History Lesson

John McCain’s Big Shtick

Senator, you’re no Teddy Roosevelt. 

Can we declare a moratorium on historical analogies? Every four years, reporters predictably liken presidential candidates present to candidates past. It’s a silly game that springs from an essentially instrumentalist view of history—a view of history that treats the past not as a foreign country but as a wax museum of figures to trot out in the service of present-day arguments. Analogy-makers study history not to complicate our understanding of today’s world but to simplify it. Besides, the analogies are usually thinner than rice paper.

The favorite comparison of this campaign seems to be John McCain as the second coming of Theodore Roosevelt—a parallel pushed by, among others, Rich Lowry of the National Review, Jonathan Chait of the New Republic, David Brooks of the Weekly Standard, and John McCain himself. Like so many before, it’s a flimsy one.

Yes, both McCain and TR were hotheads who had uneasy relationships with their party’s political power brokers. Yes, both men railed about reining in big business during periods that unduly celebrated capitalists. Both traded on their military records to call for a renewal of national purpose.

But that’s as far as the analogy goes. And even that summary masks more than it reveals.

For starters, consider the war hero business. Besides their shared militaristic bravado, McCain and TR have little in common here. Roosevelt romanticized battle. “This country needs a war,” he wrote in 1895, arguing that without one Americans would grow “flabby” and “timid.” When his and others’ agitation finally brought about the Spanish-American War in 1898, TR left his post as assistant secretary of the Navy to fight. Although Roosevelt showed bravery as a “Rough Rider,” the war lasted just a few months, allowing TR to return to New York in time to be elected governor in the fall.

TR’s limited military experience didn’t stop him from exploiting his war-hero image—or from advocating imperial expansion for the United States. An unapologetic believer in the superiority of the “Anglo-Saxon race,” he cheered the subjugation of the American West and its native inhabitants, and sought new lands for America to conquer. As president (1901-09), he proclaimed the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, justifying much adventurism in Latin America, and in 1907 he sent the American fleet on a global tour, strutting the nation’s naval force to stoke his own pride.

Where TR jauntily volunteered in a cakewalk of a war that opened the door for American imperialism, John McCain enlisted in a stalemate that ended the support for the United States’ foreign interventions. Like many Vietnam War veterans, McCain returned from his five years as a POW chastened by the horrors of battle and wary of committing troops overseas. As a senator, he has often opposed military missions, and he now cautions that the United States shouldn’t be “dragooned by other countries or international organizations into risking American lives in quarrels that are entirely someone else’s affair.” Roosevelt’s cheap heroism confirmed all his macho instincts. McCain’s ordeal disabused him of his.

On domestic reform, the TR-McCain analogy collapses. At the heart of Roosevelt’s Progressivism was a belief that only the government, particularly the president, had the means to fight the corporate magnates who had accrued unprecedented wealth and power in the industrial economy—”the malefactors of great wealth,” as TR called them. The Rooseveltian “nationalism” that so many of today’s conservatives revere rested squarely on TR’s declaration that the era of small government was over.

Born to wealth, Roosevelt was ambivalent about his privileged background. Though he disdained “the mob” and radicals, he had equally harsh words for his social peers, their pursuit of personal profit, and their indifference toward the common good. Though less a “trust buster” (as some have remembered him) than a regulator, Roosevelt secured meaningful legislation to safeguard public welfare. His administration passed laws to check the power of the railroads, to provide for safe food and drugs, and to conserve American forests. A proponent of a strong executive branch, Roosevelt expanded the administrative power of the presidency as never before. He also made use of the “bully pulpit” (a term he coined), exhorting Americans, rich and poor, to put aside their materialism in the interest of collective betterment.

Compare that activist record to McCain’s. For all his ballyhooed appeal to independents, McCain remains a conventional conservative on domestic issues. Only on campaign finance and tobacco regulation has he broken markedly with Republican Party orthodoxy. On TR’s issues—the environment, regulation of business, and the desirability of a vigorous federal government—McCain could not be less progressive. A darling of business groups, he calls for repealing workplace-safety regulations, scaling back environmental protections, and skewing the tax code to favor business even more than it already does.

T here is, however, one way in which McCain genuinely resembles TR. McCain made himself competitive in the Republican race by assiduously cultivating the press. Possessed, by all accounts, of an attractive personality, he has curried favor with reporters by granting them boundless face time and providing good copy with his straight talk.

Guess who did that first? Roosevelt, an outsized personality if there ever was one, learned to ply the press in his 20s, when he was a New York assemblyman. As his celebrity grew, his penchant for speaking his mind—some thought it arrogance—made for delicious stories. As president, he installed the first press room in the White House and held the first informal presidential press conferences, usually while getting his afternoon shave. He played favorites, leaked selectively, and rewarded loyal reporters with good stories. Journalists loved him.

As I finished this column, the press was showing signs of boredom with the McCain-Roosevelt comparison. Last week, the New York Times’ Howell Raines and the Wall Street Journal’s Holman W. Jenkins Jr. have written about the parallels between McCain and another Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. There’s the military heroism, the father-figure aura, the appeal that transcends issues, the promise to clean up Washington, the outsiderness …

Here we go again.