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Lange: A Bully Life

One hundred, one years ago this month, in Chicago, the Republican National Convention was in full cry. To the delight of the Democrats, the party was pulling itself apart.

With three candidates – the massive, somnolent incumbent President William Howard Taft; “Fighting Bob” La Follette of Wisconsin; and the feisty former President Theodore Roosevelt – the party was in a fervor, much as it is today.

The battle then was between the wealthy conservative wing of the Grand Old Party – committed unenthusiastically to Taft’s reelection – and the progressives La Follette and Roosevelt. The convention refused to recognize the progressive delegates chosen in primaries, in favor of delegates appointed by regional party bosses. Tempers ran high. The stage at the auditorium was raised to shoulder height and protected by barbed wire in front, a 12-foot-deep dry moat behind, and security guards and Chicago cops.

Everybody knows the story of Roosevelt’s childhood: how by vigorous outdoor activity he built himself from an asthmatic, nearsighted youth into a sturdy, aggressive young man. My parents held him up as a model when they felt I was reading too much. One of my favorite books was my father’s copy of Roosevelt’s African Game Trails. I read it even after the spine disintegrated and the pages fell out. I can still see the tawny lion charging Teddy and his frightened gun-bearers, and the caption beneath the painting: “...uttering terrific coughing grunts.” The former President dispatched it with a bullet to the middle of its chest. He dispatched many other animals, as well, which didn’t bother me as much then as it does now.

Before that, he’d already fought the Battle of San Juan Hill and appropriated Panama to consolidate our two oceans of influence. But there were other great adventures between his leaving office and finally succumbing, worn out and rheumatic, in his bedroom at Sagamore Hill.

His safari followed his retirement. He ranged all over Africa, collecting animals for a museum and writing dispatches about all he saw. He dined with royalty, and noted the vitiation of societies ruled from the top by divinely appointed autocrats.

Back home, he ran into a storm of enthusiasm for another candidacy. He traveled the country by train, speaking to any crowd, accompanied, for obvious reasons, by a laryngologist. In the end, he helped establish the Progressive Party, and ran as its candidate. This split the Republicans and guaranteed the election of Woodrow Wilson, whose idealism in the face of German militarism drove Roosevelt to distraction.

Chagrined by his defeat, he mounted an expedition to an unknown river in Brazil: the Rio Dúvida – “River of Doubt.” No one knew where it debouched. After weeks of overland travel to the headwaters and more weeks of rapids, canyons, waterfalls, a drowning, a murder, malaria, and an infection that left Roosevelt delirious, they emerged at last on the Amazon.

His voice and influence continued five more years, but Teddy never quite recovered from that last adventure. He was spent. But it was a bully life fully spent.

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a retired remodeling contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in East Montpelier, Vermont.
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