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The First President To Travel Abroad


President Obama's trip this week adds a few countries to the dozens long list of those he's visited in his two terms in office. But it was only at the beginning of the last century that an American president first ventured beyond the country's borders.

EDMUND MORRIS: It was a tradition that the president of the United States should stay home and govern the country during his term of office. And Theodore Roosevelt was the first person to break that tradition.

LYDEN: That's historian and author Edmund Morris. The year was 1906 and Theodore Roosevelt, who Morris calls TR, made history when he traveled to Panama. Plagued by disease and construction mishaps, the Panama Canal project was floundering. The U.S. had supported Panama's revolution against Colombia. Then after millions of dollars and man-hours were invested, progress was once again being made.

MORRIS: The dirt was flying in TR's phrase, and he wanted to go down and see the dirt fly and work the steam shovels and have himself a good time and have himself a lot of press attention.

LYDEN: Known for his rough rider frontier persona, Theodore Roosevelt embraced the caricature.

MORRIS: Theodore Roosevelt was God's gift to the American press. His personality was outsized. Everything he did was flamboyant and funny and attention-getting and symbolic.

LYDEN: Marching into the jungle, he stepped behind the controls of steam shovels digging through the soggy ground. Shutters snapped.

MORRIS: He triumphantly announced his return by sending an illustrated message to Congress. This was itself an historic first. An actual bound book full of photographs of the Panama Canal and its construction and himself there. And that kept the story alive and advertised to the world what he had done.

LYDEN: (Unintelligible) now, of course. But, says Morris, there is one important distinction between Theodore Roosevelt's journey and this president's trip.

MORRIS: Obama is following the grand old tradition of leaving the country in order to attract headlines at a time when he was - when he himself is not doing very well at home. Whereas TR left the country at just about the height of his power and popularity in 1906.

By going there and seeing the canal under construction, he was dramatizing to the world the fact that the United States was itself a world power and able to improve the commerce of the world.

LYDEN: The president announced a multi-billion dollar assist to Africa to expand economic growth, investment and trade, parallel themes just over a century apart. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.