The Long View: T. R.: The Last Romantic Book Review

Now for the other half of the beginning of the twentieth century, here is Teddy.

Theodore Roosevelt redefined the American presidency through sheer force of will. The office of President was at a nadir in the decades following the Civil War, and the Congress was pre-eminent. Roosevelt was placed on the ticket as vice-President in order to get him out of the way. He never really saw eye-to-eye with the Republican party bosses, but his massive popularity was difficult to ignore. Vice-President was a convenient dead-end in which to place him, until an assassin's bullet propelled him into the Oval Office.

Once there, Teddy did all sorts of outrageous things, often not stopping to inquire whether it was actually within the purview of the Executive Branch to do what he did. And he got away with it.  All that is well known. John is a fan of T. R., as am I, and I am more interested in the less well-known aspects of this fascinating man. Despite his famous belligerency, Roosevelt was a gifted negotiator. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for the deal that ended the Russo-Japanese War, but he also ended the guerrilla war in the Phillipines [although not the Moro Rebellion] and convinced the Kaiser to settle his debts with Latin America instead of sending battleships to collect them.

Roosevelt was perhaps one of the best read Presidents. He read two to three books a day. When given a book by a guest in the morning, he could discuss the book in detail at dinner. He attempted to reform English spelling by Executive Order, which is perhaps one of the few things in his Presidency that backfired so badly.

I'm currently working my way through Edmund Morris' magisterial trilogy on T. R., and I also watched a bit of the recent PBS series The Roosevelts, but I skipped the parts about Franklin. I am simply in a Theodore Roosevelt mood, but that is never a bad thing.

T.R.: The Last Romantic
by H. W. Brands
Basic Books, 1997
897 pages, $35.00
ISBN: 0-465-06958-4

Large Policy

You don't need an excuse to read about Theodore Roosevelt. Still the youngest president (he was just shy of 43 years old when William McKinley's assassination catapulted him from vice-presidential obscurity), he was probably the most knowledgeable person ever to hold that office, even counting Thomas Jefferson. He was certainly the most colorful. In fact, his volcanic stint in office from 1901 to 1909 was a comparatively drab interlude in his life. If he had not existed, G. K. Chesterton would have had to make him up. It would take an awfully bad biographer to write a tedious life of this man, but this single-volume work by H. W. Brand (who teaches history at Texas A&M) is both solid history and a delight to read. The only problem is that, at almost 900 pages, the book is too short.

Nevertheless, the study of Theodore Roosevelt's administration has become not just entertaining but topical. Historical parallels are always tricky, but many people (including President Clinton) have taken to comparing the present era to the Progressive Era of the first two decades of the 20th century. When Roosevelt took office, the federal government was just coming out of the coma it entered after the Civil War of 1861-65. In the interim, the country had been covered with huge new industries that the law simply did not address. Neither Europe nor Asia were as far away as they had been a few decades before, and for the first time in its history the United States found that it needed a strategic doctrine. At the same time, international capital flows were becoming large enough to affect even the largest economies, while immigration (in those days from eastern and southern Europe) was threatening to change the character of the country. Meanwhile, business and labor united in the demand that tariff policy keep the growing American domestic market all to themselves. Roosevelt proposed to deal with this new environment through what he called "large policy." In the cramped intellectual universe of the post-Cold War, post-federal deficit era, it is not unreasonable that people have started to look to Roosevelt for a more expansive view of government.

So who was this Roosevelt character? He was born in 1858 to a rich family of stolid Dutchmen that had lived in Manhattan since it was Nieuw Amsterdam. As the whole world knows, he was a scrawny specimen with a life-threatening case of asthma, so he adopted a lifelong program of indoor and outdoor exercise. (He died at 60, battered and half-blind: there is such a thing as overdoing it.) Roosevelt never went to a conventional school until he entered Harvard, but by then he spoke the major modern languages and was already on the way to becoming a serious naturalist. He hunted big game in Africa and the Americas, often at the expense of institutions for which he supplied specimens. His chief regular source of income was a stream of purple-prose popular histories, supplemented by memoirs of his adventures and by ferocious political invective. (He was a distant cousin of Rudyard Kipling; it shows.) He was widowed once and remarried, fathering six children in all.

Just out of college, Theodore Roosevelt was elected to the New York State Assembly as a Republican in 1881. (At the same time he published his first book, on the naval side of the War of 1812.) He was even briefly the minority leader, until the Republicans unexpectedly gained a majority and decided they did not want a kid running the legislature. He divided his time between politics and ranching in the Dakotas during the 1880s. The latter enterprise, into which he had sunk much of his considerable inheritance, lapsed when his herds were wiped out in the severe winter of 1886-87. Still, he continued to mount nearly annual hunting expeditions, and it was in this period that he began his influential multivolume history, "The Winning of the West." In the 1890s he served on (and dominated) the new federal Civil Service Commission, and then on the New York City Police Commission. (It was while serving in the latter post that cartoonists fell in love with his spectacles, mustache and teeth.) President McKinley made him Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the period leading up to the Spanish-American War of 1898. During that war he served in Cuba with operatic distinction as lieutenant colonel of a volunteer regiment (the "Rough Riders") in the chaotic but successful American advance on Santiago. The Battle of San Juan Hill did not for the most part occur on San Juan Hill, which in any case is actually a ridge, but Roosevelt really was stone courageous.

