Roosevelt (1858-1919) was one of the most energetic men who ever achieved power. He served 7 years, 171 days as the 26th President of the United States. He was an accidental president—“kicked upstairs” into the vice presidency in 1900, he ascended to the presidency on September 14, 1901, after President William McKinley died of gunshot wounds he received on September 6 at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.
If ever a man created his adult persona, it was Roosevelt. Born frail and sickly, challenged by his father to “make his body,” TR transformed himself into a rugged man of adventure by sheer force of will. He climbed the Matterhorn on his honeymoon, punched out a gunslinger in a bar in Montana, completed a month-long roundup in Dakota Territory after breaking the tip of his shoulder in a horse accident, and forced reluctant cabinet members and foreign dignitaries to join him in his hectic “point to point” hikes in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.
Roosevelt was also a serious intellectual, who frequently read a book a day and wrote more than 35 books, depending on how you count. He was arguably the best prepared president in American history, which places him in some rare company with Jefferson and the two Adams.
Through the course of his long and remarkable political career, TR became more progressive in his outlook and his policy proposals, until (by 1912) he was essentially laying the groundwork for his fifth cousin’s New Deal.
Roosevelt brought the American people, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century. He wanted the U.S. to take its rightful place in the world’s arena. He believed that government alone could serve as the proper counterweight to the gigantic industries that sprang up in the post Civil War period. He read each of his job descriptions in the fullest possible way. He believed he saved capitalism by chastening the worst of its excesses and defending the most vulnerable citizens of the United States from un un-Square Deal.
He got more radical as he grew older. He never lost his thirst for reckless adventure. Not all of his values or policies were admirable, but he was almost always the most interesting person in every room and every “zipcode” he entered.
Clay’s Personal Notes:
I took on Roosevelt just before I returned to North Dakota in 2005. I wanted to have a compelling reason to explore the badlands of western North Dakota, and to embody a character with a North Dakota connection. When I started, I promised myself I would never caricature Roosevelt. That was naïve. I did not realize at the time that it was impossible not to caricature Roosevelt, because he was the author of that caricature. He was, after all, a highly-educated and privileged New York aristocrat who redefined himself as a cowboy, a rancher, a big game hunter, a war hero, a deputy sheriff, and an explorer. Of all the characters I have impersonated, TR is without question the one who is most “larger than life.”
When I perform Jefferson or Oppenheimer or ever John Wesley Powell, I finish more energetically than I started, and I come off the dais “cool as a cucumber.” When I perform as Roosevelt, I come away exhausted, and my shirt is sopping wet. How he maintained that level of energy and talk for 60 years is beyond my understanding.
TR is the only character for whom I try to imitate his accent and speaking style. We don’t know how Jefferson or Meriwether Lewis sounded, or John Wesley Powell, for that matter. My method with all but TR is simply to speak in my own way, memorizing as much as I can, and speaking their vocabulary to the extent that it is distinctive. My sense is that the audience will suspend disbelief (as Coleridge put it) and become absorbed in the matter of the performance. With TR I attempt to imitate his emphatic way of speaking, and to adopt a falsetto pitch when he gets especially excited. We have eight or so recorded specimens of Roosevelt’s speaking.