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The Strenuous Life

The Roosevelt philosophy has produced war heroes, business leaders, public servants, the 26th U.S. president and an American Legion founder. Theodore Roosevelt IV explains what it means and how it shaped him.


Photo by Amy C. Elliott

Father was flying with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. Grandfather was fighting the Germans in North Africa. Great‑grandfather was on Mount Rushmore. It was 1942 when into this line of iconic American men was born Theodore Roosevelt IV. Like those who came before him, he studied at Harvard, served his country in combat, traveled the world, distinguished himself in business, got involved with government and, true story, carried a big stick. He recently spoke with The American Legion Magazine.

Your family is known for living the “strenuous life.” How do you define that?
The strenuous-life concept is very simple and direct: live life to the fullest, be engaged physically and mentally, and don’t be a slacker.

Does it come with being a Roosevelt?
You’re not expected to live up to the, quote, family name, but you are expected to do the very best that you can in whatever field you choose.

How was it imparted to you growing up?
It was my parents, my mother in particular. I was to stand on my own two feet and wasn’t going to get a whole lot of support. When I was young, for example, most of my friends were getting allowances. I was told that if I wanted to get an allowance, I had to do something for it.

My mother suggested that since we had a lot of muskrats on the farm, and they were creating a nuisance, my job would be to catch them. I would be paid by the local fur dealer for each pelt. That was my allowance. I had to learn how to trap muskrats, and I had to learn how to skin them. And guess who taught me how to skin them – my mother. She was a tough lady.

It was a lineage that, amongst other things, had an intense interest in the out-of-doors. Growing up on the farm, I would be as happy catching salamanders, snakes, turtles and crawfish as I would be playing soccer with friends. Some kids grow out of this. I never did. I still love the out-of-doors. It’s a very important part of who and what I am today.

Your grandfather and great-grandfather are prominent figures in history. What about your father, Theodore Roosevelt III?
For a while, he went into politics in Pennsylvania, where he was secretary of commerce, but he didn’t really like politics. He didn’t like being separated from his family. He loved my mother deeply, and he loved the outdoors. He and I used to spend a fair amount of time bird-shooting. I never could understand how he could hit a bird because he was right-handed but left-eyed. Somehow or another, he was a pretty fine field shot.

He grew up the son of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., a founder of The American Legion, a grandfather you never really knew.
I never met him. I was born in 1942. Grandfather had already left for North Africa. There were letters saying he was looking forward to coming back and playing with “T4.” That’s what they called me. I never met him, but I feel that I knew him through his widow, my grandmother. The stories she would tell about him, his sense of humor, his sense of working very hard to do things he believed were patriotic.

Few people realize he was actually the territorial governor of Puerto Rico and the Philippines, and ran for governor of New York.
He saved the banks in Puerto Rico. He wrote out a personal check. Otherwise, they might have gone bankrupt. He ran for governor of New York and lost to Al Smith, and he was a state assemblyman. 

Like others in your family, you found your way to remote foreign lands after Harvard. How did the strenuous-life philosophy serve you at that time?
When I was living in Ouagadougou – you can look it up and tell me what country it is in* – at one point I was the youngest officer in the American embassy, and I was sent to go to a Red Cross dance about 25 miles from the capital. It was during the rainy season, and the embassy chauffeur was a guy called Yakouba. Yakouba was big, burly and strong, and, I thought, utterly fearless.

We were driving along, and we saw a big branch across the road. As we got closer, it slid off the road. I jumped out, and Yakouba said, “Non, non, monsieur! C’est un serpent! C’est un serpent!”

I followed it into the bushes, finally got it, and it was a 10- or 11-foot python. I managed to bring it to the car. When I got in, Yakouba took off like a bat out of hell, with his head out of the window, shouting, “Rapidement, rapidement, j’ai un serpent derrier moi!” (“Quickly, quickly, I have a snake behind me!”) Because it was the rainy season, they had to protect the roads and control truck traffic with barriers. Yakouba was yelling through the window, and these guardians of the road barriers ran to open them for us. We shot right through. Meantime, the snake had wrapped around my arm to such an extent that I lost feeling in my hand. So I turned to my date and said, “Lucy, could you unwrap the snake from my hand?” She unwrapped part of it, but I had to hold its head so it wouldn’t bite her.

In addition to foreign adventures, you followed in your forefathers’ military footsteps.
There was a very strong tradition. My father had been in the Navy. My grandfather had been in the Army. I was torn. I really wanted to serve on a destroyer until a good friend of mine said, “Ted, what you really want to do is go to Basic Underwater Demolition school (BUD/S).”

When I read about it, and what you did afterward, I said, “That’s for me.” I loved the physical challenge. The officers were virtually indistinguishable from the enlisted men. Sure, we had rank, but officers did everything that the enlisted men did.

Did they get after you because of your name?

