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'The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt' looks at the women who shaped a future president


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: A new book offers a fresh way to understand one of America's most important presidents.

Jeffrey Brown sits down with author Edward O'Keefe for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Theodore Roosevelt was known as a rugged outdoorsman, a naturalist, a soldier, combative politician, and the 26th president of the United States, enshrined on Mount Rushmore.

But, as a new book puts it — quote — "This most masculine president in the American memory was, in fact, the product of largely unsung and certainly extraordinary women."

The book "The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt: The Women Who Created a President" tells of T.R., as he was known, shaped by five women, his mother, Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, his first wife, Alice, who died at 22 after just four years of marriage, his second wife, Edith Kermit Roosevelt, and two sisters, Anna and Corinne, key political strategists and aides.

Author Edward O'Keefe, a longtime broadcast and digital journalist, is CEO of Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library Foundation, and joins me now.

Welcome to you.

Edward O'Keefe, Author, "The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt: The Women Who Created a President": Well, it's good to be with you.

Jeffrey Brown: I want to start with, this is a president who's been written much of, but you came to him in a very personal way through your home state of North Dakota.

Why was he so important to you?

Edward O'Keefe: When you grow up in North Dakota, you suffer a surfeit of heroes.

You have got Roger Maris, Peggy Lee, Lawrence Welk, maybe contemporary North Dakotans, Phil Jackson.

Jeffrey Brown: Those are all good.

Edward O'Keefe: All good.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Edward O'Keefe: But they don't compare to Theodore Roosevelt. I chose Theodore Roosevelt.

Jeffrey Brown: He was your guy.

Edward O'Keefe: He was my guy. I mean, I went out to Theodore Roosevelt National Park with my family as a kid, to the Medora Musical, and the Badlands.

And I was a Red River Rough Rider. So this was providential. It was ordained that I would be a fan of T.R.

Jeffrey Brown: OK, a fan. And then you want to write about him, but your way in is through the women in his life. Why?

Edward O'Keefe: Well, I mean, Theodore Roosevelt was — the myth about Theodore Roosevelt is that he was a self-made man. That is just simply not true.

All of us, if we are fortunate in our lives, have brothers, sisters, fathers, grandparents, parents, colleagues, friends, people who pick us up and push us forward when we're faltering, when we're suffering or have some sort of disappointment or setback in our life.

And that is true of Theodore Roosevelt too. That's not the story that has been told by history. "The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt" really sheds a light on some women that have been forgotten by history for far too long.

Jeffrey Brown: So let's talk about a couple of them.

I want to start with one of the sisters. Sisters play an interesting role as behind-the-scenes political strategists, Anna, for example.

Edward O'Keefe: Bamie — she's known as Bamie for Bambina.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes.

Edward O'Keefe: And Bamie is…

Jeffrey Brown: Everybody has interesting names, right?

Edward O'Keefe: They all have nicknames, absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.


Edward O'Keefe: So Bamie is what RFK was to JFK for Theodore Roosevelt.

She is insightful and intelligent. She sees the political chessboard and knows exactly where Theodore Roosevelt should move next. I mean, she is an inspiration for T.R. in many ways. She suffered a spinal defect as a child. And so she teaches her brother, her younger brother, how to will through pain.

I mean, that is one of the key facts we know about Theodore Roosevelt, his just almost superhuman strength and ability to suffer these physical feats. He learned that from his sister Bamie. And she is the one that, time after time, she puts him in the position of assistant secretary of state.

She's the one who has the little White House down the street from the Oval Office. And it is said of Bamie that, had she been a man, she would have been president of the United States, not T.R.. And none other than Eleanor Roosevelt agrees with that assessment.

Jeffrey Brown: Now, his wife Edith — this is his second wife — you call her the first modern first lady.

Edward O'Keefe: Yes, Edith kicks open the door of the American century and pushes Theodore Roosevelt through it.

