As time went on my political consciousness expanded, initially through the Irish Democrat prism. But I soon moved beyond the Kennedys and found myself having more of an affinity with the likes his 1960 Primary opponents Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson, as well as FDR and Harry Truman before them. Yet while my voting profile would be largely that of your classic New England leftie liberal communist gun-hating egghead, one of my favourite ever Presidents was, in fact, a Republican.
There’s little you can’t admire about Teddy Roosevelt. A sickly and weak child, he worked hard at strengthening himself and became a fearsome boxer. He overcame enormous personal tragedy (his wife and mother died on the same day) to forge a successful military and political career. He was so successful as Governor of New York, in fact, that the party bosses he had so successfully taken on had him shunted to the political Marie Celeste they call the Vice Presidency. William McKinley’s assassination promoted him, and he became the youngest person to become President, and quite the President he turned out to be.
Enormously popular with the public, he was an advocate of a square deal domestically and walking softly and carrying a big speak with regards to foreign policy. He busted trusts and was an avid conservationist. He lost the sight in his eye after he challenged a champion boxer visiting The White House to put up his dukes and urged him to try and hit him as hard as he could. Later in his career he gave a ninety minute speech immediately after being shot, had a children’s toy named after him and appeared alongside Cary Grant in North by Northwest, albeit in stone form. He had a near-perfect blend of humane policies, physical and mental toughness and a preposterous lunacy that only the truly heroic possess.
And if he were alive today, he’d almost certainly give everyone a good hiding.
The first person he’d give a good shaking to is the man who currently occupies his office. As the man who coined the phrase “The Strenuous Life”, TR would not be a fan of President Obama’s hedging and compromising with Congressional Republicans.
“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in that grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”, so claimed Teddy, and while Obama may have aimed for glorious triumphs, grey twilight is more what it feels like. Roosevelt would be particularly disgusted that healthcare for 9/11 responders can’t even get done, disgusted to the point he’d likely force any member of Congress who voted against such a measure to avail of their own public option. But that wouldn’t be the only issue on which he’d have Republicans running scared.
In 1907 he claimed “A heavy progressive tax upon a very large fortune is in no way such a tax upon thrift or industry as a like would be on a small fortune”. A couple of years later he also said “No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar's worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered.”, so it’s unlikely he’d have rolled over on the extension of the Bush tax cuts either. Roosevelt may not have agreed 100% with the redoubtable Bernie Sanders, but he’d leaning to his side on this one.
Roosevelt was an enthusiastic big game hunter, but he never had to deal with that very modern beast: 24 hours news media. And, as a dyed in the wool Progressive, he would have been Fox News’ public enemy number one. Small wonder, when he made public statements like: “Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare they have become the tools of corrupt interests, which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes. Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.” He was referring to political parties, but it fits certain sections of the media like a glove.
In fact, one of Fox’s roster, Glenn Beck, considers Roosevelt the arch- antagonist in the deranged conspiratorial play he imagines real life to be, where progressives are just communists with poor stamina, tears and hysteria count for reasoned dialogue and “look left” road markings are a sign of creeping socialism. I don’t know about you, but I’d pay any money to see Roosevelt refute his charges. I imagine it would result in Beck being torn so many new ones he’d have a whole new range of orifices out of which to speak.
Roosevelt might have a couple of words to say to Julian Assange as well. TR was President during the age of “The Muckrakers”, a revolutionary movement of journalists uncovering malpractice, corruption and dreadful working conditions. Roosevelt largely welcomed and facilitated the improvements these revelations prompted, but he had a warning too: “Men with the muckrake are often indispensable to the well-being of society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward to the celestial crown above them. If they gradually grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck their power of usefulness is gone.”
With the world currently seemingly split between wondering if Assange is a Robin Hood-type hero or a nefarious scoundrel in rather black and white terms, Roosevelt’s point about throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a pertinent one. The public have a right to know if their government is doing dreadful things in their name; they don’t have a right to know diplomatic tittle-tattle that does nothing but embarrass and compromise and make people even more jaded about their leaders. The government has a right to keep certain things secret, like for instance a suspected outbreak of a terrible disease or counter-terrorism to counter mass panic; they don’t have the right to exploit legitimate safeguards for illegitimate means.
There are of course a couple of things about Teddy that weren’t wholly admirable either. His attitude towards hyphenated Americans was intransigent and far from empathetic, and early in his career he made comments about Indians and black people that’d make you grab your collar nervously, though he became more enlightened in that respect as time went on. But for all his faults he was a fair, fighting President who stood unabashed and unashamed for Progressive values. Two years before he ran for a third term, he made this statement in launch of his doctrine of “New Nationalism”:
“Practical equality of opportunity for all citizens, when we achieve it, will have two great results. First, every man will have a fair chance to make of himself all that in him lies; to reach the highest point to which his capacities, unassisted by special privilege of his own and unhampered by the special privilege of others, can carry him, and to get for himself and his family substantially what he has earned. Second, equality of opportunity means that the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable. No man who carries the burden of the special privileges of another can give to the commonwealth that service to which it is fairly entitled.”
Those words may be a century old, but they’re eminently relevant today. Now more than ever we need someone like Roosevelt to stand up for those values. And maybe crack a few heads while he’s at it.