Wednesday, November 28, 2007

EDW: Theodore Roosevelt

If only the unfortunate British teacher who decided to let her Sudanese pupils to pick a name for the class teddy bear had stopped to think for one moment. She probably can't be blamed for the fact that the vicious and squalid regime in Khartoum would be able to conjure up such contrived religious outrage. She might, however, have realised that there is no need to name a teddy bear because they are already named after someone: President Theodore Roosevelt.

Other presidents might have such achievements as US independence, the Louisiania purchase, victory in the civil war and the emancipation proclamation, the New Deal and shagging Marilyn Monroe to their credit, but none has had a cuddly, much-loved children's toy named after them.

Essentially, an enterprising toy seller decided to name a couple of stuffed bears after the president following reports that he had refused to shoot a bear cub whilst out hunting only for the name, as these things often do, to stick. For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, there's a full account here (warning, if you're easily embarrassed and other people have access to your web browsing, you might want to be cautious about that link).

It's a strange form of immortality, to go along with TR's place on Mount Rushmore along with Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington, but he probably deserves the allocades. He was one of the more fascinating characters to have occupied the White House – and probably the most effective apart from the ones who faced wars or other major crises.

The portrait here gives the measure of the man rather well: the splendid moustache, the what-d'ye-make-of-that gaze and the assured fashion in which he wears his tailcoat slightly askew. Without making this post into a long biographical account of a fascinating life as military leader, outdoorsman, politician and so forth (for all that I'm rude about it, his Wikipedia entry does the job pretty well) here are a few things to consider.

He was the youngest occupant of the White House (following the assasination of President McKinley), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for efforts in ending the war between Russia and Japan and anyone who, like me, has enjoyed any of the sites maintained by the US National Parks Service owes him an enormous debt of gratitude; but the really interesting thing about his career is the what-might-have-beens.

The easy distinction of Republican = right wing; Democrat = left wing doesn't always work too well today. In TR's time it's an almost meaningless division (a look at the Southern Democrats of the day should convince you of that). It would be a ludicrous stretch to try and paint Roosevelt as a 21st century type of liberal and social democrat; but in the context of America of 100 years ago he was part of the broadly progressive forces of the day; at the very least you can say that he didn't see his role as letting big business do whatever it wanted.

TR characterised his policies as seeking a Square Deal for the ordinary man in his relations with capital; he set up various regulatory bodies to keep a check on the power of large corporations; implicitly backed striking miners in a dispute with their employers and was an enthusiastic trust buster, launching 44 legal actions to break up monopoly power.

That all this would be more what you expect from the contemporary Democrats would suggest that this political vision didn't endure in the Republican party once TR left office. And, sure enough, his successor William Howard Taft (I feel it would be remiss not to alert you to the fact that he was the fattest ever president) pretty much realigned the Republicans as the friends of big business, which is where they've stayed ever since. But here's where the second what-if comes in.

Roosevelt was so disappointed in Taft that he challenged him the the 1912 presidential nomination, was denied by a bit of chicanery at the convention and then contested the election on a third party Progessive (or Bull Moose) ticket. He picked enough support to finish second, pushing Taft into third, and letting the dramatically over-rated Woodrow Wilson into the White House. It's still the closest anyone's come to breaking the Democrat-Republican duopoly since the Civil War and, to state the bleeding obvious, had TR succeeded in regaining the White House in 1912, US – and probably world politics would have looked very different today.

Still, millions of children like to dribble and puke on a toy named after him. We can't take that away from him.

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