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Acting President

Date: May 27, 2008


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Sometimes art imitates life; sometimes it's vice versa. Other times, it's much more complicated than that; sometimes fiction becomes destiny.

"I'd been in umpteen productions of Arsenic and Old Lace as the guy who believes he's Teddy Roosevelt," says Michael O. Smith, who currently stars in a self-penned solo show, The Bully Pulpit, at the Beckett Theatre through June 29. "Now I've become that guy!"

Smith is only half-joking: He's been polishing his affectionate but shaded portrait of the nation's 26th president for two decades now. Its initial origins are unlikely; indeed, it's probably safe to say that few Off-Broadway shows began as Sunday school presentations.

"We called it the 'media class,' " says Smith of the church program he and a number of other show business types--including Steve Allen, John Agar, Burt Reynolds and Dan Haggerty--put together to edify and entertain the youngsters at a Los Angeles-area congregation. "Since we were all entertainers and producers, the pastor asked us to do five-minute presentations about American heroes with a staunch moral and ethical background."

Roosevelt immediately sprang to mind for Smith, and not least because there was a wealth of source material to draw on: Roosevelt had given a series of lectures at the University of the Pacific in California on the subject of ethics, which Smith used as the basis for his piece.

Encouraged by the response of his local congregation, Smith expanded the presentation to about 30 minutes and started calling it "Theodore Roosevelt, Preacher of American Ideals." While on tour throughout the country with Broadway productions of such shows as Amadeus and The Elephant Man, Smith stopped at local rotary clubs and congregations offering to do his Roosevelt show on the side.

Eventually he developed it into a full-length evening of theatre for the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, near where he and his wife reside in Tampa, Fl. (not far, he's quick to point out, from the spot that Roosevelt's Rough Riders departed for Cuba during the Spanish-American War). It was on a tour stop in the Northeast that producer Rhoda Herrick spotted the show and decided to bring it to New York.

In expanding the piece to include material from several sources who knew Roosevelt firsthand, Smith says his picture of the man, while still admiring, has grown more complicated.

"Theodore's life was multifaceted," Smith says. "He was a president, a hunter, a conservationist, an explorer."

He was also, according to some contemporary critics and historians since, one of America's incipient empire-builders.

"It actually started with Grover Cleveland, but was more pronounced in the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations, that we became a bit more interested in expanding the U.S. empire," Smith concedes. A Vietnam veteran himself, Smith has no trouble seeing the connections between Roosevelt's undeclared and unpopular annexation of the Philippines and a strain of interventionist American foreign policy that continues, quite obviously, to this day. "At the time, Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan established the Anti-Imperialist League, and that was very much a 'bring our boys home' situation."

Even admitting that, though, Smith believes that Roosevelt would have known better than to extend America's international role too far.

"Roosevelt, unlike a lot of other presidents we've had, knew history backward and forward," says Smith. "He could see the mistakes of the past in Roman and Byzantine empires, and he was very adept at looking at a situation and seeing what its consequences would be."

If the first President Roosevelt is not remembered as distinctly these days as he should be, it may be in part because the political landscape has changed so much. A Republican and a Progressive, Roosevelt's politics aren't very easy to place on our familiar left/right spectrum.

"For his time, he was very much on what we might think of as being on the liberal side," Smith says, adding, "however, with conservative values."

Indeed, it's not easy to discern the partisan character of such by-now all-American commonplaces as the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Panama Canal and anti-trust legislation. Oh, and football.

"Football in 1903 was responsible for 18 deaths," Smith reports. "So Roosevelt sat down with the coaches' commission and talked about ways to make the game less life-threatening. In that meeting, they established the practice of the forward pass, which also made the game more interesting."

Lest The Bully Pulpit seem entirely a hagiography, Smith doesn't shy away from some of the challenges Roosevelt faced in his life, from physical illnesses to calamity to depression.

"He suffered from depression, just like I did, as a post-Vietnam era vet," Smith says. "We had a whole section that we cut where he explains that in order to cure depression, he says he goes out in the woods and shoots animals, exhausts himself physically, because there was no Freud or pills in his day to deal with it."

In the end, Roosevelt may appeal to Smith because he never stopped acting.

"Roosevelt always insisted on acting as well as he could for the benefit of the American people," Smith says. "One of his critics, H.L. Mencken used to say that Roosevelt was 'pure act, and that he judges a man by the number of hairs on his cheset and his theological orthodoxy.' And Roosevelt admitted, 'I am all act—but when the time comes to act, I do act.' "

Click here for more information on The Bully Pulpit.