Kohn’s (American History and Literature/Bilkent Univ.; Hot Time in Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt, 2010, etc.) latest study of Theodore Roosevelt focuses on the influence of his hometown, New York City, in shaping his political legacy.
The legacy of Roosevelt most commonly conjures the image of a “Rough Rider” on horseback storming San Juan Hill in Cuba or of a similarly macho cowboy on the vast Western frontier. These images are part of the mythology that paints a portrait of the president as a man of rugged individualism and self-determination. While the West remained a fixation for Roosevelt, Kohn is apt to point out that this idea of Roosevelt as a man of the range is a product of his own retrospective self-mythologizing and that the most important influence on Roosevelt’s life and political career was not the West but his hometown. “The West did not ‘make’ Theodore Roosevelt, but Theodore Roosevelt surely helped to make the West,” writes the author. Born and raised into a well-respected family, Roosevelt followed the example of his charitable and honorable father by cultivating himself as a reformer. Quickly rising through the ranks of local Republican leadership, he asserted himself as a public official willing to stand up to the rampant, if not institutional, corruption of the spoils system and earned a reputation as a gruff enforcer while serving as a New York police commissioner before becoming governor, then president, following William McKinley’s assassination. Kohn rightly corrects many assumptions about Roosevelt’s life and ambitions, but in doing so, he also draws out a narrative too reductive in its looking back to New York to justify Roosevelt’s actions. Roosevelt always admitted to being a New Yorker, despite Tammany Boss Thomas Platt being an ever-present thorn in his side, yet Roosevelt’s life and legacy in American politics and culture is too critical to be so selectively drawn.
An intriguing portrait of Roosevelt’s ascendance to power that will leave readers wanting more of his life and work.