Why Presidents Are Also Celebrities

National Archives

In October of 1912, as he was leaving Milwaukee’s Gilpatrick Hotel to deliver a speech at the city’s auditorium, Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest. He was campaigning at the time for a third party and third term in the White House; John Schrank, an unemployed saloonkeeper, blamed TR for the murder of President McKinley, and wanted vengeance. The momentum of the bullet had been slowed by Roosevelt’s thick overcoat, his steel-reinforced eyeglass case, and the 50-page speech he had tucked into his jacket pocket. But it hadn’t been slowed that much. Schrank’s bullet penetrated, lodging finally against Roosevelt’s fourth right rib, close to his heart. But TR refused to go to the hospital. He insisted instead that he give his speech.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible,” he told the packed auditorium, unbuttoning his vest to reveal his bloodstained shirt. “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot."

He continued: "But it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

He went on: “The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”

The episode was, above all, stupid and reckless. It was something the ex-president—and this is a common refrain when it comes to this particular ex-president—could never have gotten away with today. It also—and here’s another common refrain—could have killed him. But TR's refusal to abort his speech simply because of an inconveniently located bullet was also, and there is really no other way to say it, exceptionally badass. It suggested that Roosevelt, flesh and blood like the rest of us, was somehow less freighted by this fact than the rest of us.

Which is why it has become part of the mythology of Roosevelt, and along with it the mythology of the Roosevelts, and along with that the mythology of the American presidency—all of which were transformed, in ways both small and distinctly less so, by TR’s brand of manic machismo. When Roosevelt called himself a “Bull Moose,” he did it entirely unironically. As a state legislator, he had threatened to kick a fellow lawmaker "in the balls." One of his life’s big regrets was that he had not been injured—or, even better, disfigured—during his infamous adventure in Cuba. If a new form of Manifest Destiny would be an ongoing feature of the American 20th century, it was up to him, he felt, to put the “man” in it.

This was a conviction shared, in its way, by Roosevelt’s fifth cousin. Franklin Delano may not have had TR’s trust-busting, gun-toting swagger—and only in part because of the mid-life bout of polio that left him briefly depressed and permanently crippled—but he shared his outsized ambition. As Ken Burns puts it in The Roosevelts: An Intimate History: “Each took unabashed delight in the power of his office to do good. Each displayed unbounded optimism and self-confidence. Each refused to surrender to physical limitations that might have destroyed them. And each had an uncanny ability to rally men and women to his cause."

Every president, by historical default, is the first of the modern presidents. But the Roosevelts were especially modern—particularly in their ability, on top of everything else, to do this rallying. Their presidencies coincided with the rise of the telegraph, which made newspapers newly nimble, and of the radio, which brought the concept of “the broadcast” to the American consciousness and way of life. They used those new tools—tools that exist to transform flesh and blood into something more—to enlarge their voices, their ideas, and themselves in the minds of their fellow Americans. And then, their voices and their images having stretched, taut, across the newly expanded nation, they used them for something small: to do the dirty business of governing. Their status as media figures helped give them the mandate they needed to shape themselves as historical figures.

Congressmen welcome FDR back after a fishing trip, 1934 (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library)

You’ll occasionally read arguments that we would be better off splintering those two roles the way so many other democracies do, with a prime minister to handle the politics and a ceremonial figure to handle the pancakes. These are fanciful, for the most part—Americans tend to like monarchs the same we like our eagles: distant—but they emphasize how insistently we conflate executive authority and ceremonial duty in our sense of what the presidency means in the first place. That is a mingling that is only partially mandated by the Constitution. It is a mingling that George Washington, the man who would not be king, famously deflected—an in part why he stepped aside after two terms in office. Decades' worth of presidents followed Washington's example.

Until, that is, the Roosevelts. The two presidents expanded the scope of the presidency not just through the laws they enacted and the social programs they established, but also through a more psychic innovation: their elevation of the presidency to an office of de facto celebrity. They made being president about being, in the way we understand the term today, a media figure. They fostered in the minds of the public the supremely unconstitutional idea that “president” and “government” were, to a large extent, the same thing. By the end of FDR’s 12-year presidency—he had won an unprecedented fourth term—there was, the historian David Leuchtenberg says, “an acceptance in the White House that government has a responsibility—not just to a few, but to all of the nation that no subsequent president, no matter how conservative his views, has been able to get away from."

The Roosevelts’ ascendance coincided with the rise of opinion polls, which made public opinion was newly quantifiable, and thus newly malleable. And the press—at the time the primary channel between the president and the public—was as often an accomplice to presidential manipulations as an adversary of them. Teddy Roosevelt was the first to offer the press corps a briefing room in the White House. He was an early fan of the photo-op. When, during his years in the Dakotas, three thieves stole Roosevelt’s boat, he tracked them down, marched them 45 miles to the nearest sheriff's office … and then re-staged the capture for his box camera. FDR, for his part, invited the press to his office 997 times during his administration. He called the reporters by their first names (and claimed, Burns notes, to be a newspaper man himself—having, while at Harvard, served as editor of the Crimson). They returned the favor by, among other things, helping to keep the secret that he had been, since the age of 39, unable to walk on his own.

And, of course, FDR seized the new medium of radio for, among other things, his Fireside Chats. Those chats (and, presumably, the social programs they were meant to promote) represented the first time, a woman wrote in a letter to FDR, that "people felt like presidents cared about the common people." And the common people responded. Herbert Hoover's mail had been handled by a single clerk; Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt needed 50. They made government feel newly intimate to people, imbuing the White House with a sense not just of possibility, but of family. "People like the Roosevelts,” a woman of the time says in the Burns documentary, “were the closest thing to royalty we had."

But a big part of royalty is continuity. And executive power, once unleashed, has a stubborn tendency to stick around. After the “royal” Roosevelts came the “Camelot” Kennedys (not to mention, of course, a possibly soon-to-grow-largernumber of presidential dynasties). Along with them came prime-time press conferences and televised debates and dinner dates in US Weekly and 5-o'clock shadows blamed for lost elections. The Roosevelts may have, as Jon Meacham says in the documentary, “kept alive the possibility of progress that began to rewrite the role of government in American life”; they also rewrote the role of president in that life. They are in some part the reason that we ask those who seek its office not merely to present us with policy proposals, but also to charm us. To seduce us. To convince us that we would like to have a beer with them. They are the reason why, this past weekend, a scrum of reporters converged on a field in Iowa to watch a former head of state and a former Secretary of State grill some steaks. It’s probably why one of those world leaders wore gingham.

We want our presidents to double as our stars. We want them to act, if not to be, superhuman. It’s a cliché, at this point, that the wheelchair-bound Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t have been elected president today, in today’s media environment. The irony is that you can blame that, in part, on FDR.

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