Archive for March 10th, 2010

Teddy…a Socialist?

Teddy RooseveltOh…My…God…

Apparently in the supercharged environment of today’s American politics the worst thing that can be said of someone is that they are…a socialist!

Comes now the wingnut set in the person of Glenn Beck leveling that scurrilous charge at, of all people, the 26th president – Theodore Roosevelt. Glenn must be off his meds, or he’s been reading different history than me.

Beck, one of the new generation of agitators from the far right (they also exist on the far left) who live to create heat (never light), spoke recently to a very conservative audience in Washington, D.C. and managed to lay a good percentage of the problems of the 20th Century at the door of “progressives” like Roosevelt. What a profound misreading of American history, but then again what do you expect from cable TV bloviators who willy-nilly re-write history to fit the politics of the moment.

Never missing a beat, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs let it be known that his boss, not unfamiliar with being tarred with the “s” word, is reading Edmund Morris’ wonderful biography, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. I recommend it if you want the real story about Teddy.

My old buddy Joel Connelly, writing in the Seattle PI, was one of many to address the “kookiness” of history as misrepresented by Glenn Beck, the darling of the Tea Party crowd. Jonathan Alter in Newsweek had a similar take. If Beck’s take on T.R. weren’t so laughable it would be, well, laughable. That some people actually listen to this guy is, however, frightening.

Truth be told, the “progressive” movement of the early 20th Century was a pragmatic and very American response to the very real possibility that real socialists would gain a substantial following in American politics. When Teddy Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party in 1912 to run on the Progressive ticket – the Bull Moose ticket – he faced not only the conservative incumbent GOP President William Howard Taft, but progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson and a real socialist, Eugene V. Debs. In that four-way contest, one of the most electrifying elections in American history, Debs garnered nearly a million votes running under the Socialist Party banner. In other words, Debs had a following and Roosevelt and Wilson, the progressives of the day, were dealing with the reality of that following. Their vision of America prevailed.

What did T.R.’s “progressives” stand for? Well, direct election of United States Senators, an income tax, regulation of monopoly, women’s suffrage and pure food and drug laws, among other things. Later progressives, including Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, advocated additional reforms, including what became Social Security and regulation of utilities. Franklin Roosevelt brought such reform to reality in the 1930’s, continuing the progressive trend in American politics. This wasn’t socialism, it was progress.

It is simply a perversion of our history for anyone to suggest that the whole series of progressive reforms that began with the first Roosevelt have anything to do with socialism. It would be more accurate to say that the progressive agenda of the early 1900’s saved the country for capitalism and headed off socialism. FDR’s New Deal did much the same 20 years later during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Neither Roosevelt harmed capitalism, rather their response to the issues of their times saved capitalism.

Progressive reforms helped usher in the strong, diverse, resilient capitalist democracy that has long made the United States the envy of the rest of the world. It is a free country and Glenn Beck can extend and revise his fiction all he wants, but the facts get in the way.

Teddy Roosevelt, like all of the greatest of the great presidents, was a flawed leader. He was a romantic about war. He had an ego the size of North Dakota where he retreated after his wife and mother died a few hours apart on the same day. He had a tendency, like most presidents, to push the bounds of executive power in dangerous directions. But, he was also brilliant, a genuine scholar, a fine writer, an historian, a soldier, naturalist and a visionary. It is not an accident that he is with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore. He deserves to be there. Edmund Morris, Ronald Reagan’s official biographer, is my authority.

Perhaps the most famous speech Teddy ever delivered – the man in the arena speech - sums up this remarkable man; a great president, and his importance to his times and ours. Think of a clown like Glenn Beck when you read this.

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Roosevelt made that speech in 1910. In Paris. In France. At the Sorbonne! Sounds like something a socialist would have done. I’ll bet Glenn Beck is outraged.