Some notes on TR.

December 22, 2009, 2:21 pm

Seventy years ago this winter, in one corner of the American West, explosions shattered the peace. But they were not, as elsewhere in the world, symptoms of war. Rather the five dozen men spending winter in a large wooden shack at a Dakota mountain were finishing the giant likeness of Theodore Roosevelt, which would stand alongside those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln on Mount Rushmore.

In his speech marking the beginning of work on the monument, President Calvin Coolidge mentioned Washington the creator, Jefferson the extender, and Lincoln the preserver of the nation’s life. As for Roosevelt, “To political freedom he strove to add economic freedom.” Yes, Calvin “business of America is business” Coolidge said that; and Gutzon Borglum, the monument’s sculptor, explained that Coolidge really meant it:

President Coolidge once asked me, in discussing these men, what was my estimate of Roosevelt. “Well,” I answered, “I happen to know that Mr. Roosevelt said the cutting of the Panama Canal was the greatest and most important service he rendered to the nation.” Mr. Coolidge jumped to his feet and, with his index finger pointing upward, he said, “Have you forgotten that he was the only President who dared to tell big business, “Thus far you can go, and no farther, for the safety of our country”?

I was stunned. Not at the reminder, but that it came from Coolidge and in that phrase: “the only President.” Then he added, “Those words must be cut on that mountain.”1

They weren’t—they abandoned the plan to carve a brief history of the nation into the mountain—but still: Roosevelt’s progressivism inspired even Calvin Coolidge. The other men on the mountain are gods of War and Revolution and enterprises of great moment. Roosevelt is there because of what he did for Americans in their ordinary lives.

Meeting Roosevelt you could never be sure what he might discourse upon; he was a genius with innumerable enthusiasms ranging from natural history to simplified spelling. But you could bet he would reveal little of himself in any of his endless commentary. Rudyard Kipling described him as “Theodore the spinner”; a vaudevillian parodied the president as “Theater” Roosevelt. Henry Adams described Roosevelt as “pure act,” by which he surely meant at least “pure deed,” but Adams probably meant to put some ambiguity there: “pure act” can also mean “pure performance.” More so than with most Presidents, there was an element of put-on in any tete-a-tete with Theodore Roosevelt.

He was a self-made man, not in the middle-class striver’s sense of the term, but in a real sense: he was not who he had been born or brought up to be. For this reason a life of Roosevelt can be more worth your while than most biographies; normally the first hundred or so pages of a biography wastes the reader’s time with family trivia while telling nothing about the development of character because most of us remain who we were at an early age. Not Roosevelt. The asthmatic and privileged little myopic kid reinvented himself as an athlete and a cowboy, spurring himself onward to escape his sorrow and guilt. “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough,” he wrote. Thus he fled the death of his wife from a disease concealed by her pregnancy on the same day his mother died, keeping a determinedly cheerful face to the world; thus he proved he was not his father, who had hired a substitute rather than fight in the Civil War. Roosevelt was going to be what he made himself become.

And he had that rarest quality among presidents: he was not taken in by himself. He was giving you a bit of an act, and if you called him on it, he would often laugh. Which is how he became friends with one of his needling critics, Finley Peter Dunne (creator of Mr. Dooley) and how, like John Kennedy, who shared this quality, he won over the press.

So Roosevelt presents historians with a problem: not only smarter and cannier than most presidents, he was also smarter and cannier than most historians. It doesn’t do to take him too much at face value. He might not have meant what it sounded like he said, and what he did probably had more than one purpose. That business of playing a cowboy wasn’t just about breast-beating machismo; it was about finding out the nature of work, and working people.

The man who murdered William McKinley and made Theodore Roosevelt president was sadly ordinary in all but deed. The child of immigrants, one of a large family who struggled together to save up and buy a piece of land, who worked from a young age and learned about the promise of America in the public schools, he was put out of work in the depression of the 1890s and never fully recovered. If these were sufficient reasons to turn radical and murderer then millions of Americans had the same motives. You could look at the headlines and see revolution brewing.

Roosevelt knew this and used his presidency to stave off this revolution by curbing the power of business barons. His accomplishments in this arena seem so small: a Bureau of Corporations, to compel the opening of business’s books; laws for pure food and drugs and truth in advertising; a stronger Interstate Commerce Commission; a workmen’s compensation law covering railroads; a few prosecutions—notably one against a Morgan combination, one against Standard Oil—that, while successful in law, left the owners of trusts in substantial control of their property.

There are two things worth noting about these minor steps forward. First, businesses and their allies fought Roosevelt so fiercely over these measures they did not seem minor at the time. Second, Roosevelt made it clear from the beginning these were but steps forward and not the entirety of his agenda.

Roosevelt changed the national debate. As Charles Beard wrote, Roosevelt used “the whole range of the terminology of ‘social uplift’” from his first message to Congress onward, and he repeated it tirelessly. Talking is not action, but it can make action possible. By speaking the language of reformers, by uttering it from his bully pulpit, Roosevelt made it seem normal, even necessary, to demand social justice for the country’s working people. By 1912, all the presidential contenders—Woodrow Wilson, William H. Taft, Eugene Debs, and even the Prohibitionist Eugene Chafin—were trying to explain that they were, in their way, progressives just like Roosevelt.

That way of speaking, as if social justice mattered, remained prominent in American politics into the 1970s, and I believe historians came to think of it as so normal they failed to credit Roosevelt for what he had done to set the terms of discussion. Now that those terms have shifted so far from progressivism, maybe we can again appreciate the extent of Roosevelt’s rhetorical achievement.

He was a godawful racist, sexist, and warmonger. His unthinking allegiance to the bigots of Brownsville, Texas, should alone discredit any claim he had to decency on the subject of civil rights, dinner with Booker T. Washington notwithstanding. If it occurs to Rudyard Kipling to tease you about your enthusiasm for colonial conquest, you’re probably somewhat beyond the pale. Roosevelt was.

Not that it should matter, but if I could have lived in that era with my current political attitudes intact, I do not think I would have liked him much. (Though I have a feeling I would have enjoyed the dinner conversation of his daughter, Alice “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, sit over here by me” Roosevelt Longworth.)

Yet I’m all but positive I would have voted for him and lent him my political support, even as the non-racist, non-sexist, non-warmongering Jane Addams did, on the ground that he had the right enemies and in the belief that he and his policies represented progress toward a country where such things as civil rights were possible.

And for all his love of killing beasts he saved a lot of them and their habitats for Americans to enjoy. The Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, Lassen Peak, Devil’s Tower—he set aside so much of the nation’s land for preservation, including Mount Olympus, where the elk that bear his surname flourish.

It is always easier to explain why Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln belong on Mount Rushmore. Lincoln is America’s Christ. And Washington plays God the Father to Lincoln’s martyred savior. Which leaves to Jefferson the role of Holy Spirit: just so, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, the deeply flawed Jefferson nevertheless carried enough divine fire to channel into words the nation’s enlivening ideal of equality and natural right.

With such an established trinity, what need for a fourth figure? If we can see elements of the godly in each of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, what can we do with the rather thoroughly earthly Roosevelt? But perhaps that is the point. Alongside gods humanity also has a place, and a man who did so much to make daily life in America a little better, and to create the expectation that daily life in America must be better, belongs there.

1David Perlman, “Four for the Ages,” NYT 8/25/1940, p. 94.

This entry was posted in history and current events. Bookmark the permalink.