What You Should Think About Theodore Roosevelt

June 1, 2011

“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.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

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.


What You Should Think About The Wire

November 9, 2007

“. . . until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence in the news, there is no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.”

–Alicia Silverstone in Clueless

I remember being disappointed with NBC when they pulled the plug on Homicide: Life on the Street. Whether I was a college student or a yuppie working 60+ hour weeks or a hippie hardly working at all, it was the one series I always made time to follow. It took television to a place the medium hadn’t really been in the past, and it continued to generate top quality dramatic entertainment right up to the very end.

Frontline did a nice piece on the struggle to keep the show going even though Homicide was neck in neck in the ratings with Nash Bridges. In a less consequential but similarly gloomy way, I felt this made the kind of negative statement about our culture the world saw more clearly in the 2004 Presidential election. Still, right up to the end, Homicide managed to keep its integrity and turn out television that was rich with dramatic intensity and technical artistry.

Nowadays when people think of those virtues in television content, the tendency is to look at premium channels, with HBO leading the charge. The Sopranos was a cultural phenomenon that rightly deserved nearly unversal praise of the highest order. Yet HBO has proven in the past decade that it is capable of supporting many bold efforts to produce television content that realizes the potential for artistry in the medium. Lurking in obscurity relative to its cousin from New Jersey, The Wire capitalizes on the creative freedom premium channels encourage while carrying on with some of the best traditions established with Homicide.

In fact, both programs are centered on law enforcement operations in Baltimore. However, with The Wire we see even more of an effort to remove the filters between harsh realities of life in an urban environment plagued by crime and the experience of viewing the program. Tremendous effort has been made to give each character an authentic voice. It may be that most of the gangsters in the show are portrayed by educated professional actors, but it is easy to forget that fact as they set aside the lessons of voice coaches and stage experiences in favor of a profoundly natural mode of human interaction.

Likewise, law enforcement characters are portrayed with their own occupational quirks and colorful language. In the fourth episode of the first season, there is an amazing scene in which two homicide detectives do a significant amount of investigative work while engaging in richly detailed dialog that is confined to a single word. Variations in tone and context make it possible for both characters to express a wealth of information without venturing beyond the vocabulary of that particular expletive. Gems like that provide a generous payout of entertainment value for viewers willing to stare directly into the show’s stark depictions of drug addiction and street violence.

Perhaps a fair touchstone for the whole thing would be the teaser at the start of it all. The first episode begins with a detective questioning a minor gang associate about a dead body on the street. As the reluctant witness is coaxed into providing some background on the decedent, it turns out the man had a habit of robbing back-alley dice games. He would show up and make small wagers of his own, but as soon as a large amount of cash was put into play, he would swipe it and run from the group. When asked why the thief was allowed into the games again and again in spite of his conduct, the uneducated gangster displayed his understanding of Constitutional law by replying, “you got to let the man play — it’s America!”

The series rarely becomes so bogged down as to lack a mix of intrigue and action. Yet even in its slowest moments a mix of wit and philosophy is there to keep viewers engaged. Both levity and profundity tend to emerge naturally from the story as it unfolds. The biggest laughs and the deepest thoughts come to viewers from unexpected angles, rather than being presented as heavy-handed contrivances.

Each season offers up a relatively self-contained story arc, though it all begins as a detective sits in court watching yet another murder acquittal resulting from a street gang’s capacity to neutralize witnesses. With rampant apathy in a criminal justice system overmatched by the resources of drug-funded criminal organizations, a policeman intent on observing a trial for a case that was not even his own work draws attention. A judge also more motivated than most public servants in the show solicits the detective’s advice on how to deal with these seemingly indomitable gangs. The end result is a police task force that gradually manages to collect insight into the inner workings of a substantial criminal empire.

The show is fraught with events that repudiate the notion of karma. Then again, life itself has been known to exhibit just the same sort of injustice. For example, the apparent protagonist of the series, having created extra work for his associates by conversing with that judge and pushing for a thorough investigation from the task force, finds himself starting the second season with a new assignment specifically selected to make him miserable.

In the third season, a supervisory officer on the brink of retirement displays an uncommon level of thoughtfulness about the relationship between narcotics commerce and violence. While concealing his activities from other police commanders, he orchestrates a “no enforcement zone” where drug peddlers have been assured they can ply their trade without being arrested for it.

Though the project is slow to get traction, when gangsters in the area start to trust that the whole proposal is not a setup, it produces impressive results. Social services are more easily administered with drug commerce openly occurring in a small area rather than taking place covertly on street corners all around the district. The opportunity for easy money provides a strong incentive for the gangs to avoid violence. In the end, the project known on the street as “Amsterdam” unravels because of its own success — other police commanders become curious as to why crime has fallen so remarkably in that area, and the end of the secret becomes inevitable.

Now the days of The Wire are also numbered. The fifth and final season has already been completely filmed. Presently HBO on Demand is rolling through the previous seasons to give newcomers a chance to dial in to the story so far. Also, DVD collections of the first four seasons are widely available. Even if television writers had not decided to strike for a better share of the proceeds from direct media sales of content, this series would be an excellent way for anyone who enjoys good crime drama to spend some time. With the rest of the medium facing a form of artistic paralysis, all the more reason exists to take a look at this amazing confluence of Homicide‘s tradition of grit with HBO’s capacity for supporting artistic freedom.