One of this year’s Christmas gifts, from my older son Peter, got me thinking about how quickly history is able at times to judge someone’s greatness.
Peter gave me a book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.” It’s the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest tome chronicling the lives of great Americans.
What intrigued me is that of the two men mentioned in the title, one of them is memorialized on Mount Rushmore. Then something occurred to me.
Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901 after President William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt, who was 42, was the youngest man ever to assume the presidency; John F. Kennedy in 1960 became the youngest man, at 43, ever elected to the office. TR was elected in his own right in 1904. He left office in early 1909, turning the presidency over to Taft. Roosevelt then became so let down by Taft’s presidency that he sought the office once more in 1912, running on a progressive platform under the label of the Bull Moose Party.
The result of that campaign produced President Woodrow Wilson.
What does have to do with Mount Rushmore? Well, Gutzon Borglum began carving out the faces on the South Dakota mountainside in 1927, just 15 years after Roosevelt’s last run for public office and only eight years after his death in 1919. The other three men honored on that mountain are George Washington, the father of our country; Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln, who fought successfully to preserve the Union during the Civil War. Their greatness was long established by the time Borglum’s crews began blasting away on Mount Rushmore.
TR’s legacy, it could be argued, had yet to be finalized, as he in effect was a contemporary of the sculptor.
My thoughts have turned to whether someone could undertake such an project in that context today. I do not believe we’ve had a president since Roosevelt who’s quite measured up to any of the four men whose faces are carved into the mountain. Some have argued for Franklin Roosevelt, TR’s cousin, while others have said Ronald Reagan deserves to be added to the sculpture.
I prefer to leave the mountain as it stands.
Still, it strikes me that Gutzon Borglam took a gamble when he included Theodore Roosevelt in that pantheon of great Americans.
I’ll look forward to reading one more historian’s take on how he earned his place on the side of that mountain.