Lewis L. Gould: Teddy, Teddy, Enough Already

Lewis L. Gould is Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Theodore Roosevelt, The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, and The William Howard Taft Presidency.

When President Obama invoked the name of “Teddy” Roosevelt in his speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, in December, he seemed on safe ground in referring to his predecessor by that familiar nickname. In the world of the talking head and the political pro, everyone knows that Theodore Roosevelt was called “Teddy” by one and all. What better way to establish credentials as a keeper of the presidential heritage than to refer to “Teddy”? The cable news experts who commented on the president’s remarks had their own orgy of “Teddy” references. When done with the proper blend of authority and sophistication, the use of the nickname tells the audience that here is a person in the know. Since all these prominent pundits call him Teddy, then that must have been what he liked as well.

Wrong. Anyone who spends time with the extensive historical literature on Theodore Roosevelt recognizes that he abhorred his public nickname. If you knew Roosevelt well, you never called him “Teddy.” In fact, unless you were a very close friend, such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge or Secretary of State Elihu Root, you could not even call him “Theodore.” Addressing him as “Roosevelt” was a privilege. Most people called him “Mr. President” in the White House and Colonel Roosevelt, recognizing his service in Cuba in 1898, after he left office....

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