No one ever accused Teddy Roosevelt of lacking robust political instincts. As vice president, addressing the crowd at the 1901 Minnesota State Fair just days before William McKinley was shot, he quoted the proverb “Speak softly and carry a big stick—you will go far” and went on to elaborate: “Let us further make it evident that we use no words which we are not prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good.”

As president, Roosevelt laid the groundwork for the transformation of the U.S. army from a frontier constabulary, and he ordered his Great White Fleet on a voyage around the world to show the flag. But despite his flamboyant personality, notes Eliot Cohen, a State Department counselor under President Bush, there was nothing reckless in his...


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