Sunday, January 13, 2008

Theodore Roosevelt: The People's President

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best, if he wins, knows the thrills of high achievement, and, if he fails, at least fails daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt
It's difficult if not impossible to even contemplate from the vantage point of January 2008 that there used to be such a thing as a "progressive Republican" That very term today sounds so oxy moronic, it's almost hard to pronounce. The vision of a "Square Deal" and a living wage "for every man and every woman in the United States" was represented by Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th president. January 6, 2009, less than a year from today, will mark the 90th anniversary of his passing at the age of sixty. I think the time has come (in fact, it's long overdue) that people who describe themselves as "registered Republicans", most of whom are reasonable people (unlike their counterparts on the RNC), take a good, long look at this man, his incredible life, and his legacy to the country he loved so well.
When reading a biography of him, one is almost dumbstruck by the man's seriousness of purpose and his utter incorruptibility. That he believed in himself and his talents and abilities is not a rare thing among politicians these days. What is different is that Roosevelt had every reason for his self-confidence. His lifetime of achievements not only as a politician but as a naturalist, an author, and an explorer would be impressive enough in someone who lived to be one-hundred years old. That so much was accomplished in so relatively short a life can only be described as awe inspiring. What is even more amazing is the fact that his was a life plagued by ill health and devastating personal tragedy - the loss of his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, hours after the birth of their only child; the death of his youngest son Quentin in World War I - events that would have floored any other man.
It should be stated here for the record: Teddy Roosevelt was not like other men. Not even close.
His principled stand on important issues was such an inconvenient truth for the power elite of his day, he inspired political King maker Mark Hanna to refer to him as, "that damned cowboy". As governor of the state of New York, he proved to be such a headache to GOP boss Thomas Platt, in the summer of 1900, Mr. Platt concocted a scheme to rid himself of the irrepressible Mr. Roosevelt forever.

The previous year, Garrett Hobart, President William McKinley's vice-president, had died unexpectedly. Roosevelt was literally forced to run with McKinley as second on the ticket. In that bygone era (over a century before Dick Cheney) the vice-presidency was seen as a powerless, impotent position. A generation later, John Nance Garner, who would serve as the first VP for Theodore's distant cousin Franklin, would famously remark that the office wasn't worth "a bucket of warm piss". At the end of a long campaign, on March 4, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated as the first vice-president of the twentieth century. He could now be expected to go gently into that good night of political oblivion.

And then the unthinkable happened.
On September 6, 1901, while visiting the Pan American exposition in Buffalo, NY, President McKinley was shot and mortally wounded by a crazed gunman. He died eight days later. At the age of forty-two, Theodore Roosevelt, that "damned cowboy" was now the president of the United States.
He was just the right person to usher his country into the new American century. He was young; the youngest man who ever held that position - before or since. The presidency had been severely weakend following the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868. He became the first president since Abraham Lincoln to give the office some teeth. The House and Senate, long accustomed to dealing with passive and appeasing chiefs-executive, didn't know what to make of this new president. While he gave the legislative branch of government ulcers, he inspired the nation. There had never been this manner of man in the White House before - and the people loved him.
His was an administration dedicated to the environment, almost a century before such a stand would be politically popular. As president, he set aside millions of acres of forest as national parkland, to keep them from being ravaged by the timber industry. He would negotiate an end to the Japanese/Russian war which would earn him the Nobel Peace Prize - the first for a US president. He would initiate the building of the Panama Canal. He would seriously impair the stranglehold that Big Business in general - and J.P. Morgan in particular - held on the American economy. In May 1902, coal miners struck for a wage increase, an eight hour day and recognition of their union. In October of that year, President Roosevelt forced the mine owners to meet with the striking miners. For the first time in history, government influence was able to oversee impartial arbitration.
After serving nearly two full terms, he left the White House, handing over the reigns of power to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and went on a much-heralded safari to Africa. On returning stateside in 1910, after being away for over a year, he was disturbed to find that the jovial but easily-led Taft had undone much of what Roosevelt believed to be his greatest accomplishments. Challenging the incumbent president in the Republican primaries of 1912, Roosevelt arrived at the convention that summer with all of the delegates needed (and then some) to seize the mantle of standard bearer and claim the nomination. The GOP power brokers, though, had other ideas. They had had enough of the progressive enlightenment of Theodore Roosevelt and were determined that the Plutocracy - not the people - would dictate America's future. Taft was re-nominated to run for a second term.
Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party at that moment and formed the Progressive or - as it was popularly known - The Bull Moose Party. His third-party candidacy wound up splitting the Republican vote, thereby - for good and ill - making the presidency of Woodrow Wilson possible. It was during that campaign, on his way to make a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that a would-be assassin shot him, point blank in the chest. "I will make this speech or die!" he told his terrified entourage. He strode to the podium, speech in hand, his shirt soaked with blood, and told his audience that it took more than a bullet to stop a Bull Moose.
The guy was incredible.
Ironically, Roosevelt's insurgent campaign of 1912 had a lasting effect on the political make up of the Grand Old Party. Many of the progressives who left with him, never returned to the Republicans. The liberal wing of that party, to this very day - almost a century later - has never re-emerged.
Fate was not yet through with Theodore Roosevelt. In early 1914, he agreed to take part in an exploration that was planning on mapping out an uncharted river which snaked its way through the dense jungles of the Amazon.The fifty-five year old Roosevelt would later say of his reason for going, "It was my last chance to be a boy."

