So great was Roosevelt’s preoccupation with strength that nearly all of his biographers have felt obliged to explain it. Most have seen it as a response to his childhood illness, and some have suggested that the early delicacy left him with insecurities about his masculinity. One example cited by the prosecution: “Sissy” was a favorite Rooseveltian insult. Another: He would not be photographed on the tennis court, because the game was played by women as well as by men.
Given the vast attention paid to the causes of Roosevelt’s love of strength, there is a surprising lack of discussion about one of its most attractive effects: an exceptional sensitivity to the needs of the sick and others in the grip of circumstances beyond their control. Roosevelt’s efforts on behalf of workers exploited by employers have been well chronicled, but from his earliest days in politics until the last months of his life, he worked equally hard to improve the health of his fellow citizens. Who knew?
The hole in the story is partly Roosevelt’s fault. His concern for public health crops up only a few times in his autobiography, and the stories told are presented as discrete episodes, not illustrations of a long commitment.
In the first, he is a 23-year-old Republican freshman in the New York State Assembly, fighting for a ban on homemade cigars. As the representative of Manhattan’s silk stocking district, Roosevelt was expected to be a laissez-faire man, against government interference in business. But when he visited cigar makers in their tenements, he was appalled to find whole families suffering from eye, skin and lung ailments caused by prolonged exposure to raw tobacco.
Roosevelt decided to champion a proposed ban and persuaded the Legislature to pass the bill. But a judge soon ruled that the new statute violated the sanctity of home. The decision gave Roosevelt his first taste of the opposition in store for politicians who challenged the untrammeled capitalism of the day.