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Teddy Roosevelt’s example for America: Sweat and grit

Leigh Giangreco is a reporter based in Washington.

The doctor described the president as “a physical marvel.”

An emergency room attendant claimed he was “one of the most powerful men I have ever seen laid on an operating table,” while another doctor noted that his “magnificent physical condition” owed to his “regular physical exercise.”

It may well have been overblown rhetoric stemming from the president’s own trumped-up assessment of himself, but there had to have been a kernel of truth in there, considering he had just been shot.

Those were medical reports after former president Theodore Roosevelt survived an assassin’s bullet while stumping on the 1912 campaign trail as a candidate of his own Bull Moose Party. His brush with death and subsequent bill of good health marked one more chapter in Roosevelt’s strenuous existence, a life he had dedicated to a rigorous self-improvement plan that would launch him to success and inspire a feeble nation.

In his new book, “The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete,” Ryan Swanson whips through T.R.’s athletic exploits and influence on American sports with the vigor of sportscaster Harry Caray punctuating a Cubs home run with “Holy cow!” We often think of two body types for Roosevelt: the bronzed boxer-cowboy hybrid and the paunchy president. Both are correct, as Swanson shows, leading us through T.R.’s physical transformation.

As a young boy, he was thin and asthmatic. At Harvard, the sinewy figure he developed as an avid boxer and rower was undercut by his glasses and jittery movements. When he was nearly 60, his ballooning girth sent him to a pastoral retreat dedicated to “intense physical training” and “profuse sweating.” In every stage, he was never the star athlete and never afraid of looking ridiculous. Second to his “Strenuous Life” speech, in which he goaded Americans to go to work and to war, the oration that defined Roosevelt’s approach to life was his “Man in the Arena” speech. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,” Roosevelt said in a sermon dripping with sports analogies.

In Swanson’s book, we see Roosevelt’s face bloodied, blinded in one eye and overheated in pursuit of the strenuous life. It’s the sort of heartening journey that will make one want to shout “Go, Teddy! Go!” each time he surmounts another hurdle.

It’s less Roosevelt’s athletic prowess — he was often middling — and more his unrelenting grit that’s so inspiring. Here we find a president who is strong not because he brags about his might but because he publicly embraces his vulnerabilities. That infectious, positive energy was crucial at a time when more Americans were starting to lead sedentary lives and needed some prodding to get moving again. Swanson describes a country where corporate power superseded the state’s, factories robbed workers of their physical labor in the fields and doctors saw more cases of “nervous exhaustion and ‘irritable weakness.’ ”

“Basically, Americans seemed to have every sign of economic progress and technological development in their midst, but instead of flourishing they were falling apart,” he writes.

Roosevelt’s thoughts about sports extended beyond his philosophy on the benefits of physical activity. His broader concerns focused on a rapidly industrializing country that he believed was raising soft, effeminate men who could barely face down an army. His goal of American athletic supremacy, whether it was Olympic races or simply walking, ran parallel with his ambition to build a world-class military that could rival Britain’s. Even his “Strenuous Life” speech, while often connected with athleticism, was in fact a call to military action in the Philippines.

It seems there’s no aspect of American life that Roosevelt hasn’t touched or, more accurately, punched right through. From his conservation efforts and exploration of an uncharted river in the Amazon to his jingoistic expansion of the U.S. military and rollicking time as a Rough Rider, Roosevelt “hit the line hard,” as he would say in both football and life. I co-created a Teddy Roosevelt book club in Washington partially out of the need to explore each facet of this complex character who has, for better or worse, defined what it means to be an American.

Happy as I am to dredge this deep well, I expressed some initial skepticism about a book devoted to T.R.’s mark on American sports because it seemed John J. Miller had already tackled that subject with his 2011 book, “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.” Sure, Swanson sets the scene with an opening chapter on Roosevelt’s attendance at the 1901 Army-Navy game in Philadelphia and devotes another section to the Ivy League politicking over reforming America’s most dangerous game. But there’s ample meat left on the bone covering tennis, baseball, school sports and more.

There were moments when I could have done with fewer interjections by the author. Swanson’s conversational tone makes clear that he doesn’t intend for this to be a typical Roosevelt read. This is an engaging book you can hold with one hand while doing light bicep curls with the other, not a Doris Kearns Goodwin tome that gives you a backache.

At times, Swanson falls prey to the trap of mixing Roosevelt myths with facts. In his telling of Roosevelt’s 1879 boxing match at Harvard against Charles Hanks, Swanson emphasizes the presence of T.R.’s love interest, Alice Hathaway Lee, a point that is debunked in David McCullough’s “Mornings on Horseback.” Owen Wister, a friend of Roosevelt who specialized in fiction, wrote that Lee watched the match from a balcony in the gym, but McCullough notes that the old gym had no balcony and no women were present. It’s a small detail that may be hard to pin down exactly because the primary sources rely on hyperbolic, 19th-century reporters like Wister. But this type of color is what separates this book from the tedious exactitude of other Roosevelt stories.

The chapter on African American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson is particularly illuminating. The 1910 showdown between Johnson and the white boxer Jim Jeffries served as a proxy race war in Jim Crow America. Swanson’s vignette offers a nuanced portrait of Roosevelt, who fought for equality while holding racist views of white, American supremacy. History often frames Roosevelt as a woke hero for inviting Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House. But he also dishonorably discharged 167 black enlisted men of the 25th U.S. Infantry on limited information after the mayor of Brownsville, Tex., alleged that some of the soldiers had engaged in violence in the city. The Brownsville affair transformed Roosevelt into African Americans’ “Judas” and provided rhetorical ammunition for Johnson, a rising athlete who played politics better than the aging ex-president.

Swanson succeeds in telling stories that will be entertaining for readers without any previous knowledge of Roosevelt, as well as those who don’t closely follow sports, like me. What’s most invigorating about Swanson’s book is watching T.R.’s struggle. Everyone wants to cheer for the bespectacled underdog with the high-pitched voice and the toothy grin, even if it’s the same man who ran a successful two-term administration and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

“It was Roosevelt’s sheer ability to keep moving forward that Americans found so appealing,” Swanson writes about the president’s brutal exercise regimen toward the end of his life in 1917.

How wonderful to see a president make the strenuous life look like so much fun.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete

By Ryan Swanson

329 pp. $27.99