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THE PRICE OF TEDDY ROOSEVELT'S LEGACY

It is with a bit of irony that our city pauses this weekend to mark the centennial of President Theodore Roosevelt's inauguration at the Wilcox Mansion on Delaware Avenue.

It was supposed to be a gala celebration featuring the best and brightest of TR scholars; a commemoration of one of the most significant presidencies of the 20th century.

The irony lies in how tragedy -- William McKinley's assassination -- began his presidency, and how a century later, more tragedy -- the destruction at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- canceled plans to observe all that.

In the grand scheme of what families in New York and Washington face this weekend, disappointment over a chance to rehash history doesn't amount to much. But it reinforces the idea that those responsible have succeeded, even to the point of disrupting the way we live our lives.

That's where the irony line continues. It was Theodore Roosevelt, after all, who forced the United States onto the world stage -- the man who engaged us in global affairs in a way feared by all presidents before him.

He dispatched the Great White Fleet and carried the big stick. He warned the rest of the world to butt out of the Americas, and when he was through pontificating -- the rest of the world listened.

Now the flip side of the role that Roosevelt embraced and relished is exposed in New York and Washington. Engagement in the world can carry a price. You have to wonder, especially on this centennial weekend, what he would have thought.

Historians are always adamant about inserting figures from the past into current events. It's speculative, they say. And they would be right. But it is appropriate, given the convergence of the week's events and the Roosevelt centennial, to tread there lightly. Some historians offer their thoughts.

"Roosevelt was a very intelligent man, and well aware that to be a major player on the world stage was to open us up to that danger," said Mark Lozo, education director at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site. "But I don't think he would have had second thoughts or regrets about the role.

"He would certainly regret the terrible loss of life, but would also say we must understand some sacrifice is necessary and worth risking in order to accomplish good in the world," he added. "And he was never a man to run from a challenge."

Lozo also believes TR would -- in effect -- send out the Great White Fleet once again.

"I think he would feel the time has passed for speaking softly, and the time has come for the judicious application of the big stick," he said.

Scott Eberle, a Buffalo resident and local history expert who is vice president of the Strong Museum in Rochester, says TR recognized a century ago that the U.S. had to emerge from the cocoon of its own shores. He was the first modern president to recognize that interests of the U.S. and Britain would often coincide, Eberle said, and that consequences -- such as a world war -- might someday result.

"The very forces that Roosevelt set in motion, we come to be haunted by in some measure," he said.

And it's important to note, he added, that the events in Buffalo 100 years ago occupy a key role in a very broad context.

"Had McKinley lived, we might very well have taken a more isolationist path," Eberle said. "It's easy to say that our presence on the world stage would have been inevitable, but nothing is inevitable. It could have gone in a different direction."

There is no doubt that Theodore Roosevelt would have abhorred the events of last week. There is probably also no doubt that he would have reacted; wielded the big stick. But he also would have understood that a heavy price must be occasionally paid for that presence on the stage.

He could not have foreseen last week's events, nor anything equally as horrible as World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam or the Persian Gulf War. But he might have foreseen how U.S. engagement in the world would give us the World Trade Center in the first place, and that, he would say, would be just "bully."

Back on the afternoon of Sept. 6, at the exact-to-the-minute 100th anniversary of the shooting of William McKinley, life in Buffalo went on pretty much uninterrupted. But two ministers, the Rev. Jon Hasselbeck of Orchard Park and the Rev. Joe Askins of Rochester, were spied kneeling at the small monument on Fordham Avenue that marks the very spot where the president was shot while greeting Pan-Am visitors in the Temple of Music.

They prayed for McKinley, for Roosevelt and the people of Buffalo. It was a low-key -- but heartfelt -- commemoration of the events of a century ago.

The bet here is that both presidents appreciated it.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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