*Note - Much of this, over and above my usual dollop of plagiarism, is shamelessly pilfered from Richard Hofstadter’s indispensible book - The American Political Tradition. I would not feel comfortable posting this without acknowledging that debt of a completely unknown pygmy to a deservedly venerated master.
In these years of political gridlock and economic paralysis, it’s become all too common to look to old presidents who would have known better how to get us out of this mess. If only Lyndon Johnson were here to stare down Mitch McConnell, if only Teddy Roosevelt were around to hold Paul Ryan up to the oratorical shaming he deserves, if only Bill Clinton were still there to charm the pants off Lindsey Graham.
Johnson, TR, Clinton, virtuous presidents all of them, but none of them were great. Yeah, that’s right, none of them. I know it’s fashionable these days to hold up Theodore Rex as one of the true giants of the Presidency - Barack Obama himself does it from time to time, no doubt with a surfeit of cynicism. But Obama’s professed admiration for #26 is especially ironic considering that most liberal admirers of Teddy Rexpin use him as a Damoclean sword to drop into Barack Obama’s back. The fact remains that John McCain understands Teddy better than any liberal admirer ever did. At least relative to his reputation, Theodore Roosevelt was an oddly ineffectual president, nor was he a liberal after any manner of the word. His charisma and bluster belied the fact that he was inadequate when compared to the greatness a world on the brink of global warfare required of him, and moved in the direction of reform largely because he saw the prospect of organized labor as no different than a giant anarchist mob. His presidency contained major accomplishments, but its setbacks are rarely ever talked about.
Furthermore, it was only after his presidency was completed that Roosevelt ‘saw the light’ and switched his rhetoric to a truly radical mode in an effort to recapture the office he regretted relinquishing. Many of the forward-thinking positions Roosevelt was best known for - like his veneration of labor unions, direct primaries, workman’s compensation, inheritance tax, national limits on labor hours, government supervision of interstate commerce - were positions he only took after he left office and saw a rising tide of progressivism he could navigate back to the center of the arena. And because he insisted on a platform to advocate for these very positions which he disavowed only four years earlier, he divided the Republican party, and delayed any chance of their passage by twenty years until his cousin Franklin had licence to enact more progressive legislation due to the Great Depression’s devastation - a devastation Teddy might have brought on the country much sooner due to his unbounded eagerness to join World War I against Germany by 1915, even though in 1914 he initially supported the German cause.
He was the sort of man who could not abide the thought that others would not constantly feel the weight of his imposition, and his daughter once commented that her father always felt the need to be ‘the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral.’ And were another man like TR, with such a compulsive need for center stage, able to situate himself equally well in political life, he would never be able to restrain himself from political stances that would maximize the intensity of his limelight. He was, in every sense, a 19th century personality cultist and militarist who admired the heroism of soldiers and pioneers above all, and did what he could to move America to the course of a grand imperial project which rivaled the Great European Powers in scope. In some ways, the later president who most resembles his worldview and accomplishments is George W. Bush.
The previous war which The Iraq War most resembled, at least in inception, was the Spanish-American War. It was a war which took place for no better reason than America could make war and win its spoils, sold to the public as a humanitarian intervention. And like the Iraq War, the propaganda for it was managed by three distinct strands of the Republican party, some of whom believed very fervently in the war’s humanitarian side - one strand was the proto-Cheney businessmen like William Randolph Hearst who saw in Cuba the chance to sell newspapers and invest into major industrial development, another strand was proto-Wolfowitz conservatives obsessed with national greatness and virtue like Henry Cabot Lodge who saw a chance in this war to help Cuban Freedom Fighters and thereby rejuvenate America’s sense of moral purpose, the last by proto-Rumsfeld ‘visionaries’ like Teddy Roosevelt who carried within them massive dreams of proving America’s invincibility in the battlefield. Here’s a quote from Teddy at the Naval War College which he made as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897:
“No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumphs of war... We of the United States have passed most of our few years of national life in peace. We honor the architects of our wonderful material prosperity... But we feel, after all, that the men who have dared greatly in war, or the work which is akin to war, are those who deserve best of the country.”
(Charles Foster Kane - a Teddy Roosevelt Republican to the marrow)
As a New York assemblyman, Roosevelt was hardly a friend of the working man - opposing raises in the salaries of New York policemen and firemen, fighting against a bill to limit horse-car workers to twelve-hour work days, and denouncing a measure to require payment of two dollars a day to public employees as ‘demagogic.’ In 1895, his feelings against organized labor were so strenuous that he was quoted in the Evening Post:
“We shall guard as zealously the rights of the striker as those of the employer. But when riot is menaced it is different. The mob takes its own chance. Order will be kept at whatever cost. If it comes to shooting we shall shoot to hit. No blank cartridges or firing over the head of anybody.”