I mean, I don't — there's so much you can say about Edith. I mean, she physically transformed the White House. She created what is known as the East Wing and the West Wing, the executive function of the White House and the residential function of the White House. She built a colonial garden, which became the Rose Garden.

She had an office next to Theodore's. And so she was in the room where it happened because she designed it that way. But far beyond the physical changes to the White House, Edith was Theodore Roosevelt's key political adviser. She read four or five newspapers a day. She was the first person that T.R. talked to in the morning, the last person he talked to at night.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said of Edith that she managed T.R. very cleverly without his being conscious of it, no slight achievement, anyone will concede.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, you flicked at this when you were talking about the sister, but it's worth saying, I think, these are all, in your words, extraordinary women, but of their time.

So they had to do all of this behind the scenes. They weren't able to be out front. They certainly weren't able to run for office themselves.

Edward O'Keefe: Oh, absolutely.

I mean, we said of Bamie that, had she been a man and lived at another time…

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Edward O'Keefe: … she could have been president.

They funneled — the women in Theodore Roosevelt's life all funneled their energy into their brother or their spouse or their son. They wanted to see him succeed. And, in fact, they obscured their role in history.

"The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt" shows through meticulous research and brand-new letters that have never been a part of the historical record before the story that they didn't necessarily want told. They liked the myth of Theodore Roosevelt, the self-made man.

But I don't think it diminishes T.R. to know that he had help, that he had his sisters, he had his mother, he had his wives who were there pushing him along the way. We all need that in our lives and are fortunate to have it.

Jeffrey Brown: How much has the research changed? How much more do we know now? How much, as times change, as the culture changes, to look behind the scenes at the sort of great man theory, which is where T.R. has been shrouded, right?

Edward O'Keefe: Absolutely.

When Edmund Morris and David McCullough did their books in the late '70s, early '80s, they did not have access to 24 love letters between Theodore Roosevelt and his first wife, Alice. Those letters are all in "The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt."

While I was doing the research, there was a safe at Sagamore Hill that hadn't been open since 1954. Harvard called it the greatest discovery of Theodore Roosevelt letters since his death in 1919. All 11 of those new letters are in "The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt."

So, believe it or not, we're learning more about history the more time goes on and these incredible women in T.R.'s life.

Jeffrey Brown: You referred to his wife Edith opening the door to the American century.

Now, that's a — even — that's a kind of fraught phrase, a complicated phrase.

Edward O'Keefe: Sure.

Jeffrey Brown: What do you mean by it, and how has our conception of it and T.R.'s role in it changed?

Edward O'Keefe: Well, I think that history doesn't repeat; it rhymes.

And, of course, if you don't learn from history, you're condemned to repeat it. You think about T.R.'s time, right, there was rapid technological change. They're flying in airplanes and driving in cars. He was born at a time before electricity. He's — there's a change from an agrarian to an industrial society and the economy.

There's a mass wave of immigration changing the composition of the culture. And there's a debate about whether America should be isolationist or whether they should be a global power. Does any of this sound familiar?

Jeffrey Brown: Mm-hmm.

Edward O'Keefe: It's exactly what we're debating now.

And I think, when you look at the history, you really can better understand the present and hopefully make a better future.

Jeffrey Brown: So, lastly, I want to ask you about your other hat, which is, as I mentioned in the introduction, with the library foundation.

This is being built in your home state in North…

Edward O'Keefe: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: … to take us back to the beginning, North Dakota.

Edward O'Keefe: Yes.

Well, Theodore Roosevelt said, "I never would have been president without my experiences in North Dakota."

And that is why we are constructing the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library in the Badlands next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the only park named for a person, let alone a president. And we are scheduled to open on July 4, 2026, the 250th anniversary of America.

And it's really about tomorrow, not yesterday. It's about future generations getting in the arena and making a change that they want to see in the world.

Jeffrey Brown: All right. We will look for that, and, in the meantime, "The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt."

Edward O'Keefe, thank you very much.

Edward O'Keefe: Great to be with you, Geoff.

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