngest presidents in U.S. history. An installment of this series will run every day this week.
Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest president in history. He was also one of the most innovative, brash, and vigorous.
TR was picked to be William McKinley's vice president because his competitors wanted to bury Roosevelt in a do-nothing, isolated job. But when President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, TR at 42 became arguably the most influential man in the world. He felt he was ready to act from Day One, having been assistant secretary of the Navy, a combat leader in the Spanish-American War, and governor of New York. He said he would follow McKinley's policies, but Roosevelt quickly became much more forceful and aggressive in confronting the giant corporations called "trusts" that he believed were gaining too much wealth and power and creating widespread corruption.
The population of the United States had doubled from 1870 to 1900, and urbanization and immigration were straining the social fabric. Disparities between rich and poor were growing. Many Americans believed that only the federal government could effectively protect the common man and woman. Eventually, President Roosevelt agreed.
TR once admitted that when he took office, he had no "deliberately planned and far-reaching scheme of social betterment." He made up his agenda on the fly, but that evolving agenda ended up being very far-reaching indeed. "He was a guy who was physically ready to take on America's problems at home and abroad," and especially to tame powerful special interests even though others said he couldn't and shouldn't do it, says Julian Zelizer, a Princeton historian.
What helped TR was his image as a tireless fighter—a reputation that he carefully cultivated, partly because it helped him intimidate his adversaries. He promoted the idea that he was absolutely committed to "the strenuous life" of activism and achievement in everything he did. His ego was enormous, and he craved attention. His daughter, Alice, once remarked that, "My father always wanted to be the corpse at every funeral, the bride at every wedding, and the baby at every christening."
As Alvin Felzenberg, a political scientist, points out in The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't), TR "conceived of his role as president as that of the neutral umpire, mediating feuds among private parties on behalf of a larger group that had a stake in the ultimate outcome, the public. . . . His most predictable trait was his unpredictability. He used it to keep both allies and adversaries off-balance." Roosevelt intervened in the coal strike of 1902 and brokered a deal among all sides. But when he decided that a special interest was getting too powerful, he didn't hesitate to take it on. He signed the Hepburn Act in 1906, which empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission to set maximum rates that railroads could charge customers. He decided the meatpacking industry needed better supervision and won passage for the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, imposing more regulation. In 1907, he worked with magnate J. P. Morgan, with whom he had tangled earlier over business practices, to save the nation's financial system from collapse.
Roosevelt also pushed hard for conservation of natural resources, establishing the National Wildlife Refuge System and many national parks and extending federal protection to other tracts. To increase U.S. influence around the world and deter possible aggressors, he devised a tough-minded foreign policy based on the motto, "Speak softly but carry a big stick." He set out to build the Panama Canal, one of the most important achievements of his presidency; it shortened by 8,000 miles the distance between the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts by sea. He brokered a settlement of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
"Dedicated to a progressive concept of government, he advocated and practiced an active form of presidential leadership that broadly extended the reach of executive influence," write Sidney M. Milkis and Michael Nelson in The American Presidency: Origins & Development, 1776-1998. "In his aggressive pursuit of a policy agenda and, especially, in his active courting of public opinion, TR (who was the first president to be known by his initials) recast the presidency. In both foreign and domestic affairs, he established critical precedents that charted a path for future presidents, such as Woodrow Wilson and TR's cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to follow and to widen in bringing about a more complete transformation of the American presidency." In short, Teddy Roosevelt moved the White House from the sidelines to the center of American life and was the epitome of the young American leader.