Republicans who decry academic biases against the Grand Old Party may, in turn, be suffering from misinformation about their own party’s political history, particularly when they lionize the ultimate “Big Government Conservative”—Teddy Roosevelt.
His memorabilia adorns Karl Rove’s office. He glowers from photos and portraits hung in Republican congressional offices.
The Republican Capitol Hill Club here in Washington, D. C. features his forbidding visage prominently. Two doors down, another Republican hangout, Bullfeathers! Bar, is named after one of his favorite expressions.
His toehold on American popular culture is no less secure. Thanks to Mount Rushmore, he can glare at his country long after all his portraits fade.
The Teddy Bear was named after him. Maxwell House coffee, so the legend goes, got its famous catchphrase from Teddy Roosevelt’s own lips. “This coffee is good to the last drop,” the old Rough Rider allegedly declared after finishing a cup of java at the Maxwell House hotel in Tennessee.
To be sure, his patriotism is beyond reproach. For example, there was the sending of the Seventh Fleet to shell the coast of Alexandria, Egypt when Americans were kidnapped there during Roosevelt’s years as president.
Also, the Panama Canal may have been the quickest way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific but it could also be argued that Teddy arranged it in a, also arguably, typically ham-handed way. “There was much accusation about my having acted in an ‘unconstitutional’ manner,” Roosevelt said. “I took the isthmus, started the canal, and then left Congress—not to debate the canal, but to debate me. . . . While the debate goes on, the canal does too; and they are welcome to debate me as long as they wish, provided that we can go on with the canal.” He always did have an uneasy relationship with the Constitution.
He wasn’t exactly laid back at home either. Thanks to Sidney M. Milkis’s masterful Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party, and the Transformation of American Democracy, we can see just how, er, robust, Colonel Roosevelt was.
“The ends of government are to secure a high average of moral and material well- being among our citizens,” TR said in Columbus, Ohio in the 1912 campaign where he ran on a third party ticket. “It has been well said in the past that we have paid attention only to the accumulation of prosperity, and that from henceforth we must pay equal attention to the proper distribution of prosperity.”
“Our aim should be to make this as far as may be not merely a political, but an industrial democracy.” Milkis teaches at the University of Virginia.
To be sure, Roosevelt was no longer president when he made such pronouncements and governed a good deal more conservatively than his later speeches would indicate. Nonetheless, his latter utterances would have set Barack Obama spinning Robert Gibbs like a top to backtrack on such statements had our current chief executive made them.
By the way, Teddy Roosevelt came out for national health care long before Teddy Kennedy did, in 1912, after a trip to Europe. Thus did Roosevelt, who prominently expanded the federal share of the national land mass as president, become even more enthusiastic about centralized government in retirement.
“Combinations in industry are the result of an imperative economic law which cannot be repealed by political legislation,” the Bull Moose said in another campaign appearance. “The effort at prohibiting all combination has substantially failed.”
“The way out lies, not in attempting to prevent such combinations but in completely controlling them in the interest of public welfare.” But it wasn’t just corporations that the old Trustbuster wanted to restrain.
“The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it,” he warned.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.