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Previously in Politics & Prose:

Bush vs. Gore (March 8, 2000)
Scenes from the first presidential debate of the 2000 election campaign. By Jack Beatty.

The Populists' Progress (February 24, 2000)
Right-wing populists, like Austria's Jörg Haider, are gaining ground in Europe. Is America next? Christopher Caldwell looks at populism on both continents.

Reform Politics! (Then What?) (February 16, 2000)
Does John McCain have an agenda beyond reforming the political process? What, Jack Beatty asks, would a McCain Administration do?

The Electorate Bobby Built (January 26, 2000)
A new biography paints Robert F. Kennedy as a Machiavellian monster. How then, Christopher Caldwell asks, did he get to be a liberal icon?

Sidewalk Economics (January 26, 2000)
Mitchell Duneier's Sidewalk, a new study of street vendors on Manhattan's Sixth Avenue, turns assumptions about race, class, and social values upside down. Charles Davis reviews.

More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

Tagging After Teddy

Why Teddy Roosevelt -- "an egomaniacal weirdo" -- is a hero to both Republicans and Democrats

by Christopher Caldwell

March 22, 2000

It looks like whomever we vote for in the fall, we'll get Theodore Roosevelt as President.

John McCain, who has described TR as "my ultimate hero," drew voters to his insurgency by invoking the "spirit of Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan." He got the endorsement of TR's granddaughter. He held a "town meeting" at TR's country house in Sagamore, Long Island. Lamenting Republicans' traditional reliance on big money and big religion, he warned, "We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt, not the party of special interests." When George W. Bush identified his "favorite political philosopher" as "Jesus Christ," McCain countered with Teddy.

But now McCain is gone from the race and Teddy Roosevelt remains. Bush himself describes TR as one of his favorite Presidents, even ranking him number three in his list of political heroes, behind Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill. Now Democrats want in on the act. In early March, Al Gore launched his general-election campaign by appealing for the votes of Republicans and Independents "whose heroes are Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln." Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt has praised Clinton and Gore for making good on TR's vision of creating national parks, while Robert F. Kennedy Jr. casts Gore's liberal environmental record as a bipartisan selling point, calling him "the strongest environmentalist running for the White House since Teddy Roosevelt."

It is certainly a Rooseveltian moment. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s recent poll of American historians ranked TR fourth-best among Presidents. The Economist sees a parallel between the economic challenges of TR's time and our own. The New Republic, endorsing McCain in the primaries, chided Republicans who act with "all the venality of the spoilsmen whom Theodore Roosevelt confronted a century ago." And David Brooks and William Kristol, my colleagues at The Weekly Standard, continue to preach a "National Greatness Conservatism" that has TR as its patron saint.

But why? By any scale of values that have prevailed since the Second World War, Teddy Roosevelt is a wretched example of an American President. As a person, he was a repellent figure. Squeaky-voiced and insecure about his masculinity, he devoted much of his young adulthood to tormenting his wayward but considerably more athletic brother Elliott (Eleanor Roosevelt's father) with every means at his disposal. He showed up for work two days after the almost simultaneous deaths of his first wife (in childbirth) and his mother, and never spoke of the former again. And we're worried about Bill Clinton's psyche?

What's more, as the historian Richard Hofstadter put it in 1948, "this herald of modern American militarism and imperialism displayed in his political character many qualities of recent authoritarianism." TR's vision of the world was a mix of popular Darwinism and Spenglerian race-mania. To him, the conquest of the West was glorious because it was a race war. ("I don't go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians," Roosevelt once wrote. "But I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn't like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.") During his adventures in Cuba, he bragged of killing a Spaniard "like a jackrabbit." He worried that McKinley's election in 1896 would bring a "gold-ridden, capitalist-bestridden, usurer-mastered future."

"This country needs a war," TR said on many occasions. His Administration's foreign policy was passive (conniving to secure the land for the Panama Canal was its only achievement). But the Rooseveltian philosophy of foreign policy, which saw war as a means of national ego-gratification, remains dangerous. TR-style overreach could only be taken seriously as a model in an age when its harvest in Vietnam -- or that ugly reprise of the Spanish-American War, the Bay of Pigs -- has faded from memory. (Our collapsing effort in Kosovo may bring some circumspection back.) What's more, the aggressive tenor of the Roosevelt Administration, meant to introduce the martial virtues into civilian life, wound up bringing other things instead: moralism, bureaucracy, and governmental bullying.

So why does everyone now want to be like Teddy Roosevelt? It may be a simple desire to link one's candidacy to that of a forceful figure from the past. But there may be a deeper reason. If you compare the reputations of the three fathers of modern society -- Freud, Marx, and Darwin -- Freud and Marx are getting trounced, while Darwin's stock is once again rising. Possibly, Rooseveltian barbarism and "vigor" suit an age in which such academics and journalists as Peter Singer, Steven Pinker, and Robert Wright are lending natural selection a newfound chic.

Still, each party has concrete reasons to wrap itself in TR's mantle. Republicans, having finally realized that the Cold War cluster of issues that elected Ronald Reagan no longer obtains, have cast backwards for another role model. Nixon and Ford are out, Harding and Hoover are failures, and Calvin Coolidge is Reagan. That leaves two options from this century. First, there's the Eisenhower model of sober custodianship over peace and prosperity. But that role has already been taken, stunningly enough, by Bill Clinton. That leaves the Roosevelt/Taft model of activism in government, which has the political advantage of offering Republicans a way of countering this President's scurrying from one bite-size policy proposal to the next.

For Democrats, the affinity with TR is both stylistic and substantive -- and far deeper. The meritocratic New Democrats and New Labourites who surround Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are like Roosevelt's cadre of progressive businessmen in that they want to be granted the responsibility of regulating the new industries they have largely built. Trust-busting, for instance, was TR's signature issue -- and a new round of it is inevitable. In the next decade, as the information-technology industry is consolidated, politicians will respond to popular demands that info-tech's huge power be put to the service of those who haven't shared in its huge profits. Al Gore's Democratic allies in Silicon Valley hope to shape the rules of the high-tech economy, much as TR's Republican allies on Wall Street did for the industrial economy. Industrial policy, anti-sprawl initiatives, federal standards for education -- like TR's labeling laws, these are a marriage of aggressive regulation and voter worries about consumption and lifestyle. Democrats are also hoping that Al Gore's environmental positions will not appear as "extreme" as George W. Bush paints them, once it is understood that TR's "conservation" program was even further from the American mainstream of his era.

The Theodore Roosevelt Administration was a time of tumult that offers many parallels to our own. We'd do well to think more about those parallels. But such thinking needn't be accompanied by adulation for an egomaniacal weirdo who was as close to being a psycopath as anyone who ever occupied the Oval Office.

Join the conversation in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. He writes a weekly Washington column for New York Press and is a regular contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company.
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