It didn’t matter at all, except in one funny way. One of my very good friends, a fellow officer, said one day while we were driving, “TR, I don’t know much about American history, but you’re golden.”

I said, “What do you mean, I’m golden?”

He said, “The instructors are going to pimp you because of your name. You’ve got to be ready for it.”

As the words came out of his mouth, he hit the brakes and says, “There it is, for God’s sakes!”

He gets out of the car, goes into someone’s backyard, and there’s an old dead tree. He wrestles around, pulls the tree up, dirt falling off the roots. He says, “Don’t look at me like an idiot – open up the sunroof!” He puts this tree in the car and says, “Don’t you get it?”

I said, “No. What in the hell is that for? You just stole somebody’s tree.”

He said, “That’s your big stick.”

It was a stroke of genius. Sure enough, on our first day, we’re all in our starch greens, our boots are spit-polished, and Olivera – a legendary instructor – who was shorter than I was but could look at me down his nose, called my name. “Roosevelt! Where is your big stick?”

“In the locker!”

“Show up tomorrow with it. In the bay!”

So I had to go in the bay, undoing all my starch and the spit polish on my boots. The next day, I show up with this wonderful stick. Olivera comes up, looks at it and says, “Not bad.” And he goes on to the next guy.

So that’s how it arguably worked to my advantage. Then I had to run everywhere on the base with it. Finally, one of the other instructors told Olivera, “You know, you’re making him work harder than everybody else. Don’t you think you can lay off him?” I had to keep my stick, but I didn’t have to run with it anymore.

You went on to do two tours in Vietnam, but I suppose what you did was secret.
It’s not classified, but it’s not all that interesting to talk about – ’65 through ’67.

How did your time in the Navy influence you?
There are a couple of things. One is that I learned about, and got an immense amount of respect for, the enlisted men. They were smart, and they were wise in their ways. As a junior officer, which is what I was, you don’t know anything. Second, that program is physically and mentally so hard, you learn quickly that if you set your mind to doing something, you can get a lot done.

At Barclays Capital, where you are an investment banker, you are actively involved in a veteran hiring initiative. Can you explain the program?
We recognize that veterans in business school often possess structural skills that make them superior bankers. Integrity. Honor. They work well under pressure. They understood the importance of teamwork. Learning to become a banker is pretty simple. These other skills are much more basic, and much more important.

Our program really has three pillars.

One, we want to make the public aware of what veterans and ex-military service people have done for us and be thankful for that.

Secondly, we want to do what we can, working through ourselves and others, to increase employment opportunities for the military across the board.

Thirdly, where we can, we want to use scarce dollars in philanthropy to help specific projects and show support.

I have two colleagues in the United States – neither of whom served in the military – and one of them has adopted a brigade. When the brigade was shipped over, they had all the tools they needed but didn’t have bits for their drills. So he went down to the hardware store and bought a gross of every kind of bit you could imagine and shipped them over there. It would have taken six months to go through normal procurement. Another Barclays banker has joined a program run by an ex-Navy captain, and they operate a school for people who want to go through the BUD/SEAL program. When these guys go to BUD/S after this training, they have a 70-percent graduation rate. With our corporate partners, we have something like 54 people, including our CEO, Bob Diamond, mentoring veterans.

Your grandfather had a similar passion, to help veterans after discharge.
When I see an American Legion post, I hold my head a little higher because of what he did. I am very proud of that. It was a great thing, and it was a recognition on his part and some of his close friends – in some cases enlisted men, in some cases officers – who had this common vision.

What about your grandfather’s personality do you think shaped The American Legion?
He was not a spit-and-polish person. He spent most of his time on the front lines with the enlisted men. How he wasn’t killed earlier in World War II, as a general and an obvious target, is remarkable.

He was the first general ashore on D-Day.
He wanted to be with his troops. He felt he could steady them. And he felt very strongly that leadership comes from the front, not the rear. That was what he believed in.

Why do you think he resisted nomination to serve as the first national commander?
There is no question that he would have been elected. You read about the scene in St. Louis, when people begged him to be the first national commander. They shouted, “Teddy! Teddy!” He refused to accept it because he wanted to go on into politics, and he thought that would be a horrible conflict. He did not want to even have the perception that The American Legion was politicized. It had a very clear purpose, and it was not to further anyone’s political career, and it was not going to become a political entity.

Some people have urged you to go into politics, most recently to run for the U.S. Senate, but you declined.
I have chosen not to go into politics, but I am conflicted about that. I do feel a sense of obligation to perform public service, but I am at the same time distressed by the lack of civil discourse in American politics today. We don’t listen to each other. We’ve lost our sense of social capital, the ability to come together and do great things. That’s what built America. I would be interested to know what my grandfather, or my great-grandfather, would think about it today. Perhaps they would be a little dismayed by how dysfunctional politics have become.

Jeff Stoffer is editor of The American Legion Magazine.

 

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