On 14 October 1912, Teddy Roosevelt was campaigning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when a paranoid-schizophrenic shot him in the chest. More or less unfazed, Roosevelt got into his car, made sure he wasn't coughing up blood, and drove on to his next speaking engagement, as planned. He spoke for over an hour in front of nearly ten thousand people about the need to curb the power of industry and protect the common man. The blood from the bullet wound soaked through his shirt and jacket, but he didn't miss a beat. Yes, he admitted, he'd just been shot. "[But] it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!"1
That's Teddy Roosevelt for you. The man was somehow almost more than human; he was a force of nature. Like a waterfall, or a stampede, when Roosevelt got going, nothing—not even a bullet—was going stop him.
That personal energy turned Theodore Roosevelt into an international celebrity. Complete strangers adored him. Pundits routinely declared him the most popular man in America. His private life was followed by newspapers all around the globe. Just putting his picture on something made it sell. In his own lifetime, his image advertised everything from coffee to teddy bears (which were named after him) to Moxie Soda. The Brazilian government officially estimated the cash value of his presence alone to equal $1 million a day. He had not been dead twenty years before his face joined age-old heroes Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln atop Mount Rushmore.2
He wasn't just a celebrity, though; he was also one of the twentieth century's most consequential politicians. As president, he was the United States' foremost conservationist (and is probably still its most historically important one). His international policies established the United States as a world power while his domestic speeches foreshadowed the emergence of the capitalist welfare state. His love of the West, his praise of the "strenuous life," and his romanticization of masculinity shaped an American archetype that is still very much with us today.
Taking these two sides of his character together, we could say that Roosevelt was the country's first modern president. He wasn't so much a celebrity and a politician as a celebrity-politician. He built his celebrity on his political accomplishments, then used that celebrity in turn to advance his policies. The presidency, Roosevelt understood, could be more than just an executive office; it could be a "bully pulpit" from which to champion a vision of America and try to influence national character.
If we remember T.R. now—and we do; historians routinely rank him among this nation's great presidents—it's at least as much for the vision of America that he championed as for the executive actions that he took.3 But pinning down that vision can be tricky. His was a vision in flux. Roosevelt spent his entire life refining it, as his values confronted an America rocked by technological innovations and demographic upheavals. We can't describe that vision so much as trace it, from its origins in T.R.'s childhood through his attempted assassination in Milwaukee and on to his death in 1919. The ordeal in Milwaukee may have only lasted a few hours, but it embodies a narrative that spanned T.R.'s entire life.