Roosevelt's war record, helped not least by his own quickie book on his exploits, got him elected governor of New York State. There he showed a disconcerting tendency to make appointments for reasons other than patronage and to try to regulate monopolies. It was actually in order to restrain him that the Republican Party leaders made him McKinley's second vice president. McKinley's assassination by the self-described anarchist Leon Czolgosz (pronounced "Tsholgosh") put him in the White House.

Roosevelt in office exercised functions no one knew the president had (and indeed didn't, until Roosevelt made them up). He threatened to send in the Army to take over the coal mines during a potentially catastrophic strike, thereby forcing the owners to come to terms with the union. He turned federally-owned land into the nature preserves that became the National Park System, this with only the flimsiest legislative authorization. At a time when the Supreme Court tended to strike down new business regulation, he got Congress to extend federal control over the inspection of food and drugs. He managed to get some real authority for the Interstate Commerce Commission over the railroads, whose monopoly pricing he remembered from his own days in the Dakotas. He acquired the land to build the Panama Canal. (The transaction, as his Attorney General delicately put it, was accomplished "without the slightest taint of legality.") He sent American forces to briefly occupy Havana without Congressional authorization. In fact, he sent the whole fleet on a round-the-world cruise and dared Congress not to appropriate the money to bring it back. The rules for American football were revised under White House auspices. He also tried to reform English spelling by executive order, but here Congress stopped him cold.

It is the measure of Roosevelt that, though he often wrote and spoke of war as if it were a kind of extreme sport, he started no war when pulling the trigger was his own responsibility. In fact, he had a knack for negotiation. He negotiated an end to the appalling guerrilla war that had simmered in the Philippines since the U.S. acquired the archipelago in the Spanish-American War. He famously won the Nobel Peace Prize for hosting the negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War. Less famously, he was instrumental in defusing the Algeciras Crisis in 1906, and he persuaded the Kaiser to take his bad-debt claims against Latin American countries to the Hague, instead of trying to settle them by sending German battleships into the western hemisphere. Roosevelt was in fact a great believer in international law and the settlement of disputes by arbitration. He was far from pacifism, of course. In his view, it was not the function of international law to discourage war, but to regulate it.

Roosevelt was an ideological imperialist. He did not just want an American empire, he liked the idea of empires in general. The reason for this was the same as his reason for supporting labor unions: he supported order for its own sake. Much the same motive probably also lay behind his support of a rationalized spelling for English. Put negatively, this means that he feared disorder. He had a particular hatred for anarchists of all descriptions, of course, but much the same sentiment informed his support of business regulation. Laissez faire economics made him nervous, because it appeared to allow chaos.

One way to put it might be to say that Roosevelt liked power, but power employed to build things. On the whole he assumed that bigger was better. Canals, empires, populations: he supported pronatalist policies against the beginnings of the birth control movement. Even his antitrust policy reflected this principle, since he much preferred regulating monopolies to breaking them up. He had mixed feelings about immigration, but for most of his life he saw it as a good, provided there was no multiculty nonsense about keeping the immigrants in ethnic enclaves. In his mind, being a Lincoln Republican also meant being a an anti-racist Republican, because racism required leaving something unassimilated.

Roosevelt may have been the first American statesman with a geostrategic sense. He understood that Eurasia has two ends, and the U.S. is in trouble if anything goes seriously wrong at either one. Whenever possible, the U.S. should support the states of the periphery against those of the interior. He had a genuine flash of prescience regarding the peculiar susceptibility of Russia to socialist revolution. In later years, he even understood that, if it became necessary to go to war with Germany, then thereafter it would become necessary to support a weakened Germany against the Slavic threat. This was the script for the 20th century, and he grasped it 30 years before anyone else.

Roosevelt saw to it that his old friend and right-hand man, William Howard Taft, would get the Republican nomination in 1908. Taft was elected, and Roosevelt, just 50 years of age, left for a triumphal tour of Africa and Europe. This tour made him the most famous man in the world. At the end of it, he represented the U.S. at the funeral of Edward VII, and he was the one the other dignitaries wanted to see. (Roosevelt avoided seeing the young Winston Churchill. He thought Churchill was a shady self-promoter.) Then Roosevelt returned to the United States and spent the rest of Taft's term stabbing his old friend in the back.

