Teddy Roosevelt's verve, vision unmatched by John McCain

February 15, 2000|By David M. Shribman

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- He is the poster boy of Republican presidential candidates. He was the youngest American president, maybe the most inventive, surely the most vigorous. But he was a different kind of conservative, and a different kind of Republican, than the caricature John McCain is presenting.

Theodore Roosevelt was an exceptional Republican president, but he was also an exception among Republican presidents. Like his GOP brethren, he looked askance at waste in government. Like his Republican successors, he believed business was the engine of the economy.

But he also believed in power -- a powerful nation and a powerful president -- in a way that hardly any Republicans and even few Democrats do anymore.

The Roosevelt image that the Arizona senator summons on the campaign trail is the TR who once said: "We need leaders of inspired idealism, to whom are granted great visions, who dream greatly and strive to make their dreams come true, who can kindle the people with the fire from their own burning souls." He does not celebrate the TR who said: "While president ... I have used every ounce of power there was in the office, and I have not cared a rap for the criticisms of those who spoke of my usurpation of power."

No, TR didn't. Indeed, in his pathfinding 1954 book, "The Republican Roosevelt," Yale historian John Morton Blum argued that TR believed presidents should use power vigorously. "He proposed to preserve American capitalism as it was evolving by controlling it, by preventing its excesses and tempering its injustices," Blum wrote.

Just how different are the Roosevelt of the turn of the last century and the GOP candidates of today is evident in a vivid special exhibition hanging on the stately walls of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society through March 19. Here, only a few minutes' drive from the mansion where Roosevelt was sworn in as president after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, is a portrait of a Roosevelt who is at war with leisure, complacency, idleness, sloth -- and presidential restraint.

In battling the latter, the historical Roosevelt battles the folklore of the campaign trail.

TR was, to be sure, bigger than life. But in the Buffalo display cases there is a TR with a difference. This is the TR who wore a gold ring at his second inauguration that had been presented to him by John Hay, the secretary of state who had been Abraham Lincoln's personal secretary. The ring held strands of Lincoln's hair that were cut at his death. But it is also the TR whose tiny, brittle eyeglasses, which he wore throughout his adult life (and had three extra pair sewn into his uniform lining during the Spanish-American War), underline how human he was.

We forget that now, at a century's distance. But after McKinley expired, Roosevelt, who had been on an Adirondacks hiking trip, rushed to Buffalo, where the morning paper, the

cf03 Courier,

cf01 presented its readers with a front-page profile of the new president: "He has Led a Life Full of Stir and Vigor."

He was restless, inquisitive, curious and, at times, infuriating. An avid letter-writer, he dashed off a note to Cecil Spring-Rice, the best man at his wedding in 1886, speaking of his frustrations as New York police commissioner: "My work goes on with the usual worry and friction, which I do not mind; but what I do mind is, the growing tendency among all politicians to wrap bounds around me, so that I cannot do anything. If they do not give me proper power by legislation, I shall only stay here until I get some honorable reason for leaving, for I extremely dislike accepting responsibility unaccompanied by power."

Roosevelt said that no president "has ever enjoyed himself as much as I," but one of the ways he enjoyed himself was finding new ways to use the old powers of the presidency. He believed that he was restrained only by the specific limits written into the Constitution, that he could do "anything that the needs of the nation demanded."

"I did and caused to be done many things not previously done ... I did not usurp power," he said, "but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power."

That included regulating the big corporations that had transformed the economy and culture of the country.

So maybe Republicans ought to pause before making their incantations about Teddy Roosevelt. And maybe they should pause on the campaign trail during the New York primary and spend a few minutes in the basement of a Buffalo museum to be alone with Theodore Roosevelt.

David M. Schribman is a syndicated columnist.

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