Teddy and the battle for Mississippi: Roosevelt's killer instinct

The Deep South state where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama face off in tomorrow's primary has a unique place in American culture. But the visit of a rough, tough president more than a century ago also gave birth to one of the world's greatest political myths. Leonard Doyle reports
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The Independent US

When President Teddy Roosevelt planted his feet on Mississippi soil for the first time in 1902, the teddy bear had yet to come into being and there wasn't the remotest chance of a woman or a black man running for the highest political office – or any significant position for that matter.

It would take more than 100 years to put that right and tomorrow, voters here will take part in the next phase of the race for the Democratic nomination – still running neck and neck.

But it was a bear hunting trip by Roosevelt in the Mississippi swamps that led to an act of mercy towards a wounded black bear being so exaggerated by newspaper cartoonists around the country that it quickly led to the creation of the "Teddy Bear".

It was one of the niftiest bits of political mythmaking in modern history, a move any of the candidates battling for the presidency would love to emulate.

Roosevelt was a Republican president and the "war hero" Republican front-runner John McCain has already claimed his oversized mantle. The mythologising of the former president is such that it matters little that the story of Roosevelt's act of clemency towards the bear is largely bunkum. For the next 17 years – the rest of Roosevelt's life – he was known as a man's man, a warrior leader, the most athletic man to occupy the presidency, someone who once said: "Don't hit at all if it is honourably possible to avoid hitting, but never hit soft."

What's important is that the incident sealed his reputation as a tough political negotiator with a humane, compassionate side, just the image that John McCain wants to project. In McCain's latest internet-only campaign ad, Roosevelt is heard saying: "Surely there never was a fight better worth making than the one in which we are in."

McCain responds: "Keep that faith, keep your courage. Stick together. Stay strong. Do not yield. Do not flinch. Stand up ... We're Americans. We're Americans, and we'll never surrender. They will."

Mississippi, where it all started, is another of the smaller prizes which for the Democrats, Barack Obama is tipped to win because of his strategy of picking off states that traditionally go Republican in general elections. Mr Obama has the volunteers and the organisation to get out the Democratic vote in these states, which have been largely ignored by his rival Hillary Clinton. His thumping 23-points victory in Wyoming yesterday is another example of the strategy of targeting affluent, educated, white voters in Republican-leaning states.

While Mrs Clinton focused her energies on winning bigger prizes such as California, New York and New Jersey and she remains narrowly behind Mr Obama in the delegate race. So far Obama's small-state strategy has helped him to fight off a far better-known opponent and stay narrowly ahead in the all-important delegate race to win the nomination.

Mississippi, a so-called "red" state, typically votes Republican in general elections and its legacy of racial division means that 70 per cent of Democrats are black voters. The polls put them firmly in the Obama camp. Mrs Clinton's case here was not helped when she offended the locals local sensibilities in October by asking : "How can Iowa be ranked with Mississippi?" She was "shocked", she said, to learn that progressive Iowa was on a par with down home Mississippi. Neither state has ever elected a woman governor, senator or member of Congress.

"There has got to be something at work here. That's not the quality. That's not the communitarianism, that's not the openness I see in Iowa," she said.

Mississippi has long been the butt of regional jokes in America, but it is fighting back.

"We are known for being at the top of every bad list and the bottom of every good list," said Rick Looser, whose Jackson City advertising company is changing perceptions of the magnolia state. Sure Mississippi has some of the worst schools, shameful black rural poverty, decrepit health care and a tortured legacy of racial hatred which saw black churches being firebombed until quite recently.

The state's real legacy is its music, born in the impenetrable cypress and gum tree forests where Roosevelt went bear hunting. The Delta Blues took the "field holler" chants of slaves and combined them with popular reels and jigs, and the cottonfields that replaced the forest were home of such greats as B B King, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters and, of course, Robert Johnson, who was rumoured to have sold his soul to the devil for a few brief years of fame.

Not far away, Tupelo Mississippi was the birthplace of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock '*Roll, and Jimmie Rodgers, "the father of country music" (Pistol Packin' Papa) was born in Meridian.

"Mississippi is home to the beginnings of all popular music listened to today," Mr Looser says with the self-belief of an advertising executive who has invested $300,000 of his own money in a relatively successful battle to turn around perceptions of the state by telling Americans things they need to know.

"Meet a Few of Our New 'Good Ole Boys" is one of the campaigns which dispels the perception that the "good ole boy" network is alive and well in Mississippi. Today, there are more black elected officials in Mississippi than any other state in the country – a number that grew from a mere 81 in 1970 to 897 in 2000.

Another says: "Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write." While its schools may be failing it points out that "Mississippians can write. No other state in the country can claim as many honoured, awarded and revered writers as Mississippi."

A short list includes Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and John Grisham, who is only outsold by the Bible.

Mark Potok of the human rights organisation the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which monitors hate groups across the US, agrees that Mississippi gets a bad rap. Its not true, he says, that the Klan and white supremacist groups are strictly Southern. "It's a cliché that has some residual truth, but essentially doesn't describe the situation as it is any more. We see as many hate groups, and certainly as many hate crimes, in northern and even coastal states."

Even he could not help having a poke at Mississippi: "Over here in Alabama, we say, 'Thank God for Mississippi' or else we'd be last in everything."

Mr Looser has a duck hunting camp in the Delta beside the one-horse town of Onward. It is there that the story of the kind-hearted Roosevelt was born. After giving the press the slip and setting up camp, Roosevelt set off on horseback in search of bears with a small party of hunters, led by a freed slave, Holt Collier.

Then, as now, there were fears of terrorism in America. It was just over a year since President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist and Roosevelt brought only two secret service agents to keep the hunting party as small as possible. The local paper, the Deer Creek Pilot, reported that "a number of newspapermen and photographers ... tried every expedient to reach camp, but their pleadings were in vain".

Without any real news, the papers reported that the president's hunting trip was a failure and that he had failed to kill a bear. But while Roosevelt was having lunch the hunting party, which was led by Collier, cornered a large black bear. Over 6ft tall, the 235lb (nearly 17 stone) bear mortally wounded Remas, which was one of the most famous bear-hunting dogs in the Mississippi Delta.

Roosevelt, desperate to successfully hunt a bear, arrived on the scene to find the bear bloodied and tied it to a tree. He was expected to shoot it, but refused the honour, ordering instead that it be put out of its misery humanely as soon as he was out of sight. Soon the story of the merciful president was humming along the wires. A thousand miles away, at The Washington Post, Clifford Berryman drew a cartoon showing the President "drawing the line in Mississippi" by refusing to shoot a bear. Other political cartoonists transformed the bear into a cuddly cub.

Roosevelt, at 44, was America's youngest elected president and public perceptions were changed to the extent that his re-election two years later was virtually assured. Postcards of the cartoon were quickly printed and sold out. A shopkeeper called Mitch Morris sold sweets in his Brooklyn store by day and made stuffed animals with his wife, Rose, at night. They saw the drawing of Roosevelt with the bear cub and created a small stuffed bear cub which they put in the window with a sign reading "Teddy's bear".

It was an immediate sell-out and they created the Ideal Novelty and Toy Co, which is still around today. Overnight, toy manufacturers in the US and Europe were making stuffed bears, to be sold as "Teddy Bears".

Like all good yarns, the story of Roosevelt and the 6ft 2in bear is not quite what it seemed at the time. The wounded bear was shot on his orders and the day after the hunt, a Sunday, the main event was dinner. "It was served in simple camp style on a rough pine board table set up in the open air. Tin plates and tin cups and tin cans were used," the local newspaper reported. "The menu included roast bear paws and 'possum and sweet potatoes."