George W. Bush recently announced that he had finished reading Edmund Morris’$2 772-page den ornament Theodore Rex. With that feat—at least as impressive as toppling the Taliban—W. has become just the latest of a string of politicians to claim Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. What’s strange is that none of them agree what that legacy is.
Contemporary TR-worship started 10 years ago, when W.’s father invited TR biographer David McCullough to the White House to lecture on Roosevelt’s valor. The Connecticut Yankee who reinvented himself as a pork-rind-eating cowboy found a natural role model in the well-born New Yorker who braved the frontier and charged into battle in America’s splendid little war. The trend accelerated during the 2000 campaign, when John McCain likened himself to Roosevelt (in what I argued was a weak comparison), styling himself another irrepressible, straight-talking campaign-finance reformer. Bill Clinton then invoked Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation as he placed huge tracts of federal land off limits to developers. (Clinton awarded TR a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor.) All the while, a host of political activists and journalists have been singing TR’s praises, from environmentalist Theodore Roosevelt IV (a great-grandson) to the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks, who admires TR’s aggressive Americanism, to the Hudson Institute’s self-proclaimed Bull Mooser Marshall Wittmann.
Why the craze? How can people of such diverse political beliefs all hearken to the same hero? One reason, I think, is the same one that explains both Harry Truman’s rehabilitation and the recent John Adams boomlet (which I discussed last summer): Roosevelt’s spontaneity, eccentricity, and bluntness play well in times like ours, when all of politics seems devoid of authenticity. And with hero worship again fashionable but with so few heroes apparent around us, the men of Mount Rushmore are naturally called into service—even if it’s partial or rose-colored images of them we’re summoning.
There are also more complicated reasons for the TR boom—more complicated than the continuing admiration for Washington, Jefferson, or Lincoln. When politicians invoke those greats, they’re inserting themselves in an ecumenical American tradition, appropriating these iconic presidents in the same way they employ a star-spangled language of freedom and equality. With TR, in contrast, it’s particular pieces of his legacy that devotees borrow: his push to ban corporate campaign contributions, his creation of wildlife refuges and national parks, his mastery of the “bully pulpit,” to use the term he coined.
In other words, the Roosevelt fans are being selective, not to say opportunistic, in claiming his legacy. Conservatives don’t speak about TR’s support for new taxes or the heavy regulation of business. Liberals don’t talk about his disdain for organized labor. Hardly anyone points out his naively romantic view of war or his peculiar brand of racism. Political rhetoric always simplifies, but the political uses of TR seem especially ahistorical. They take individual traits or policies of his and inject them into our own time, without the context that makes them explicable.
In his expansion of presidential power, his use of the press and of rhetoric, his view of America as a leader in world affairs—in these and other ways Theodore Roosevelt was the first modern president. But in other respects, the political landscape has changed drastically in the last century, so much so that to look for someone who truly embodies TR’s agenda is futile, just as it would be absurd to look for a complete Jeffersonian. Many issues TR addressed, many positions he took, have relevance today. But they need to be understood in their own contexts and as part of his overall worldview, which none of his emulators really shares.
If TR’s ideology has a name, it might be conservative Progressivism. The phrase is an oxymoron only by today’s post-New Deal political alignments, in which progressive has become synonymous with liberal. But the Progressivism of TR’s era comprised a range of positions, including a conservative element that opposed the left’s radical reformism (as well as the robber barons’ unfettered capitalism) and despised the storied corruption of urban Democratic machines. The most highly regarded history of the Progressive era remains the late Robert Wiebe’s The Search for Order, whose title captures the surprisingly conservative flavor of the age.
TR believed that in a fast-changing, burgeoning, industrializing nation, orderly, well-supervised reform was needed to prevent either anarchy or plutocracy. He believed in moral and administrative order. The United States, an emerging power, had to assume a central role in managing the world, adopting colonial outposts where necessary. As a result, TR was both a happy imperialist, embracing notions we now find offensive, like the white man’s burden, but also a canny player of great-power politics. In domestic affairs, his ideology dictated, the federal government, led by a vigorous president, had to lead—both in taming greedy corporations, through taxes and assertive regulation, and in “Americanizing” unruly immigrants. Well-born, educated men like him had to step forward to provide this leadership, to teach, exhibit, and enforce moral toughness.
Roosevelt achieved many of his goals as president and made conservative Progressivism an actuality. But four years later, it was already under challenge. TR felt compelled to come out of retirement in 1912 to challenge his Republican successor, William H. Taft, for the presidency because he saw that the GOP was already reconstituting itself as the party of big business. Republican leaders now opposed conservation, railroad regulation, and causes he had made his own. Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, TR thought, was too radical in its insistence that the “bigness” of modern corporations—as opposed to the moral failings of (some of) their leaders, as TR believed—was at the root of the economic inequality and misery of the Industrial Age.
TR lost to Wilson (Taft, the sitting president, finished third). To the extent that his ideology survived in the following decades—and in many respects it did not—it was in the “liberal Republicanism” of Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. These Republicans were internationalist where their party’s “Old Guard” was isolationist, supportive of the welfare state while the right denounced “creeping socialism,” and confident in the rule of enlightened elites even as their more populist party-mates denounced the effete, striped-pants liberals of the New Deal.
But today, as Jim Jeffords recently confirmed, liberal Republicanism is virtually extinct. Since the ‘60s, both parties have grown more ideologically uniform, with Southern conservatives abandoning the Democrats and Northeastern liberals leaving the GOP. And the country overall has moved rightward. (The trajectory can be seen in the three generations of Bushes.) Consequently, there’s no longer any constituency within either party that adheres to Roosevelt’s ideology.
Given how much things have changed, this makes sense. Calls for moral renewal and the strenuous life no longer go hand in hand with demands for an active regulatory state. The few souls in our pro-market culture who still denounce “malefactors of great wealth” certainly don’t champion the “Americanization” of hordes of immigrants. Conservative Progressivism has become an oxymoron.
Yet the alignment of the political parties along ideological lines has also created a bloc of independent voters who aren’t thrilled with either party’s platform. Ross Perot and John McCain supporters and other “disaffected” voters dislike both the Republicans’ coziness with big business and the Democrats’ lack of mettle. One reason for all the TR talk, then, is a wish to reach this independent center, once occupied in part by liberal Republicans, by appropriating Roosevelt’s willingness to stand up today’s too-powerful trusts while adopting a muscular language of virtue. Those who can pull off this trick in the coming months and years may win more than the battle for TR’s legacy. They may get themselves elected.