Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Teddy Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Brought Us Progressivism

So much of Theodore Roosevelt's life comes to us now in what seems like caricature:  The Rough Rider, the bellowing bull, the hearty back-slapper, the rugged outdoorsman--all images the man himself would be happy to know we've kept alive.  The handle-bar mustache, the pince-nez, the rakish explorer's hat, the exaggerated movements of a stage actor. . .all carefully created and nurtured by a man who saw himself as destined for American greatness and struggled to make it happen.

He is credited today with preserving our public lands and starting the movement to establish a National Park system.  He preserved natural wonders like the Grand Canyon and the petrified forest, and is memorialized on Mt. Rushmore, along with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.  He was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and without him there might never have been a Panama Canal.  He is the "Teddy" our beloved American Teddy Bear was named for.

He built himself into a character so much larger than life, we tend to ignore the impact his actions as a progressively Progressive Republican president made on a country just entering the 20th century; a country badly in need, after a period of rapid, seemingly uncontrollable industrialization, of some common-sense reforms.

In Michael Wolraich's new book, "Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics",  Roosevelt's journey from an accommodating ally of the top American industrialists to a reluctant but pragmatic Progressive leader is spelled out in prose as rousing as the tale itself. 

And what a tale it is:  Roosevelt's story has been told many times and is, on the surface, familiar, but "Unreasonable Men" tells the backstory of the men who guided, prodded, and influenced the president, effectively splitting the Republicans into two factions--the Standpatters and the Progressives.  TR worked both sides, trying to stay above the fray, but found himself leaning more and more toward the progressives.

"Fighting Bob" La Follette, the raging populist senator from Wisconsin, along with militant progressives like Gov. Albert Cummins of Iowa and Senator Joseph Bristow of Kansas, and Muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens,  Ray Stannard Baker and Ida Tarbell, all played significant roles in the demise of the Standpatters (conservatives of the day) and the rise of American Progressivism.

Fighting Bob's unstinting tenacity as he fought to bring his progressive agenda to the forefront of his Party's platform both frightened and amazed Roosevelt.  They became unlikely partners in the battle for the people, but eventually, as might have been predicted, whatever relationship they once had crashed and burned.  The fact that they both wanted to be president--La Follette for the first time and TR for the second--didn't help.

 La Follette never had a chance--too many bridges left burning behind him--but TR, though he didn't win,  got a second chance to be a leader again.  In August, 1910, a few months after Roosevelt, then a private citizen, returned from England to find crowds of well-wishers clamoring for him to lead them again, he jumped back in and gave the speech of his life standing on a kitchen table in an old battlefield near Osawatomie, Kansas.

From Unreasonable Men:
"Exactly as the special interests of cotton and slavery threatened our political integrity before the Civil War," [Roosevelt] proclaimed, "so now the great special business inerests too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit.  We must drive the special interests out of politics."

With these words, Roosevelt turned a corner.  In one rhetorical stroke, he eliminated the middle ground on which he had balanced for his entire political career.  By framing the political conflict as a historic conflict between privilege and democracy, he left no place for conservative-progressives, rendering them as improbable as royalist-patriots or pro-slavery-abolitionists.  And by praising John Brown--the wild-eyed fanatic of an earlier era--he implicitly made common cause with the "demagogues" and "agitators" whom he had so long condemned.
He was running against William Howard Taft, the incumbent he would eventually lose to at the Convention in Chicago in 1912, bringing TR to the establishment of a third party--the Progressive, or "Bull Moose" Party.  Both he and Taft lost to the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson. (Wilson confessed during his campaign that he didn't know how to run against TR. "When I sit down and compare my views with those of a Progressive Republican, I can't see what the difference is.")

The intrigues, the betrayals, the cautious, often spitting relationships between men who banded together to thwart the oligarchs and worked to build a nation for the people--it's all in there, along with the intricate, often inadvertent or serendipitous machinations of both houses of Congress and the courts.

And, as it is, it's impossible not to draw parallels between then and now.  Wolraich's book comes along at a time when we're on that same threshold:  Do we give in to the oligarchs or do we fight for Democracy?  "Unreasonable Men" doesn't provide the answers, but it could well be the guidebook on how to get it done.

Because those uncommon men of the people fought hard against all odds, and, at least for a time, got it done.


Additional reading:

Washington Post review of "Unreasonable Men".

Excerpt at The Atlantic by Michael Wolraich

Excerpt at National Memo

Q&A with Michael Wolraich at Salon.

Michael Maiello:  Unreasonable Men and the Art of the Political Long Game

(Cross-posted at Dagblog and Alan Colmes' Liberaland. Featured on Crooks and Liars MBRU)


  1. I have to read this book; I always liked this President and thank him every time I see a National Park. Well done…as usual!

  2. Thank you, Nedra. I've always been interested in TR, too, and I got to see him in another light in this book. Very interesting.

  3. Cool. That 1912 election is probably my favorite to read about. I think I would have had to vote for Eugene Debs in the end, but Roosevelt's platform is still being played out today.

  4. I'm going to guess there are a lot of Republicans who would just like to sweep this dirty stuff under a rug!


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