Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Original Teddy

Just started reading the second volume of Edmund Morris’s wonderfully-written, three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt—this one covers the presidential years (1901-09) and is entitled Theodore Rex. The third volume, Colonel Roosevelt, was just published in hard-cover, and deals with the last decade of TR’s life, when he emerged from the White House and despite much activity, found he had no constructive role to play.

But starting with the train trip to Buffalo following McKinley’s assassination there and his subsequent return to Washington by train (on a route that no longer provides passenger service), this volume grabs you right from the start with the sheer energy of the man in his prime. He was and remains the youngest President to take office—at 42. He had already conquered a sickly childhood, aided by spending time in what was then the Wild West of Wyoming, served in a multitude of posts from Police Commissioner of New York City to Governor of New York to Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and then of course won fame by leading the charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War.

On the long journey from climbing down Mt. Marcy, New York’s highest peak in the Adirondacks, to Buffalo, and then to Washington, Roosevelt has a chance in between meeting with Cabinet members, politicians, and newspapermen to consider where he would seek to lead the nation. He makes you realize the right meaning of conservative: someone who believes in conservation of the best.

He sees the stumps of trees in central Pennsylvania left by clear-cutting by one or another of the “combinations” or “trusts” that controlled the American economy and, as in our time, represented pure, uncontrolled greed. Rockefeller, who controlled the entire oil business, was shameless in decrying competition as inefficient. J.P. Morgan, who controlled even more, knew enough to say little—perhaps TR was inspired by his example when he uttered, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

Roosevelt had grown from being violently anti-labor at the time of the Haymarket Square riot to realizing that something needed to be done for the workingman who had received no benefit from America’s new-found wealth. Eventually he would take on the trusts and the combinations, upon which the Sherman Act had had negligible impact since its enactment in 1890.

Was Roosevelt perfect? Of course not. At the start of this volume, it’s clear that he had little interest in women’s suffrage—still almost two decades in the future. Nor did he have much liking for immigrants or people of color. He was in that sense a man of his times. But he realized that complete economic inequality—toward which we have been moving for the past two decades—would not serve America well.

So he managed to use the Republican party to launch the Progressive Movement at the presidential level. And much good resulted from the Square Deal and his other initiatives, especially with regard to conservation—now our environmental movement. He rose to the challenge as did his distant cousin, FDR, thirty-some years later. Having spent himself--and suffering from the loss of one of his sons in World War I--he was dead at 60. We could benefit mightily from his like today.

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