“This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”
Imagine a former President, currently campaigning for a return to the White House, is shot in the chest. Horrified aides prepare to transport him to the hospital. An adviser begins to compose an apology for the candidate’s absence at a nearby rally. The wounded man will have none of it. An experienced hunter and soldier, he reasons that he would be coughing up blood if the bullet had penetrated his lungs. Each of the fifty pages of his prepared remarks now sports a prominent bullet hole. With blood seeping into his clothing, he goes on to address the crowd for a full hour and a half.
There is much more to Theodore Roosevelt than pure grit. Yet this quality must be understood to make a start of understanding the man. Almost all of his adult life was dedicated to identifying serious problems and charging headlong into the struggle to solve them. Considered a frail child and subject to home schooling, he embraced the opportunity of Harvard life to reinvent himself. So began a lifelong love of boxing as well as a deep interest in military history. By graduation, he had established himself as physically formidable. At the same time, he made a solid start on The Naval War of 1812, a historical book of uncommon detail and rigor for the times.
He went on to law school, though soon he gave up that pursuit to run for and win a seat in the New York State Assembly. He was a prolific legislator, but it would not be long before he would face a challenge not at all of his choosing. On February 14, 1884, both his mother and his first wife died, the latter unexpectedly. Writing in his diary, “the light has gone out of my life;” even his spirit was not impervious to such a loss. Unable to find further satisfaction in political wrangling, a few weeks later he sought a change of scenery by heading for the Badlands of the Dakotas.
Embarking on a new course, he became a cattle rancher, frontier lawman, and magazine correspondent. His tales of life in what was then the “Wild West” proved popular among readers in New England. His keen sense of ethics and relentless determination made him a threat to any outlaw in the region. Though he befriended the legendary gunfighter Seth Bullock, Theodore Roosevelt remained a firm believer in the rule of law. In an instance when no one would have faulted him for the exercise of vigilante justice, he instead transported a trio of thieves to a distant venue where a proper trial could be conducted. Only after a severe winter wiped out his cattle herd did life in the Badlands no longer seem suited to this future President.
With his return to political life he embodied the spirit of a new progressive movement. After an unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City, he took work as a federal bureaucrat determined to stamp out corruption and patronage at all levels of government. His unyielding and sometimes downright pugnacious pursuit of fairness earned him a favorable public reputation. He was later able to build on this reputation as president of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners. There he faced tasks that anyone with less determination and force of personality could not hope to have accomplished. Yet he left the department transformed in a myriad of constructive ways.
He would next return to federal service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, using a brief absence of his superior (in conjunction with battleship Maine sinking) to prepare the nation for the pending Spanish-American War. Yet planning and management were not enough for a man of action like Theodore Roosevelt. He soon resigned his post, recruited over a thousand volunteers, and set out for Cuba as leader of a regiment that would become known as the Rough Riders. His boldness and perseverance in that conflict was recognized with a nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor, though an initial rejection meant that the award would not actually be bestowed until a posthumous ceremony held in 2001.
Now a bona fide war hero, his return to politics involved a quick rise to the very top. As governor of New York, he continued to fight corruption while taking measures to address the problems of the poor and downtrodden. William McKinley ran with Theodore Roosevelt as his Vice Presidential nominee in 1900. At that time, the red-blue polarity of almost every state was inverted from what we see in the 21st century. Republicans truly were the party of Lincoln. Democrats continued to openly support candidates sympathetic to the de facto apartheid in place throughout many of the southern states. The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket earned a solid victory against William Jennings Bryan’s appeals to archaic traditions and unscientific beliefs.
Still in his first year as President, William McKinley was assassinated. At 42 years of age, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the youngest President in the history of the United States. Yet this youth did not prevent him from achieving greatness. He immediately spoke out to promote more aggressive regulation of large corporations and to condemn corrupt dealings between government and business. He answered John Muir’s call to conserve and protect many of America’s greatest natural treasures. President Roosevelt even used federal power to resolve strikes by demanding fair treatment for the exploited working class.
After winning an easy landslide in the 1904 election, he continued to champion populist causes and govern in the public interest. He pushed for regulations that dramatically improved the safety of the American food supply. He opened the White House to reporters and provided regular briefings so as to better inform the public about the inner workings of government. Theodore Roosevelt was the first American to win a Nobel Prize — a Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. He was also the first President to call for universal health care to become the policy of the United States federal government.
Though he did not run for reelection in 1908, he found the policies and practices of his successor intolerable. William Howard Taft talked a good game when it came to promoting free and fair trade while regulating the excesses of big business. Yet he was a new force in Republican politics — a dissembler closely allied with the tycoons of his time. Even as he spoke of championing the causes of consumers and laborers, his actions served the interests of industrialists and speculators. Initially supportive of Taft, Roosevelt belatedly came to understand that the sitting President embodied everything the progressive movement was dedicated to purging from political life.
So it was that Theodore Roosevelt set out to win a third term as President of the United States. With primary elections a relatively new phenomenon, the contest for the Republican nomination was a complex and messy business. Aware of imminent defeat at the 1912 Republican National Convention, Roosevelt pulled his supporters away from that gathering and formed the Progressive Party. Declaring intent to oppose the “unholy alliance” between government and big business, Roosevelt generated enormous popular support. After the failed assassination attempt, his movement became known as the Bull Moose Party in reference to his quip, “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” Though he was ultimately defeated, Theodore Roosevelt earned the distinction of being the only third party candidate ever to finish second in a U.S. Presidential race.
Looking back at these events roughly a century ago, it is hard to imagine how much brighter history would have been if the Republican Party remained true to the principles of Theodore Roosevelt instead of allowing itself to be bought by the fortunes of the corporate elite. While the Democratic Party became more and more principled, eventually supporting causes like social justice and civil rights, the Republican Party embraced those constituencies that no honorable public figure should ever service. There is no legitimate place for corruption, sexism, racism, or homophobia in the political life of an enlightened people. With prevarication supported by the deepest of pockets and the shallowest of scruples, they have provided a political platform on which voters driven by those motivations can continue to make a stand.
So the next time you hear someone refer to the Republican Party as “the party of Lincoln,” keep in mind that this assessment was not always wrong. Once upon a time, they were champions of what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as the “square deal.” Once upon a time, they believed in the value of scientific thought, the importance of environmental conservation, and the Constitutional directive to promote the general welfare. Could such a transformation occur again? Could the party of Palin and Gingrich ever hope to recover integrity and usefulness? Stranger things have transpired in the history of American politics.