The four-month long adventure nearly cost hm his life. So sick was he with malaria, fever and infection, he begged his companions to leave him behind to die. His son, Kermit, who had accompanied him on the trip remained steadfast: Dead or alive, he would see his father through. When he emerged at the river's end, he had lost one quarter of his 200 pound frame. The river, previously known only as the River of Doubt, was later re-christened in his honor "Rio Roosevelt" by the Brazilian government.

It is widely believed that his experience on the River of Doubt took years off of his life. It is almost anticlimactic to think that this man of action and adventure would die, quietly, in his sleep, at his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, in the pre-dawn hours of January 6, 1919.
I think it is quite telling that, all these decades later, in their campaign literature and propaganda, the Republican Party - his party - never even mentions the name of Theodore Roosevelt - one of the three or four greatest presidents in American history. One needs not a degree in history to figure out the reason for that: Theodore Roosevelt believed, in every fiber his being, that corporate America served at the pleasure of the people - not the other way around. That sort of thinking is anathema to the modern day GOP.
They just don't make Republicans like that anymore. Come to think of it, they don't make Democrats like that anymore either, do they....

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY
Theodore Roosevelt: A Life
by Nathan Miller

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At 12:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Tom,

There is one like Teddy Roosevelt today, whom you've written about before: Ralph Nader. I saw "An Unreasonable Man" recently and it changed my opinion of him forever. He too has lived by unchanging principles and fought with a kamikaze like attitude to correct the injustices he has seen. I'd like to change your mind about him as "Spoiler" of the 2004 election, but if you've seen this film, you will undoubtedly come to the same conclusion: Nader did not lose that election for Al Gore! You will be proud you voted for him.

We need candidates like Nader for the same reason Teddy Roosevelt was such an influential figure in politics back then. "Damn cowboys" are necessary to make the two dominant parties realize that people have a choice and may not vote for any big party candidates. It forces them to listen to their progressive constituents.

Thank you for a beautiful story on Teddy Roosevelt.

fearless flower

At 12:55 PM, Blogger Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

Thank you for the information on the Bader film, Tamara. I've just ordered it of of

I'll let you know what I think.

Love and Peace,


At 11:27 AM, Anonymous David said...

Hi Tom:

I left something for you at Sarah Rachel's blog. Thought I'd drop by. Oddly enough, it was a piece by Nader. I didn't know you're not a fan.:~))

I sure hope you don't blame Ralphie for those Democratic clusterfucks in 2000 and 2004. Jeebus, Gore couldn't carry his own state in 2000. Bush "won" FL by 537 votes after Jeb and his minions loped 90,000 blacks and latinos off the voter rolls illegally on the pretext that they were "felons".

Kerry had held back more than $ half a million for post election litigation in 2004 and never spent a penny of it - even though he was screwed in Ohio. He should have gone for broke if he loved the Constitution.

Anyway, in your praise of TR, I sense a longing for the good old days of "bi-partisanship." There were indeed progressive Republicans up until the mid-Sixties and, because the Dems were governed by many racist southerners who held committee chairmanships due to their long (gerrymandered) tenure, deals were cut right and left with New Deal Dems joining northeastern and middle atlantic progressive Republicans and Conservative Repugs joining Dem 'Blue Dogs'. After LBJ's Civil Rights Acts, most of the Blue Dogs bolted the Dems to form the racist conservative monolith we know as the Reps. Progressive Reps became an extinct species because they were taking incoming fire from both the liberal Dems and their own party's cutthroat conservative wing.

To my mind, there can be no such thing as 'post-partisanship' today. All that means to me is that the Dems cede the field to the corporations and their criminal neocon puppets who give no quarter. To this extent I think Obama's and Bloomberg's rhetoric along these lines is nonsense on stilts. The fight is to the finish. No retirement.

At 12:52 PM, OpenID charemor said...

I am sorry to disagree with everyone about Nader but I happened to be on a cruise ship this summer where he was with a political group and I had the opportunity to observe him quite often. Whatever good ideas he may have, his physical body language and general demeanor was that of defeatism, a discouraged old man and such a hang dog expressioni and attitude that he will never inspire confidence in anyone but the faithful few to vote for him. He does NOT inspire confidence.

At 3:58 PM, Blogger David said...


Yes. That's how I'd look too if my only shot at having my life's work continued rested with the contemporary Green Party. :~))

Yes. We have to start fresh with the third party movement but, as you say, the ideas are all there. The Repugs are breaking-up and the people are getting angrier.

A recession and four more years of Republicrat triangulation should bring the situation to a boil.

The closest approximation we have this time around is Edwards. Maybe he'll get tougher as the primary season wears on. This is a start:

At 3:07 AM, Anonymous Polyquats said...

Hey Tom,
Maybe they just don't make Americans like that any more (present company excepted, of course!).

That's how it looks from this side of the (peaceful) ditch, anyway.

At 10:15 PM, Anonymous Beatrix said...

Thank you, Tom for this tribute to my favorite US President of all time. I've read three biographies and have just begun "The Wilderness Warrior, Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America". I agree with you, they don't grow them like that anymore. I was a hard working campaigner for Obama, traveling out of state to work for him, taking time off of work at home, taking time away from family. For what? To say that I am disappointed is a gross understatement. Currently, there are only 2 politicians who have earned my respect and admiration- Howard Dean and Congressman Eric Massa. As far as Nader goes, I blame him for 8 years of W.


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