Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Great Lion Hunter Returns

On June 18, 1910, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt returned from nearly fifteen months overseas to an overwhelming reception in New York City. Out of office since March 4, 1909 and out of the country since March 23, 1909, T.R. returned to the United States prepared to fight for the values and policies he pursued as President from September 1901 through March of 1909.

T.R. had gone hunting in Africa, primarily Kenya, Sudan and Egypt, collecting specimens for the collections of the Smithsonian Institute. When T.R. left the United States, he left the powers of the executive in the hands of his own chosen successor, William Howard Taft. The African hunting trip was as much for the benefit of Taft as the enjoyment of T.R. Roosevelt might finally get his lion, and Taft might be able to step out from behind a huge shadow and govern in his own right.

For nearly a year, T.R. and son Kermit hunted for big African game, and they got their lions. As T.R. left Alexandria for Naples on March 30, 1910, he had already received letters and reports that Taft was reversing many of Roosevelt’s progressive policies. In Europe for the next two months, T.R. met with Gifford Pinchot and others who encouraged him to return to the United States and lead the fight for a Progressive agenda. T.R. was received in Europe with a popular fervor and official reception unknown to any former American President. He lectured at Oxford, the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin. He accepted his Nobel Peace Prize and marched as a citizen, representing the United States at the funeral of King Edward VII.

When T.R. returned from Europe, Captain Archie Butt, his former military aide, now Taft’s, extended President Taft’s official welcome home. Butt wrote privately of a conversation held the next morning with a New York newspaper man, telling the man that the papers missed it: “…none commented on the fact that this great outpouring of people, this wonderful enthusiasm seen on all sides, was just to see one man pass, to see him lift his hat, and to hear him address them as fellow citizens. They had stood in the heat for hours for this, and they would have stood just as long in the rain. Nothing could have daunted their spirits yesterday. He was back. That was enough for them. And now where it is going to end is a matter for the future – not for the present. The chapter has been written in the lives of both Taft and Roosevelt and in the history of American politics.”

Archie Butt was a Georgian and a Sewanee man. He served both Presidents well. His letters are a treasure of insight into the personalities of these two men. Butt died when the Titanic sank, and survivors say it was Butt who calmly requested the ship’s band play “Nearer My God to Thee”.

Jenny and I met at Sewanee in 1985. I wish every Sewanee student was taught Butt's life story, an example of a man in the arena for generations to come.

The last couple days, the Wiegand family kept a Rooseveltian pace, visiting parks, forests and wildlife refuges in three states. Today, we caught up with mail and maintenance and spent a good portion of the day atop Pilots Butte in Bend, Oregon. Tomorrow, we visit Crater Lake National Park, where I’m honored to perform for rangers and volunteers honing their interpretive skills. Eric Anderson, the Park Ranger hosting me says this will be T.R.’s first visit to Crater Lake. I can’t wait!

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