October 27, 2010
Today is Theodore Roosevelts birthday. T.R. was much beloved in his own day, but he has caught some flak recently. In many ways, it is true, Roosevelt was not a conservative.
He ran, after all, on the Progressive party line in 1912.
That Bull Moose candidacy was arguably T.R.s worst mistake. By splitting the vote between himself and Republican William Howard Taft, T.R. let Woodrow Wilson come in as a minority President. Many of the disasters of the twentieth century, including the rise of Hitler, can fairly be laid at Wilsons feet.
Theodore Roosevelt pushed for a number of laws that we constitutional conservatives would not challenge today. Do we disagree with the Pure Food and Drug Act? We certainly must disagree with a Food and Drug Administration that approves lethal, abortion-producing drugs like RU-486 and Ella. But the basic premise that our food and drugs should be safe for human consumption is not one that we would want to do away with.
Child labor laws have been too stringently enforced. Young people need to have experience of the work place from co-op programs and the like. But few of us constitutional conservatives would like to see 10-year olds going down into the coal mines.
T.R. called the White House a bully pulpit and used it brilliantly. He was arguably the first pro-family President, as we moderns might use that term. Thats because as President, Roosevelt followed the Census data on marriage, childbirth, and divorce. He spoke out publicly and powerfully on the need for strong marriages. He knew that a breakdown in family life had terrible consequences for the nation.
He knew from painful firsthand experience how disastrous for a family it could be for the father to fail in his responsibilities. T.R. and his large and loving family had the tragic duty of institutionalizing his only brother, Eliott.
When T.R. preached in favor of the strenuous life, and attacked the malefactors of great wealth, it can too often read today like a socialist screed against income and entrepreneurs.
But the personal side of T.R.s life gives us clues to his public persona. Eliott Roosevelt had succumbed to alcoholism. He spent his life running with the socially prominent Four Hundred, the cream of New York society. This was the smart set of people whom T.R. said were living lives of ignoble ease.
Imagine you are trying to dry out, you are making a concerted effort to reform your life and care of your family. You take your young daughter with you as you drop in to your Manhattan club, for just a minute. You only want to retrieve a document.
Because the gentlemans club has a rule that says No Women allowed, you ask your daughter to wait on the fashionable front steps. But once inside, you succumb and become insensible from drinking. And your ten-year old daughter, Eleanor Roosevelt, waits on the front steps for hours as the sun sets over your life and your familys hopes.
It was this kind of painful personal experience that made T.R. a reformer. We can and must reject many of T.R.s enthusiasms. He even tried, as President, to force the Government Printing Office to adopt simplified spelling. Congress wisely slapped him down on that one. T.R. did not support Prohibition. Do we? T.R. did support womens suffrage. Dont we?
Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most restless and probing minds ever to occupy the White House. He was surely a Hamiltonian in his belief in energy in the executive. Had we ever had a more energetic President?
Days before he left the White House in 1909, he issued orders that required army officers to be physically fit. They would be required to be able to ride fifty miles in three days. Some desk-bound officers complained T.R. was unreasonable, that it was all well and good for a President to issue such an order since he didnt have to comply with it.
Immediately, T.R. took up the challenge. He set out with some close friends to ride fifty miles in a single day. His company of horsemen rode all the way to Warrenton, Virginia. There, he made a speech to the thrilled schoolchildren, patted heads all around, and spurred his horse for the return trip. He made it back to the White House, riding over Capital streets made hazardous with ice and sleet.
We have to wonder what Theodore Roosevelt would make of President Barack Obama. He would surely approve of a black man occupying the Oval Office. He would certainly be proud that a fellow Harvard man had attained the Presidency.
But what would T.R. think of Barack Obamas inviting Hip Hop millionaire Jay-Z to sit in the Presidential chair in the White House Situation Room? What would he think of the President of the United States using his bully pulpit to endorse the anti-woman, anti-family, pimp and ho subculture represented by Jay Z and his ilk?
Theodore Roosevelt would be much more likely to line up with Stanley Crouch, Thomas Chatterton Williams, and other black writers who have been courageous enough
to denounce President Obamas hanging with these artists. Surely, these gangsta millionaires fit T.R.s definition of malefactors of great wealth.
We can join the sharp critique of the Progressivesthen and now. But lets remember:
Theodore Roosevelt is on Mount Rushmore for a reason.