NOW LOOK! That damned cowboy is President of the United States."

That's how Mark Hanna, the conservative Republican power-broker from Ohio, was said to have greeted the word that President William McKinley was dead, eight days after being shot be a deranged young anarchist in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901. Teddy Roosevelt, the young, patrician, Harvard-educated, buffalo-shooting, bird-watching, Rough-Riding former New York governor and writer of history books was President, and Hanna, who had oonce called Roosevelt a "mad-man," was not pleased.

It was the story of the decade - the making of it, some would say - for Theodore Roosevelt was to explode out the empty confines of the vice presidency to become a towering, driving, irrepressible presence from 1901 until 1909, when he surrendered the office to his old friend and chosen successor, William Howard Taft. Historians will argue with you over the exact naure of the chemistry at work between the President and the people - the bankers, the investors, the reformers, the muckrakers, the immigrants, the blacks, the plutocrats, the anarchists. And some will insist that Roosevelt was not so much the source as the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the times. But it is beyoond dispute that the man who was called a combination of St. Paul and St. Vitus, and likened to Niagara Falls as a 'wonder of nature,' had a catalytic impact upon those exuberant, creative, contentious years.

So why quibble over the precise role of Teddy Rppsevelt? Well, for one thing, the popular image of Roosevelt the trust-buster and panama Canal builder, who spoke softly and went out around the world carrying a big stick, doesn't do justice to the record of his presidency. For another, if you think of history as something more than a parade of large figures, grandly ordering events, then the performance of Teddy Roosevelt in the White House only captures some part - and not even necessarily the most enduring part - of the essence of this decade.

True, Teddy Roosevelt did order great events. His heavy-handed maneuvering to break off a piece of Colombia and turn it into Panama, and then seize a strip in its middle and blast a canal through it, can be measured both by the strategic and economic impact of the canal over the years and by the intensity of the debate on the canal arrangements that divided this country today. It is also true that his Panamanian truimph sparked the pride and patriotism of the people of that time in the way that added greatly to his enormous popularity.

But Panama adventure is not the right guide to Roosevelt's foreign policy: it was to mark, as things turned out, the high-water mark of American expansionism overseas. The expansionist impulse sounded formidable enough at the turn of the century. "Administration and the development of other lands will be the dominant notes of out second century," cried Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana, on the Senate floor in January 1900. "Pray God the time may never come when mammon and the love of ease will so debase our blood that we will fear to shed it for the flag and its imperial destiny."

Teddy Roosevelt, it must be noted was given to similar rhetorical flights - he did not speak all that softly. "He gushes over war,"William James complained, and Roosevelt's early private letters as well as later public statements bear that out. "All the great masterful races have been fighting races," he once said: "No truimph of peace is quite so great great as the supreme truimphs of war." He had, let's face it, a strong, not to say racist, sense of the superiority of the English-speaking people and the inherent "inferiority" of, for example, "Malay bandits" and "Chinese half-breeds" in the Philippines - but only in terms of peoples . Any individual could be redeemed by manly virtues, and a willingness to work hard; and even "backward" nations or races could be rescued and uplifted by the "civilizing" influence of their betters. So it wasn't really racist, in the sense of racial discrimination, Roosevelt hotly insisted: he spoke out against anti-black bigotry in this country and such was his administration for the japanese, as distinct from other Asians, that he roundly attacked "those infernal fools in California" when the San Francisco School Board set up a separate public school for "Orientals."

Under Roosevelt, America was to reach out for world leadership, fortified by a sense of its own unquestioned virtue. We were to be part policemen and part power-balancer in search of a stable world order, backed by growing sea power and only occasional use of troops in brief engagements or professedly paternalistic occupation in China and in the western hemisphere. But the public appetite for imperialist adventure or colonialist acquisition, so strong among the European powers a the time, had lost its edge in America. Once th loose ends of the Spanish-American War had been tidied up there was only one more annexation - the Canal Zone. "For the cooling-down from a hectic and rather artificially stimulated ardor, there is no phrase that conveys the picture so precisely as the slang one," writes Mark Sullivan in Our Times: "We concluded to forget it."

Why? Part of the answer may be found in some of other ways that America at the trun of the century was, as it is popularly described, "coming of age." Interestingly, the point is nicely made by two technological aspects of the Panama adventure that are rather better worth remembering than the diplomatic brigandage that gave us control of the Canal Zone: (1) the engineering feat involved in shorteninf by 8000 miles and roughly three weeks the passagge of ships and movement of goods between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans; and (2) the medical breakthrough that led to the eradication of yellow fever and subsequently to the prevention of other diseases transmitted by animal parasites.

Indeed, if you accept argument that history has to do as much with people as with politicians, and with what Macaulay called "progress of useful and ornament arts," then the developments of that time that have had the biggest impact of contemporary life can perhaps best be measured, to begin with, by driving out to National Airport, across the 14th Street Bridge, at rush hour. The big men then become Orville and Wilbur Wright, John D. Rockfeller, Barney Oldfield and Henry Ford. The big events become the first flight (twelve seconds) of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft at Kitty Hawk in 1903 (scarsely noted, and then ridiculed at the time); the first big Texas oil strike at Spindletop, Texas, in 1901; the advent in 1908 of the Model T (also the subject of much derision); and Ford's momentums decision a year later to "mass" produce just that one model - available in any color. Ford said, "so long as it is black."

