One hundred years ago this week, on Sept. 14, 1901, one of the greatest American presidents took the oath of office. When President William McKinley died at an assassin's hand, Theodore Roosevelt succeeded him.
But "T.R." never would have been in that position had he not followed through on a different pledge three years earlier.
In 1898 Roosevelt, as assistant secretary of the Navy, had pushed hard for the United States to go to war against Spain. He had always said that he would not ask others to do what he would not do himself, but no one expected him to enlist when the war began. T.R. did, though, stating, "My power for good, whatever it may be, would be gone if I didn't try to live up to the doctrines I have tried to preach."
Few Washington officials approved of his logic. "I really think he is going mad," one said. Secretary of the Navy John D. Long noted in his diary that "every one" of Roosevelt's friends told him "he is acting like a fool." But Long also wondered what the result would be if T.R. "should accomplish some great thing and strike a very high mark."
That's exactly what happened: Roosevelt aimed high and struck high. He first gave several speeches asking Americans to enlist and follow him in a special unit that became known as the Rough Riders. Many did, and they followed him through training and then aboard ship to Cuba, one of the last remnants of the Spanish empire.
On July 1, 1898, Roosevelt -- on horse and an easy target for Spanish marksmen -- led his enlistees up Kettle Hill east of Santiago. The fighting was hard. Mauser bullets killed men all around T.R., and many survivors wanted to retreat. But he shamed them into following by rasping at them, "Are you afraid to stand up when I am on horseback?"
A bullet grazed Roosevelt's elbow, but he shot back and led his men to take Kettle Hill. Then it was on to San Juan Hill about 700 yards away. T.R. gave the order to charge, and a New York Sun reporter told the story: "Bullets were raining down on them, and shot and shell from the batteries. ... Up they went in the face of death. ... Roosevelt was a hundred feet in the lead ... shouting for the men to follow him. ... Finally his horse was shot from under him. He charged up the hill afoot. At last the top of the hill was reached ... the position won."
Roosevelt's political elevation was instant. He returned home to New York just in time to be elected governor in 1898. One of T.R.'s sergeants, Buck Taylor, introduced him at campaign stops: "Ah want to talk to you about muh colonel. He kept ev'y promise he made to us, and he will to you. When he took us to Cuba he told us ... we might meet wounds and death and we done it, but he was thar in the midst of us. When it came to the great day he led us up San Juan Hill like sheep to the slaughter, and so he will lead you."
Democratic candidates were the ones who subsequently faced slaughter: Voters elected the Republican Roosevelt vice president in 1900 and re-elected him as president in 1904. But all that came about because T.R. had the moral certainty to be willing to practice what he preached.
How different that seems from everyday Washington, where words and actions are so frequently divorced. So here's to you, Teddy Roosevelt: On the 100th anniversary of your becoming president, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.