The reason he did this is fundamentally mysterious. Roosevelt had some real policy differences with his successor. Taft was much more accommodating to big business than Roosevelt ever was. (J.P. Morgan offered a toast when Roosevelt left for Africa: "America expects every lion to do its duty!") Still, Taft actually had a more vigorous anti-monopoly program than Roosevelt had had. Taft was friendlier with the Republican Party bosses than Roosevelt was, but that was not much of an accomplishment considering how much they distrusted Roosevelt. The answer seems simply to have been that Roosevelt was jealous. He was also incapable of self-knowledge, so he ascribed incompetence and bad motive to the people who excited his envy. Since there was then no constitutional bar to a third term, Roosevelt spent the rest of his life trying to get back into the White House. In the process, he ensured that Woodrow Wilson, a cerebral history professor of whom he would really and truly have cause to be jealous in a few years, would win the election of 1912.

That campaign was one of the odder episodes in the history of electoral politics. Party candidates in those days were chosen only in part through popular primaries, so although Roosevelt got most of the elected delegates to the Republican Party Convention, the party bosses renominated Taft. Then Roosevelt's delegates walked out of the Republican Convention to another hall where the nascent Progressive Party was meeting. That Convention then nominated Roosevelt for president.

Now the Progressive Party did not last long, but it provided the political agenda of the next 40 years. It had a moderate-liberal platform that included such things as unemployment insurance, the direct election of U.S. senators (who at the time were appointed by state legislatures) and an eight-hour workday. They were also the women's party, oddly enough for a body also known as "The Bull Moose Party," since they supported women's suffrage. Their convention, unlike the quadrennial fraternity blow-outs the other two parties would continue to hold until the 1960s, was a serious meeting of serious professional people. They punctuated their deliberations with the singing of serious songs, such as "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." This was the sort of Crusader politics for which Roosevelt had waited all his life, and he made the most of it.

"We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!" Roosevelt told the Convention. Interrupted only by roars of approval from the serious audience, he expanded at length on the peril in which civilization itself would be placed if the Progressive movement failed. In retrospect, it is easy to make fun of this kind of apocalyptic language, but the sense of impending apocalypse was quite common throughout Western civilization at the time. We see today that the intuition was correct, even if it sometimes fastened on unlikely objects.

In the event, Roosevelt came in a distant second to Wilson in the general election. Roosevelt was followed even more distantly by Taft, who had remained in the race only to ensure that Roosevelt would not be reelected. Afterwards, Roosevelt abandoned the Progressives and went on another of his scientific expeditions, this one to the Amazon in the company of his son Kermit. Stricken with various infections, Roosevelt barely survived this trip, though the tributary the expedition mapped is still named after him. (The "Teodoro," people call it locally).

Soon after his return the First World War broke out. Roosevelt gnashed his famous teeth. He wanted the United States to enter the war. He wanted to organize a volunteer regiment like the "Rough Riders." Most of all, he wanted to be president instead of "that creature" (more specifically "that skunk," or "that lily-livered skunk") Woodrow Wilson. That Wilson was as much a Progressive in policy terms as Roosevelt had ever been was irrelevent.

Roosevelt became a genuine fanatic in his latter days, especially after the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917. While previously he had always been able to distinguish doubts about unrestricted immigration from hostility to actual immigrants, in his stump speeches for the war effort he began to speak as if German ancestry were prima-facie evidence of disloyalty. Unable to imagine that some people might hold sincere convictions other than his own, he denounced pacifists and conscientious objects as traitors pure and simple. Neither was treason confined to private persons: his criticism of public officials for the mishandling of American logistics was so heated that the Justice Department actually considered prosecuting him under the era's generously interpreted laws against subversive speech. When the youngest of his four sons, Quentin, died in a dogfight over the Western Front, Roosevelt became if anything even less restrained. Roosevelt corresponded with Georges Clemenceau and Arthur Balfour, explaining as an expert just how weak Wilson's domestic position was after the Democrats did poorly in the congressional elections of 1918. There are lots of reasons why Wilson was unable to extract a moderate peace from the Versailles Conference, but Roosevelt's private diplomacy did not help.

It may be that Roosevelt's unexpected death from a heart attack in early 1919 prevented him from achieving an even more perfect revenge on Wilson. By the time of his death, he was once again the most popular Republican in America. Had he sought the Republican nomination, he would almost certainly have gotten it, and had he been nominated he would almost certainly have won. Theodore Roosevelt's third term: now that is some alternative history to think about.

If Roosevelt were alive today, he would have some intemperate things to say about the "New Nationalist" proposals to unplug his policies from the beginning of the 20th century and install them again at the end. His ideas, good and bad, were always forward-looking. He understood that the 20th century was going to be about socialism and world war, and he took the first steps to prepare the nation accordingly. Now these issues have been resolved, and the next century is going to be about something else; you can take your pick about what these things will be. The odds are, though, that we would be well advised to adopt Roosevelt's guiding instincts: we should fear disorder, and we should once again like building things.




This article originally appeared in the March 1998 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information: Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly


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