By Vikas Datta
The most powerful man in the world is possibly the president of the United States of America, but does he hold the same status in fiction? There are a host of works, across all media, featuring holders of office, both actual or imaginary, in plots reflecting or mirroring history (with a bit of creative licence) or stemming totally from the creator’s fancy but most portrayals are not very positive. There are however a few exceptions – especially one real-life example with and in his own incredible stories.
Leave aside those created by Frederick Forsyth, Irving Wallace, Jeffrey Archer and Tom Clancy, on TV in “The West Wing” or “Commander in Chief”, or in films like “Deep Impact”, “Salt”, or “Air Force One”, and a range of improbable incumbents ranging from Al Capone to Churchill to Stalin (after his parents immigrated in the 1870s), almost all 43 actual presidents had figured fictionally in some media.
However, only a few – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, maybe Andrew Jackson and U.S .Grant – are portrayed heroically. Among them is one whose adventures – crime-solving (including with Sherlock Holmes), fighting Martians or vampires, defeating German invaders, fighting Nazis and hunting a surviving Tyrannosaurus Rex – never seem incongruously fantastic given his colourful life, before, during and after his two-term presidency.
Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who overcame asthma to even box, was a rancher, hunter, New York’s police commissioner and politician, raised and led a volunteer cavalry regiment in the Spanish-American war and wrote 35 books – several deemed the last word on the subject. Made vice president by the party to remove him as New York governor, he became the youngest president – at 42 – after William McKinley’s assassination in 1901.
A progressive aristocrat who battled corruption and sought equality for women, blacks and Jews, he took on business monopolies, encouraged nature conservation, initiated the Panama Canal’s construction, made his country a global power and won a Nobel Peace Prize. He still had time for tennis, jujitsu, a book (or more) a day, and walks where no obstacle could be avoided but had to be gone over, under or through.
Demitting office, he went big-game hunting in East Africa. Back home, he decided his successor was not doing well and decided to run again in 1912 – even after being denied his party nomination. During the campaign, he was shot in an assassination bid but went on to deliver a 90-minute speech before seeking medical aid. Besting the party nominee but losing to his rival, he went exploring in Brazil, campaigned for the US to fight in the First World War, and was dismayed when his request to personally participate was denied. He wanted to run again for president in 1920 and could have won – but was broken after his youngest son’s death in the war.
His exploits can be read in his own words, or in several splendid accounts. Edmund Morris’ three-volume biography (“The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt”, 1979; “Theodore Rex”, 2001; “Colonel Roosevelt”, 2010) is a good overview and many more deal with specific periods or activities like Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” (2005) about his South American expedition.
Fictionally, prolific author Noel B.Gerson’s “T.R.” (1970) is a biography but others are period-wise. Dealing with Roosevelt at the dawn of his public life is H. Paul Jeffers’ “The Stalwart Companions” (2010) where he teams up with Holmes to foil the then US president’s assassination.
An account of his eventful ranching days in Dakota is Brian Garfield’s “Manifest Destiny” (1989), while Lawrence Alexander’s trilogy – “The Big Stick” (1986), “Speak Softly” (1987), and “The Strenuous Life” (1992) – have him solve complicated mysteries as New York police commissioner.
Also of this period are Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” (1994) and Mary Kruger’s “Masterpiece of Murder” (1997) where he supports the investigators.
Will Henry’s “San Juan Hill” deals with his stint as the Rough Riders’ commander, and in Mark Schorr’s “Bully!” (1985), he, ensnared in a plot by powerful industrialists to discredit his administration, pursues the criminals himself, aided by a loyal buddy from his cowboy days.
Among the more speculative is Mike Resnick’s “The Other Teddy Roosevelts” (2008) where he takes on aliens, vampires and Jack the Ripper, and “The Doctor and the Rough Rider” where he joins Doc Holliday (of OK Corral fame) to ensure America’s continental expansion, Mark Paul Jacobs’ “How Teddy Roosevelt Slew the last Mighty T-Rex” (2013), Harry Turtledove’s ‘Southern Victory’ alternate history series where he leads the Union that lost the Civil War to eventual victory, and Robert Conroy’s “1901” where he has to contend with a German invasion.
Giving his rationale, Resnick says he found TR so fascinating and bigger than life that he decided the only field accommodating a man with those virtues was science fiction, for finding some challenges truly worthy of his talents.
As these examples show, Theodore Roosevelt’s influence in imagination is no less than in reality!