You will also find in this first decade the roots of other movements, and the beginning of other developmentd, that may well strike you as of even greater lasting significance. A civil rights movement emerged with the birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at the end of the decade. The International Workers of the World (the "Wobblies") was founded in Chicago in 1905. The government was just beginning to move into the business of regulating private industry: the Departments of Labor and Commerce were created by Roosevelt in 1903. Laws were passed providing the first regulation of food and drug manufacturing, and meat packing. Congress began looking into the banking system and passed the first child labor law for the District of Columbia. Philanthropic foundations and research institutes began to sprout, nourished by vast accumulations of capital and anew public spiritedness among the fabulously rich. Serious investigative reporting got its start in mid-decade with Ida M. Tarbell's History of the Standard Oil Company and the exposes by Lincoln Steffens and Claude H. Wetmore of contemporary business and political practices. If this sort of thing is your test of what mattered, then the signal contribution of Theodore Roosevelt becomes, not the canal and not his sudden strike under the Sherman Act at the Northern Securities Company in 1902, but his role as "chief galvanizer" of the "revolt of the American conscience," as Frederick Lewis Allen puts it in The Big Change.

"What this dynamic president did," Allen argues, "was to advertise and dramatize to the whole country a point of view of business, government, and the public interest that was refreshingly new, exciting and contagious." It cannot be said that Teddy Roosevelt carried this revolt very far. When reform-minded journalism began to give way to sensation-seeking, he added the word "muck-raker" to the language. He all but destroyed the Republican Party in the South by inviting Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, because, he admired him as an achiever, and a gesture to the blacks. But the response of a leading segregationist, Senator Benjamin (Pitchfork) Tillman - that "the action of President Roosevelt in entertaining the nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they learn their place again" - gives you an idea of how long a way the NAACP still had to go.

Nor can it be said that Roosevelt did much in his time to narrow the gao between grinding poverty and blinding wealth. The fact is that even by the end of the decade neither the President not the federal government had all that much weight to throw around in domestic affairs. Roosevelt shattered precedent by intervening personally to settle a mine-workers strike in 1902. In the bank panic in 1907, J.P. Morgan organized the rescue operation. "During that emergency the President of the United States was powerless to do anything," Allen writes. "The Secretary of the Treasury was hardly more than one of Morgan's aides."

So it wasn't the actual power he was able to wield at home that mattered, or the laws enacted at his urging. All that was minor, says Allen, compared to the "effect of his personality and his preaching upon a great part of the whole generation of Americans." He was not an ideologue but a moralist, exhorting "the strenous lige," the "moral regeneration of te business world" and a decent opportunity for all those prepared to follow his maxim: "Don't flinch, don't foul, hit the line hard."

It was Roosevelt's hope to divert and redirect the energies that were building toward class warfare by holding up a glittering prospect of ever-expanding opportunity for all. And, of course, it didn't work. It didn't satisfy the Wobblies or the Populists or angry farmers or impoverished immigrants or the workers rallying to a burgeonini labor movement or the anarchists inciting revolution. But it delayed the day of greater social upheaval and made it possible for Roosevelt to hand the really hard problems along to future presidents because he was shouting from that "bully pulpit" was, writes Allen, "the kind of talk that millions of Americans of all walks of life - people allergic to ideologies, impatient of economic theory, but highly susceptible of moral evangelism and devoted to the idea of a fair chance for all - could understand and respond to."

For a sense of the ferment at work, and of the flavor of the times, read Ragtime and let E.L. Doctorow transport you back.

Listen to this:

Patriotism was a reliable sentiment . . . The population customarily gathered in great numbers either out of doors for parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings, or indoors in meeting halls, vaudeville theatres, operas, ballrooms. There seemed to be no entertainment that did not involve great swarms of people . . . There was a lot of sexual fainting. . .

And this:

The immigrants . . . were despised by New Yorkers. They were filthy and illeterate . . . They had no honor and worked for next to nothing . . . Every season of the year wagons come through the streets and picked up bodies of derelicts . . . But somehow, piano lessons began to be heard. They stitched themselves to the flag . . . They sang, they told jokes . . .

Millions of men were out of work. Those forntunate to have jobs were dared to form unions. Courts enjoined them, police busted their heads . . . On the tobacco farms, Negors stripped tobacco leaves thirteen hours a day and earnied six cents an hour, man, woman, or child. Children suffered no discriminatory treatment . . .

If there was a problem about the employing children it has to do only with their endurance . . .

And finally this:

It became fashionable to honor the poor. In palaces in New York and Chicago people gave poverty balls. Guests came dressed in rags . . . Ballrooms were decorated to look like mines. Theatrical scenery firms were hired to make outdoor gardens look like dirt farms and dining rooms like cotton mills. Guests smoked cigar butts offered to them on silver trays. Minstrels performed in blackface . . .

The proceeds were for charity.