Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt. By Edward P. Kohn. New York: Basic Books, 2010. 288 pp.
The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898. By Evan Thomas. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2010. 471 pp.
The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. By Lewis L. Gould. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011. 343 pp.
Theodore Roosevelt's life is endlessly fascinating. He was a legislator, police official, prolific author, naval administrator, soldier, hunter, explorer, ambitious politician, governor, statesman, and president. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and earned (posthumously) the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was also a devoted husband and doting father. His daughter Alice was a Washington socialite and gossip. His sons were war heroes.
Two recent books and an updated biography provide new insights into Roosevelt as a New York City Police Commissioner and aspiring officeholder; as a global interventionist and imperialist; and as president of the United States.
In Hot Time in the Old Town, Edward P. Kohn, an assistant professor of American History at Bilkent University (Turkey), tells the story of the deadly New York heat wave of August 1896 and how it helped shape the progressivism of the then 37-year-old police commissioner. The intense heat and humidity over a 10-day period caused the death of more than 1,300 New Yorkers. It also served as the backdrop for Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan's acceptance speech in Madison Square Garden, a speech that while greatly anticipated, ended up hurting Bryan's campaign against Republican William McKinley.
Kohn vividly describes the devastating effects of the heat wave on individuals and families, especially the very young, the very old, and the very poor. Police Commissioner Roosevelt was one of the few city officials who acted to help victims of the heat wave, many of whom lived in squalid tenements in lower Manhattan. Roosevelt recommended and oversaw the city's purchase and free distribution of ice, which saved many lives. He also ordered the use of police wagons as ambulances to transport heat-stricken victims to hospitals. For Roosevelt, Kohn writes, "the heat wave marked another step along the path to a progressive presidency" (p. 242). He witnessed firsthand the plight of the city's tenement dwellers and viewed government as an appropriate actor in easing that plight. Roosevelt's actions...