Is the U.S. on the verge of a new Bull Moose era?

The Argument

Teddy Roosevelt's populist reform Republicanism is alive and well -- but its enemies are still powerful


January 26, 2003|By David Kusnet | By David Kusnet,Special to the Sun

Ask Americans which public figures they most admire, and surveys say three names always surface: Secretary of State Colin Powell, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But political analysts tell us none of these national heroes could ever become president because they all belong to a faction whose heyday came and went almost a hundred years ago: progressive Republicans in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt.

While political oddsmakers have written off Teddy Roosevelt's heirs, the nation's publishers have invested heavily in them, and, over the past year, memoirs by McCain and Giuliani have hit the shelves, accompanied by new biographies of T.R. and McCain as well. Together with Powell's best-selling 1996 autobiography and two of the latest analyses of American politics in the era of George W. Bush, these books explain why progressive Republicans appeal to most voters but appall GOP insiders: From Roosevelt's Bull Moose movement to McCain's Straight Talk Express, their muscular reformism threatens to run over too many entrenched interests.

In spite of their slim chances of ever winning the White House or even capturing state and local offices outside the Northeast (Arizona, with its love of mavericks from Barry Goldwater to Morris Udall, seems an exception), the modern-day Bull Moose continue to fascinate authors and audiences alike. A century after he became the nation's youngest president, Theodore Roosevelt still captivates modern readers, and Kathleen Dalton's recent biography Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, (Knopf, 736 pages, $35) finds new points to make about him, even after two magisterial biographies by the historian Edmund Morris.

In Dalton's view, Roosevelt was the prophet of the Progressive Era and the pioneer of the modern presidency. Taking office as industrialism transformed the nation, inequalities increased, and immigrants flocked to the major cities, Roosevelt saw the federal government, and the presidency in particular, as the only institutions that could unify a nation in danger of dividing along ethnic and economic lines. Thus, he pioneered programs that regulated big business and evened the odds for workers, women and consumers, from challenging corporate mergers to regulating food and drugs, and opposing child labor to supporting women's right to vote.

As the first president to be conscious of his celebrity status, Roosevelt also used what he called his bully pulpit to change the ways that Americans thought about themselves and their neighbors. Challenging hyphenated Americanism among immigrants and Know-Nothingism among the native-born, Roosevelt called for a new American identity that could be shared by all who put aside the prejudices of the past and the loyalties of the Old World. More than any national leader of his times, he also strived to include African-Americans, inviting Booker T. Washington to the White House, condemning lynchings, and delivering his last public speech on a platform with W. E. B. DuBois.

To be sure, the former Rough Rider of the Spanish-American War was an imperialist as well as an internationalist, but for characteristically quirky reasons. Up until his death, shortly after the end of World War I, Roosevelt seemed to support military involvements of all kinds because they unified Americans, encouraging a spirit of sacrifice and providing a rationale for reforms that hit hardest at the most privileged, such as taxes on incomes and inheritances.

Even now, Roosevelt is the template for today's muscular moderates. Giuliani's memoir, Leadership (Miramax Books, 407 pages, $25.95), paints a self-portrait of an aggressive reformer whose career resembled Roosevelt's early years in New York City. Just as Roosevelt had served as president of the Police Board crusading against criminals and crooked cops, so Giuliani began his career as a U.S. attorney investigating scandals on Wall Street and devoted much of his mayoralty to shaking up the Police Department so that it could fight street crime more effectively.

With his zest for public theatrics, Roosevelt would have envied Giuliani's commanding and reassuring presence in the New York and national media in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Similarly, the advocate of Americanism would have admired Giuliani's summons to New Yorkers to demonstrate more civic spirit, although Teddy in his time was much more sympathetic than Rudy in our time to the advocates of the dispossessed.

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