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Theodore Roosevelt sets a high bar for slacker America

I was gifted a book for Christmas that has made me question the way I’ve used my time on this planet – Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.” 

It is not as if I have been a total washout; a couple of Pulitzers must count for something. Still, I have often felt like a lazy bum compared with two of my longtime friends, Jay Inslee and Tim Egan. After serving eight terms in Congress, Jay is now governor of Washington. Tim is a New York Times columnist and author of a string of successful books, including the National Book Award-winning “The Worst Hard Time,” “The Big Burn” and, most recently, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher.”

Both Jay and Tim have always seemed to have endless energy and a disciplined work ethic that I only exhibit in short bursts. Combine them both, though, and their accomplishments would add up to only a fraction of what Theodore Roosevelt achieved in his busy lifetime. I am embarrassed to think where that leaves me.

T.R., as he liked to be called (not Teddy), was a severely near-sighted, asthmatic child who used his times of convalescence reading novels and history books, writing stories and essays and learning taxidermy and ornithology. He essentially willed himself into health with a years-long physical regimen that built the robust body of his adulthood.

After a distinguished college career at Harvard and Columbia Law School, he became a state legislator at the age of 24. When his mother and his first wife died on the same day, the young Roosevelt went west to North Dakota where he became a cowboy and rancher. Eventually returning to New York, he married his childhood sweetheart and restarted his political career.

Roosevelt became New York City police commissioner, then assistant secretary of the Navy. When the Spanish American War began, he organized a troop of cowboys into the Rough Riders and led them in a charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba.

After that, he was elected governor of New York and vice president. At age 42, Roosevelt became president of the United States, the youngest man to take charge of the White House and arguably its most successful peacetime occupant. He oversaw completion of the Panama Canal, created the national parks and championed the Progressive cause against the corrupt political machines and industrial monopolists whom he called the “malefactors of great wealth.”

Along the way, T.R. found the time to write 40 books and hundreds of magazine articles and book reviews. He rode horses, boxed, rowed, played tennis and polo and skinny-dipped in the Potomac. Oh, yeah, he also won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

We live in an age of great distraction. Everything from Facebook and email to video games and binge TV watching can give us the sense we have done something useful with our time when, in fact, we have merely wasted a lot of days we will never get back. Many young American men, the slacker generation, would benefit from adopting Roosevelt’s “strenuous life” as a model of manhood, but it is not just a boy problem. Most of us have a slacker inside. We could do worse than to strive for the energy, disciplined time management and moral core that made Roosevelt a man worthy of a place on Mount Rushmore.

We don’t all need to be exceptional achievers like our 26th president, but it would be good to frequently ask ourselves the question posed by poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Roosevelt did it all and with gusto.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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