Teddy Roosevelt’s Ghost

Two years ago, I dressed up as Theodore Roosevelt for Halloween, and my friend Emily dressed as Cuba. Together, we were “the Spanish-American War”. We weren’t trying to honor the man, the country, or U.S. interventionism. Rather, we were trying to let a bruised and hard-to-defend moment of American history have a rare moment as a costume. Also, it let Emily buck the trend of “Sexy Pirate Halloween costumes.”

It was a terrific mistake. I thought my T.R. costume was clear enough: a fierce moustache, a “Big Stick” from the backyard, a pair of khakis, a second-hand hunting jacket, a cowboy hat. Voila! Colonel Teddy Roosevelt, ready for San Juan Hill. Emily’s costume was a little more of a problem — how does one dress as a country, let alone Cuba? — but we settled on a short black wig, a Spanish skirt, a fake parrot, and a bandolier. Just the sort of thing a hack costume company might actually sell as “Cuba”, if they were interested, which was exactly the point.

Incredibly, only one person on the streets of New York that night got it. What a surprise. But at the time, it was a disheartening lesson that our little obsession with the mash-up of American history was not only more than a little pretentious, it was also mostly unshared by anyone else. But a last minute chance encounter made the whole vnture somewhat worthwhile. We were shuffling home (my borrowed boots were far too small), when we passed a group of Latino guys hanging out outside an apartment building in the West Village. They took a look at us, and one said loudly, in Spanish and provoking great bellylaughs, “Look! Here comes a pirate and a [dergoatory Spanish word for a homosexual male]!” I should have winced, but instead I stifled a laugh. Was there any sharper irony than a costume of T.R., the self-(consciously-)made paragon of “manliness” and the chin-thrusting embodiment of American imperialism, being read as a [derogatory Spanish word for a homosexual male] instead?

That story came to mind when I read that on Friday a U.S. Postal Service mechanic pled guilty to haven stolen the revolver used by Roosevelt — then a colonel in the U.S. Cavalry — in Cuba during the Spanish-American war. In April of 1990, Anthony Joseph Tulino apparently visited Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s Long Island Home, and stole the .38-caliber Colt Roosevelt used during the battle of San Juan Hill. It was no ordinary revolver: it had been salvaged from the wreckage of the U.S.S. Maine after the battleship exploded in Havana in 1898 — providing the pretext for war — and with it Roosevelt apparently shot a Spanish solider during the Rough Riders’ most famous charge. Tulino kept it wrapped in a sweatshirt in his closet until a friend tipped off the police. He was prosecuted under the American Antiquities Act of 1906, signed into law by Roosevelt himself, and his guilty pleas ended what a U.S. attorney called a “16-year-old mystery,” returning a “treasured piece of American history…to the public.”

Yes, I wondered, but just how “treasured” a piece of U.S. history is it really? (Monetarily, the revolver’s valued at $500,000.) Just how “treasured” is any piece of historical memorabilia owned by a president, when compared to what a Marilyn Monroe jacket or DiMaggio jersey might fetch? I think pieces like pistol are important, but I also dressed up as its reckless owner for Halloween one year. How many Americans know–or would care– why T.R. and his ghost have been haunting recent American culture and policy? President Bush thinks he knows — he read Edmund Morris’s “Theodore Rex” over the first holidays after the September 11th attacks, and in 2003 I did a doubletake when i saw a NY Times picture of him advocating intervention in Iraq with a painting of Roosevelt in the background. Hardly a coincidence.

But despite Roosevelt’s mark on anti-trust, health and environmental law, and the way he ushered in the “American Century” by asserting America’s exceptionalism and duty to intervene abroad, of the four presidents in the Mt. Rushmore club (all chosen, incidentally, for their role in protecting the republic and expanding its territories), he’s the least likely to be recognized by name. (This might be due to little more than T.R.’s lack of a dollar-bill home. Maybe Sean Comb’s great-grandson will one day say it’s all about the Roosevelts, instead, making this column even more irrelevant.)

American ignorance of its non-Washington-Jefferson-Lincoln presidential past seems to be a core joke in another interesting moemnt for T.R.’s ghost this month:

“Night at the Museum,” a Ben Stiller comedy to be released on December 22nd. In the most recent preview, we see Stiller — an applicant for a position as a security guard at New York’s Museum of Natural History — looking up at a posed manniken of Rough Rider-era T.R. on horseback.

“Ahh, Teddy Roosevelt,” he says to a museum employee. “He was our fourth president, right?”

“Twenty-sixth,” she says right back.

“Twenty-sixth,” Stiller notes.

It’s an easy joke, apt for almost any historical figure, but it’s brought to life by what seems to be the movie’s central conceit: that when the sun goes down, all the exhibits in the museum come to life. The Wild West dioramas, the T-Rex skeleton, and most importantly, the Roosevelt mannikan, played by none other than Robin Williams. The first time I saw the preview I flinched. Robin Willliams? But upon reflection you realize that casting one of America’s most manic comedians as one of America’s wildest presidents was a perfect choice, and said a lot about T.R.’s legacy. There’s no other American president whose character (what we know of it, at least) can hold its own, not as the straight-man (see Abe Lincoln in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” or Nixon in “Dick”), but as a source of laughs in its own right.