Thursday, September 23, 2004

"I would fight him with my fists, my feet and my teeth..."

As autumn draws in with frosty crispness and burnished leaves thoughts naturally turn to Teddy Roosevelt, whose comment to a friend on how he would fight off a would-be assassin (he came to the presidency after the murder of President McKinley in 1901) is paraphrased above.
He occupied the White House from 1901 to 1908, declining a third term (almost guaranteed because of his immense popularity) due to the long held tradition of a two-term limit, going back to Washington's own refusal to serve for a third time.
Writer, rancher, cowboy, New York Police Commissioner, Deputy Secretary of the Navy, Nobel peace prize winner and Colonel in the Spanish-American war, Roosevelt remained fiercely independent and idealistic, storming into the pro-industrial Republican party at a time when clashes between labour and capital were coming to prominence. Roosevelt straddled the delicate tightrope between the two, neither bowing to populism on the part of the workers nor to pressure from the big-money men of American industry. This was unacceptable to the industrialists who wanted a puppet president and were greatly cheered when Roosevelt bowed out, leaving pleasant but pliable William Taft.
In 1912, disgusted at what he perceived as a blatant pro-industry bias on the part of the Taft administration Roosevelt threw his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination (there was no formal limit to Presidential terms until after the 12-year reign of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and 40s). The clear winner in the primaries, shady backroom deals at the convention denied Teddy the nomination.
Undeterred, Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate (or fourth - also in the running was the socialist Eugene Debs). The 1912 election was a true watershed in American politics. It was here, with the rise of Woodrow Wilson, that the Democrats took on their internationalist reputation (their agrarian, anti-industrial roots developed into future close links with organised labour). It was here that American socialism came closest to recognition (Debs was subsequently jailed by a vindictive Wilson for making remarks against his administration). And it was here that the Republicans became the party we know today. the party that, for better or worse, believes in free-market over regulation and - logically therefore - in capital over labour.
Moreover, it was here that the last progressive Republican was defeated. From here on in, the party would be represented by good ole industry boys like Hoover, Coolidge and Bush (jr), foaming-mouthed reactionaries like Goldwater and Reagan, or grey functionaries like Bush (sr), Dole and Ford. The exceptions to this are one bang on MOR conservative (Eisenhower) and a foul-mouthed crook (and admittedly founder of the almost defunct EPA) - Nixon.
Theodore Roosevelt was the last renaissance man to serve as president. He was the last Republican to do so whom one could refer to as moderate (or even radical) rather than conservative. He has to rank on a par with Kennedy and Reagan in terms of popular appeal. And he's the all-action hero of a cracking comic book.
If a better man of such fully-rounded character and uninhibited idealism has occupied the presidency, I'd like to know about him.
So charge your glasses, and drink to Theodore Rex!

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