Theodore Roosevelt, Health Care Progressive
His definition of national greatness included a commitment to helping the sick and the poor. A century after his death, we should follow his lead.
Theodore Roosevelt died 100 years ago Sunday, on Jan. 6, 1919, at his home in Oyster Bay, N.Y. A pulmonary embolism, the doctors said.
Americans found it hard to believe that Roosevelt was dead, much less that he had died in bed. For as long as they could remember, he had lived at full tilt. He was the frontiersman who faced down a grizzly, the Rough Rider who fought in the Spanish-American War, the presidential candidate who made a speech with a fresh bullet wound in his chest.
The heroics thrilled countless American boys of the era — Ernest Hemingway among them — and their elders had cheered in 1899 when Roosevelt exhorted the country to get off its duff and take up “the strenuous life.” Toil, effort, high-minded endeavor — these were the things that made life worth living, in his opinion. If Americans surrendered to “ignoble ease,” he warned, they would never achieve national greatness.
A century later, that is still how most Americans remember him. But a quieter part of his legacy also deserves to be celebrated, especially in an era of incessant discord over health care. Few Americans know that their most physically vigorous president was also the first major American political figure to advocate passionately for national health insurance.
Theodore Roosevelt may have inspired he-men later in life, but he began life in delicate health, a fact he never forgot. Born in 1858, he soon developed asthma. In that era, asthmatics lived entirely at the mercy of their disease, not knowing when it would strike or if an attack would prove fatal. Roosevelt took up bodybuilding in his early teens, and as often happens, the asthma abated as he reached adulthood. Emerging from the ordeal as a fine physical specimen, he took pride in his strength, and for the rest of his life would exalt strength in nations as well as in men.
If Roosevelt’s presidency had to be summed up in a word, “strength” would serve. He strengthened the office of the presidency as well as the regulatory power of the federal government. He refereed the unending contest between capital and labor, arguing that only the national government had enough power to ensure fair play. His foreign policy has been intelligently praised and intelligently damned, but beyond question, it strengthened the United States in world affairs in the opening decade of the 20th century.