Former President Theodore Roosevelt was a New Yorker by chance, but a North Dakotan by choice.
That’s the view of Ed O’Keefe, the new CEO of a group that intends to construct a presidential museum and library dedicated to Roosevelt, who acknowledged his most formative years were spent roaming the area that today bears his name in the form of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“The whole reason we should, as North Dakotans, build this museum is because the Badlands and Medora are the fulcrum of the hero’s journey. In that incredible life that was Theodore Roosevelt’s, the experience he had in the Badlands, the people he met, the life that he lived, informed the rest of his existence,” O’Keefe said in an extended interview last week with the Herald’s editorial board. “I think he was quite literally right when he said ‘I would not have been president without my experiences in North Dakota.’”
O’Keefe joined the project earlier this month in a move that he called “providential.” The Grand Forks native has been working in media on the East Coast and began researching for a book about the 26th president, titled “The Loves of Theodore Roosevelt.” He was in Boston visiting another North Dakotan – Robbie Lauf, a former adviser for Gov. Doug Burgum – when Lauf suggested O’Keefe meet with the governor, who has been a champion of the Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.
O’Keefe's heritage is 180 degrees from Roosevelt's: O'Keefe is a North Dakotan by chance and a New Yorker by choice. Perhaps that combination – different yet still similar to Roosevelt's own dual-state background – clicked with the governor. After all, O'Keefe and Roosevelt both spent formative years in North Dakota and New York, and both are part westerner and easterner.
Either way, “he is very persuasive,” O’Keefe said of Burgum.
O’Keefe talks about the project's potential for tourism, but he’s careful to remind others that the project must be more than a “new stop on the tourist train.”
“We’re not building a museum and library for the next two years or 20 years, but we’re building it for the next 100 years,” he said. “I don’t want the whole project to boil down to simple economic tourism. I think that’s an oversimplification. Yes, of course, economic tourism (is a factor), but also scholarly exploration.”
As CEO, he said his chief goal now is to begin fundraising. The Legislature committed $50 million to the project if $100 million in private funds can be raised.
The Herald on Saturday published a story about O’Keefe and the journey that led to his role as the leader of the effort to get the library and museum built near – or possibly even within – Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Today, the Herald publishes more of the interview, which follows:
Q: What, specifically, is your job?
O’KEEFE: This is a start-up. The closest experience I have had in my life is as an entrepreneur. There has been a lot of really good foundational work done. There has been a lot of consideration of what the library should be, where it should be, how it should be. And all of that has to inform where we are going. But I feel like the closest experience I had was coming into something that was probably paralyzed by choice, and now we need to really focus the mission on who we are and why we are doing this. I keep saying Theodore Roosevelt was a New Yorker by chance and a North Dakotan by choice. The whole reason we should, as North Dakotans, build this museum is because the Badlands and Medora are the fulcrum of the hero’s journey. In that incredible life that was Theodore Roosevelt’s, the experience he had in the Badlands, the people he met, the life that he lived, informed the rest of his existence. I think he was quite literally right when he said “I would not have been president without my experiences in North Dakota.” And the historical evidence I have uncovered, the research I have done in parallel process for the book confirms that story. What I love about Theodore Roosevelt is he is capable of being two things at the same time. He is an easterner and a westerner. He is a progressive but also a pragmatist. He is an idealist but also a realist. He is a Republican who runs as an independent and in many ways is a man of no party as a result.
If you think about it, the address of this museum should be the intersection of improbable and impossible. There are a lot of reasons not to do it. There are a lot of reasons we should think about why and how. But there is so much to learn from TR, not just about TR. And the opportunity to do it in the Badlands, where he had that formative experience, with nature as the fourth wall. … Whether we are physically on park land or adjacent to park land, we will be partners with the national park. It is an opportunity to develop Theodore Roosevelt National Park into a bucket list park for the next century. These are very unique factors. We are not building a box in the Badlands. This is, from a business perspective, perhaps the greatest economic development opportunity we could have at this moment.
Q: For the whole state?
O’KEEFE: I think so, in terms of defining an identity. It’s so critically important to the nation at this moment to tell his story. Every single challenge that TR faced at the turn of the 19th and into the 20th century – industrialization vs. conservation, the consequences of economic development and what that means for workers and what that means for society. The unfathomable technological change that occurred in his lifetime and the disconcerting nature to society, and the economic impacts of that, sound a lot like what we’re doing through right now. It sounds like you could strip away the name and say that’s what we’re all experiencing.
So for North Dakota, if he had not come to that place and had that experience, so profoundly, it wouldn’t feel right. But the fact that he did, and you have the adjacency to the national park, and you have this incredible relevance to the moment of our time, that’s what brought me to the project.
Q: But is it more than tourism? After all, Roosevelt was complicated.
O’KEEFE: We’re not building a museum and library for the next two years or 20 years, but we’re building it for the next 100 years. I don’t want the whole project to boil down to simple economic tourism. I think that’s an oversimplification. Yes, of course, economic tourism, but also scholarly exploration. As a scholar who has done research at the Library of Congress, the Houghton Library at Harvard, Sagamore Hill and the (Roosevelt) boyhood home, I can tell you Theodore Roosevelt’s record is like a jigsaw puzzle that somebody took and threw out into four different parts of the world. And predating the National Records Act and having no requirement of the presidential papers to be preserved means a lot of this is in the hands of private collectors. We don’t know what we don’t know. So the effort at Dickinson State to digitize this library is a phenomenally valuable part of this project. And you know the $10 million we are going to raise for the continuation of that effort will be a big part of the success of this project. To have a digitized archive so people can go in and scholarly work can be done on exactly what you just described – conservation vs. hunting, industrialization and technology – the record is very hard to discern. We all cite the primary source, but who was the primary source? That’s a big part. I think of it as sort of the JFK Library meets the Aspen Institute … (for example) thoughtful engagement around ideas and bringing together supposedly opposing forces to walk about the future together. I can see that happening here. I don’t want to simplify it to just a tourist destination. I think that’s a strong motivation because it makes sense. But to your point, if that’s all it is, it’s not very aspirational, and I think we’re trying to do something a little bit bigger than a new stop on the tourist train.