UND professor lectures about Roosevelt’s ‘dark side’GRAND FORKS — Jerry Tweton has spent so much of his career with Theodore Roosevelt — reading his diaries and letters, researching his life and portraying him on the Chautauqua circuit — that he can tell the story as if he was there: how TR led his Roughriders up that hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
By: Chuck Haga, The Dickinson Press
GRAND FORKS — Jerry Tweton has spent so much of his career with Theodore Roosevelt — reading his diaries and letters, researching his life and portraying him on the Chautauqua circuit — that he can tell the story as if he was there: how TR led his Roughriders up that hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
“He was the only one on horseback, decked out in bright blue and a blue kerchief with polka dots,” Tweton said. “He led the charge. He went up first and was very conspicuous, as everybody else was without horse and dressed rather drably. Three Roughriders close to him were killed.”
The story is one example Tweton, 77, a former professor of history at the University of North Dakota, will use to illustrate “Roosevelt’s dark side” in a lecture on campus Monday night.
“There’s enough evidence,” Tweton said, “that he would not have minded being killed in that charge.”
Tweton, a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of history (emeritus) and longtime chairman of the department, will speak at 7 p.m. Monday in the Memorial Union Lecture Bowl.
“Jerry is the best public humanities scholar around,” said Brenna Daugherty, executive director of the North Dakota Humanities
“He takes scholarly material obtained through original research and makes it accessible to the public,” she said. “TR is such a seminal figure in our history, and Jerry explains who this man was and why he matters to us still.”
The lecture is the first in a series established by the humanities council in Tweton’s name.
‘The dark side’
Tweton has read pretty much everything that’s been written about Roosevelt, including a spate of books published in recent years.
“One thing that doesn’t come out very strongly in biographies is what I rather gently call ‘the dark side,’” he said, and he cites three examples of TR’s “willingness to die a hero.”
His behavior during the Spanish-American War is one, he said. “As a matter of fact, he said after the war he was embarrassed at least not to have been wounded.”
In the presidential election of 1912, in which the former president attempted a comeback as leader of the “Bull Moose” progressives, he refused to let a would-be assassin’s bullet interfere with his campaign schedule.
“He was shot in the chest, bleeding profusely, and people wanted to take him to a hospital,” Tweton said. “He wanted to give his speech. ‘This is no big deal,’ he said. You could see his bloody shirt and how he was turning pale, but he went on for an hour, with men standing below, ready to catch him as he was about to keel over.”
A third example of Roosevelt seemingly seeking a heroic death was his plan to organize a volunteer cavalry unit when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917.
Woodrow Wilson, who had won that 1912 election and a second term in 1916, turned Roosevelt down.
“There’s no one in the world that TR hated more than Woodrow Wilson,” Tweton said. “He called him ‘the gray old skunk.’ Throughout 1915 and 1916, he attacked Wilson for being too timid and not getting us involved earlier in World War I.”
Tweton said Roosevelt wanted to lead cavalry in “the Great War” knowing that he likely would die.
“He knew he’d never come back,” he said. “He would be killed, or he would die because his health was not good. He had a serious heart
In fact, Roosevelt did die in January 1919. He was 60 years old.
Roosevelt the hero
Roosevelt as a child suffered from asthma, and the stories of his strenuous efforts to overcome weakness are legendary.
He was a voracious reader, Tweton said, “and he loved stories about heroes, the concept of heroism. Hero was a word he used a lot. He considered his father a hero. His sisters were heroes.”
At Monday’s lecture, Tweton will just talk about Roosevelt. He won’t “be” TR. But on two dozen or more occasions in the past 35 years the historian has donned wire-rimmed spectacles, period attire and a brash countenance to portray the president at Chautauquas around the state and beyond.
“The first time was 1976,” he said. “I had gone out to Williston or Watford City to give a lecture on Roosevelt’s time in Dakota Territory, and the audience was made up of three people. I thought I had to come up with something to bring more people out.”
Everett Albers, who was executive director of the state humanities council, asked him, “Could you present the same information, but do it as Roosevelt?”
Tweton said he’d give it a try, and he went out and bought a top hat.
“They set me up to speak out there again and said that Roosevelt himself was going to appear,” he said. “We had 250 people.”
He watched the few surviving newsreels showing Roosevelt so he could copy mannerisms: the way TR’s fist hit the palm of his other hand, the way he made “little, short waves at people.”
He listened to a recording of Roosevelt’s voice, “very unpleasant, high-pitched.”
Tweton had done his doctoral dissertation on Roosevelt and his role in American agriculture. “That one flew off the shelves,” he said, laughing.
Roosevelt wrote about 110,000 letters, more than 30 books and hundreds of magazine articles, and Tweton spent two summers going through that material at the Library of Congress.
“He was a complicated and really interesting man,” he said. “He may have been manic depressive. Members of the family say (in correspondence or diaries) that he’s ‘having a black time.’ They describe mood swings — ‘a great blaze of fire’ followed by ‘cooling embers.’ “
Does Tweton ever find himself acting as Roosevelt in private, at home in Fessenden, where he and his wife, Paul, operate a bed-and-breakfast?
“I’d be thrown out, I think,” he said.
‘He’s such a boy’
Theodore Roosevelt wanted to see himself, and be seen, as heroic. As a historian, Tweton has sought to understand the man as he was, to make note of the failings and disappointments as well as the successes.
“I started out with a tremendous love for the man,” he said. “Woodrow Wilson said you can’t help but love him, he’s such a boy.
“But I look at the material I had 20 years ago in a more skeptical way now. Things that stood out 20 years ago don’t seem as important, especially when you look at the correspondence and memoirs of his sisters, his second wife. You see the guy is really hard to live with.”
As president, some of Roosevelt’s greatest accomplishments were in conservation, Tweton said, but he apparently played to both sides — more politician than preservationist — in a great dispute over a proposed dam in Yosemite National Park.
“Another thing that really disappointed me was his attitude toward African Americans,” he said. “He was praised for inviting Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. But that caused such a stir, he was very careful after that to distance himself from African American leadership.”
After an incident in Texas, a disturbance that involved a black Army regiment, Roosevelt ordered dishonorable discharges for the entire regiment, though an investigation showed that just two or three men had caused the trouble.
“It’s considered by most people the low point in his presidency,” Tweton said.
“He was under a great deal of strain at the time, was not feeling well and probably had not thought it out thoroughly. But he was really an Anglo-Saxon supremacist. He believed that if you were not of that stock you were of lower value.
“By contemporary standards, he certainly was racist. But he later came to a realization that African Americans were on a par with white people.”
If he could talk with Roosevelt, what might he ask him?
“I’d ask why, after his first wife died in childbirth, he never mentioned her at all,” he said. “He seemed to just put her out of his mind.”
Tweton once had a brief meeting with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, TR’s daughter. “She said all she could learn of her mother was from TR’s sisters.”
But if Roosevelt were here, “I would not have a chance to speak,” Tweton said. “He dominated all conversations.”
Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.