Even at this stage, Roosevelt was not completely indifferent to the working class’s plight. He toured the slums of New York City and managed to get a number of tenement buildings condemned. And when he became governor he managed to get on labor’s good side with a law against sweatshops and quickly switched sides on a number of issues he spent years inveighing against like the eight-hour-a-day limit for workers on government contracts. Nevertheless, Roosevelt was authoritarian to the bone. He believed in benevolent, enlightened autocracy in which the overclass bestows merciful governance upon the lower class as a reward earned by good behavior. To his mind, the working class was not deserving of rights so much as rewards. This is the aristocratic conservatism of duty and service - the conservatism of Hamilton, Disraeli, Churchill, and McCain. It’s preferable to many kinds of conservatism, but it’s still conservatism, and has a hugely destructive side for all its benefits. When general strikes hit an economically depressed New York in the middle of 1896, Roosevelt was quoted as saying:
“The sentiment now animating a large proportion of our people can only be suppressed as the Commune in Paris was suppressed, by taking ten or a dozen of their leaders out, standing... them against a wall, and shooting them dead. I believe it will come to that. These leaders are plotting a social revolution and the subversion of the American Republic.”
And like all great imperialists, Roosevelt had an undercurrent of racism going through his soul as long as the Northern Securities Railroads. In 1899 he made a speech in which he declared:
“In every instance the expansion has taken place because the race was a great race. It was a sign and proof of greatness in the expanding nation, and moreover bear in mind that in each instance it was of incalculable benefit to mankind . . . . When great nations fear to expand, shrink from expansion, it is because their greatness is coming to an end. Are we still in the prime of our lusty youth, still at the beginning of our glorious manhood, to sit down among the outworn people, to take our place with the weak and craven? A thousand times no!”
Woodrow Wilson wrote venerated the Ku Klux Klan in print, but he never said anything nearly so gargantuanly fascist as that. And lest you think this speech merely glorification of America and not necessarily indicative of racism directed at a particular ethnic group, let’s examine this whopper he wrote about Native Americans while tending to his Western ranch in 1886:
“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”
These are just a few of many quotes Teddy Roosevelt made which would drop our jaws. To acknowledge his dark side is not to say that he was racist or imperialist or authoritarian over the average bigotry of his time, to acknowledge it is only to demand that he be treated with the same question marks as are bestowed to others among American History’s ‘greatest’ figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson.
In a sense, Roosevelt did form a vital center direction between unfettered capitalism and unorganized socialism, but it was a center that favored upper-class capitalism in every distinction. He held little belief in raising men up from the lower class, rather, he believed that the oligarchical Anglo-Saxon Protestant class from which he hailed had to be saved from itself if it was to remain prosperous - and therefore had to share as little of their spoils as possible so as to prevent an outright insurrection of the workers - a fact that was proven by the fact that his 1904 re-election campaign was virtually bankrolled by Morgan, Rockefeller, and their minority partners. In a passage that could have come straight from Clinton or Obama themselves, Roosevelt declared in a 1902 speech to congress:
“Our aim is not to do away with corporations; on the contrary, these big aggregations are an inevitable development of modern industrialism, and the effort to destroy them would be futile unless accomplished in ways that would work the utmost mischief to the entire body politic... We draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth.”
Roosevelt’s most celebrated lawsuit against a trust was against the Northern Securities Company in 1902 for their violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, a suit which he won in the Supreme Court by a 5-4 majority. But The Northern Securities Company was a much-hated railroad monopoly that connected the Northern Midwest to the Northwest, within which the trustees feuded among each other in manners that constantly made headlines in the newspaper. J P Morgan was heavily involved in this trust, but it was hardly central to his banking interests. Meanwhile, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and J B Duke’s American Tobacco never had so much as a single case brought against them during Roosevelt’s time in office. During its seven-and-a-half years, the Roosevelt administration prosecuted 54 trust cases, during which time trusts grew more quickly than ever. Compare that to the four years of William Howard Taft, during which his administration prosecuted 90 cases.
For all his belligerence, the real President Roosevelt was a leader of relentless compromise. If there is a modern president to whom he can be safely compared, it is probably not George W. Bush but Bill Clinton - a similarly narcissistic egoist who painted himself as a friend to the average American with total mastery, but enacted gains for liberalism only incrementally, and found himself able to do so only by relentless concessions to big business interests. For all the political posturing of both figures, it mattered not a whit for their policies - which were enacted purely through the kind of incremental progress it takes to enact a successful policy over a period of many decades. They were both decent presidents, but the office deserves better, and, admittedly, usually gets worse.