There's some good stuff in Karl Rove's piece on TR, but this strikes me as good a moment as any to just say it: Enough with the TR worship! TR was a great man, an amazing man, an inspirational man. But he was no conservative in the sense conservatives should emulate today. As Rove notes, TR said "I like big things." Well one of them was big government. He adored Bismarck's Prussia (as did Wilson). He subscribed to modern Darwinian racism (as did Wilson). He was a Progressive in every sense of the word and his politics are of a piece of the Progressive era, an era — contra many in today's Republican Party — conservatives should be loath to mimic. TR worship is a switchback tactic to glorify the intellectual and political heritage of the pre-Goldwater GOP. There is honor there, to be sure. But better to cherry pick the nice patriotic bits and leave the rest of the pile in the dustbin of history. The Weekly Standard was wrong — and flagrantly so in retrospect — to put TR (and "National Greatness") back on the conservative mantle. In the 1990s post-Cold War conservatives were wrong to speak glowingly of the Progressive era. And they are all wrong today when they try to find an escape clause from conservative skepticism toward big government by slapping the pseudo-intellectual feel-good label "progressive" to whatever it is they're looking to do.Needless to say, Goldberg just took a big tumble in my estimation. More on this in a bit, but for now I'd like to point out that saying Roosevelt was the same as Wilson is simply nonsense. I'm particularly galled by this because I wrote an article last fall that I cannot get anyone to read, let alone publish, that argues that George W. Bush'd foreign policy is Theodore Rooseveltian, not Wilsonian. Maybe this Time issue will open the door for it. Like I said, more later.
Update: I just sent this email to Goldberg:
Believe me, I understand the general exasperation with the glorification of all things progressive, but dismissing Roosevelt as just another progressive is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
First, it is plainly wrong and unfair to equate TR to Wilson as you do in that post. TR was not a Darwinian racist in the mold of Wilson, not even close. Wilson was an active racist who brought Jim Crow to the federal government. TR was ahead of society in every way when it came to issues of race, even though he came from an intellectual culture that had bought wholeheartedly into the idea of an evolutionary hierarchy of races. Everyone around him believed that genetics led to certain qualities in people, and TR often made statements to that effect, but it also readily apparent that for TR, a man's actions, not his bloodlines, defined his worth. Even when he was predisposed to look down upon a group of people, he quickly let go of his prejudices when individuals proved themselves to be worthy(see his writings on the diverse soldiers in the Spanish-American War or Candice Millard's book on TR in the Amazon for two of many examples of this). Individuals proving their worth through strenuous individual action--sounds pretty conservative to me.
Second, and even more important, as far as the "I like big things" comment goes, it was TR's was of saying he liked to focus on big issues. TR may have admired Bismarck's Prussia in some ways, but he did not "adore" it. (For that matter, neither did Wilson, who saved his adoration for Brits like Gladstone.) The only country that TR adored was the United States of America. That adoration was far more important than just "patriotic bits." His belief that the United States' ideals represented the best in humankind defined his worldview. And it meant that on the most important issues--national security, the reason that states exist at all--he was in the right. The United States was a burgeoning great power, and it had the responsibility to act like it. More importantly, TR understood that for American foreign policy especially, economic and moral ideals were the same thing, they were ultimately to the benefit of everyone involved, and because of that Americans should not apologize for wanting the world to follow our example. Nor should we surrender our ideals and interests to international institutions like Wilson's League of Nations. At an intellectual level there is no reason for TR's foreign policy to be either liberal or conservative, and both liberals and conservatives have enacted parts of it over the last century--but I would think that most conservatives would be in favor of a vigorous foreign policy that follows our economic, strategic, and moral interests and does not hand over any real control to international institutions.
As far as domestic policy goes we can certainly debate TR's individual programs, but keep in mind that he lived in an era when rapid industrialization spawned all kinds of socialist movements and governments across the Western world. His policies were explicitly designed to control excesses and head off the radicalism of people like William Jennings Bryan and Samuel Gompers. In this, TR was largely successful--which we can call a massive victory for conservatism in America.
There is a pre-Goldwater conservative tradition in America, and Teddy Roosevelt is a big part of it. Ignoring that tradition seems like a rather odd thing for conservatives to do.
Update 2: Here is Goldberg's response to me at the Corner.
I won't go into too much detail, because I think our respective points have been made, but two main issues stick out for me. First, Ross and TR fundamentally disagreed on race and eugenics. TR did think that various races had specific characteristics, but unlike Ross, he did not think those racial characteristics trumped all. For example, TR thought just about anyone from any race could be assimilated into the United States if they were hard workers who learned to speak English and followed American ideals. Ross argued that various races were congenitally inferior and therefore their assimilation would poison pure American blood.
Second, there is much about TR's domestic policies and style of leadership that can frighten conservatives, but I think Goldberg is victim to the same mistake he is accusing TR's fans of making. Many of TR's domestic policies look bad from the perspective of today, but they were necessary to contain the excesses of the day. That is only feeding the alligator one limb at a time if you think that there is no room for the government to act ever in domestic affairs, or that any action necessarily leads to a sprawling New Deal or Great Society-type government. In that vein (and I know some of this stuff might be in the book) I would be interested to hear what specific TR programs bother Goldberg the most and how they led to later government excesses.
Where I am going with this is that my impression of TR was that he was a smart enough guy to know when to act and when not to act. Obviously this is all speculative, but there is no real reason to expect that if TR were alive today he would be progressive in the 21st century sense of the word. He would still want to contain excesses, but he was bright enough that he would probably notice that most of the greatest excesses in contemporary America are in the government sector. I'd be okay with that kind of leadership.
Update 3: Goldberg responds again at the Corner.
He makes the very good point that most of the people who invoke TR's name today are big government types. That's true, but those people are wrong. Conservatives can and should emphasize the conservative achievments of TR at home. But even if we agree that we can take or leave TR's domestic leadership as a model for today, there is so much more to his foreign policy than just being assertive.
Over the course of his career and in his writings TR laid out a thoughtful and (dare I say) nuanced philosophy to guide American foreign relations that went far beyond the woefully flawed liberal internationalism of Wilson or the amoral realism of Kissinger. Unfortunately, the lessons of TR were obscured by the bombast of some of his soundbites, but there is a tradition there that conservatives would do well to take heed of.
In any case, I hope this discussion sparks some interest in TR beyond the inevitably superficial coverage of the man we get from sources like Time magazine. For a better view of Roosevelt, I highly recommend the writings of the man himself, many of which can be found online at the Theodore Roosevelt Association and Bartleby.com. And if any of you made it down this far, thanks for sticking with it.