Monday, June 26, 2006


Time magazine has an issue that is in large part dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt. Karl Rove contributed with this essay on "Lessons from a Larger-Than-Life President," which triggered this response from Jonah Goldberg:

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 And if any of you made it down this far, thanks for sticking with it.


greg said...

Nice defense of TR, Tom. He and Wilson were worlds apart.

Grant Jones said...

What about TR's relationship with Herbert Croly? Didn't TR return from Africa a big fan of Croly's "The Promise of American Life?"

Anonymous said...

Jonah Goldberg's book is going to be about TR?

dcat said...

Tom, et al --
This seems like a really presentist debate that just further reaffirms to me how dangerously ahistorical Goldberg's use of history is. Obviously I see the purpose of your defense, because as historians we all need to step in when we see history misused, though I think you are reaching a point of just grinding an ax with Wilson, whom you are turning into a cartoon character.
My only point of entry into this debate is that this is one of those discussions where people use TR as a rorscarch test -- they see what they want to see when they invoke him. Clearly much of progressivism owes a great debt to him, which means we need to ask the age old question that we all spent so much time on in The Man's classes, which is just how closely linked were progressivism and liberalism? Obviously in seeing a stronger role for the executive branch, he broke away from his own era's most conservative forces, which is not to say that his approach was or was not in its own way conservative. But it just seems to me an odd game to play, to try to decide whether TR in 2006 is or is not, was or was not, a conservative by today's standards. It is ahistorical piffle with little tangible benefit. If I had to guage, I'd say that TR fits into the true great tradition of twentieth century politics that both points are eliding -- the vital center. But of course that does not make for sexy arguments. It does not allow Goldberg to misuse history.

As for anonymous's question, his book is not about TR. Let's just put it this way: The picture on the cover has a smiley face with a Hitler moustache and the title consciously equates Hillary Clinton with totalitarianism. I'm sure the book is not as extreme as the marketing, but when one subverts ones ethics for the purpose of book sales, it makes you at best a whore, at worst a charlatan. in either case, I'll wait to pass further judgment until I read the book -- which I'll only do if I get a reviewer's copy, because I'm not spending my money to read a conservative columnist rationalize: "but in this case it is ok to invoke Hitler."


Tom said...


What did I say about Wilson that was wrong? He was a racist, he did adore Gladstone's Britain, and he was a liberal internationalist. I don't like WW, but I did not turn him into a cartoon character.

You are probably right that TR on domestic issues was somewhere in the center, but the discussion is important in this context because conservatives should take seriously their historical relationship with the center. That is, how did smart conservatives in the past square their principles with ideas that do not on their face appear conservative.

But my main point, which I've repeated here over and over, is not that TR has many great lessons for us in domestic affairs, but that he does have great lessons for us in foreign policy. If you want to talk about cartoon characters, look at how just about everyone understands TR and international relations. It is sad and wrong, and it helps explain why so-called neoconservative foreign policy has been so poorly conceived and misunderstood.

Stephen said...

Re: Croly, one can be critical of some parts of American life and still be a conservate. Indeed, criticism of mere materialism is part of conservatism.

dcat said...

Tom --
I'm thinking of your body of work, comments and criticisms over the course of the years I have known you. And in that time, I believe your negativity toward Wilson is unwarranted.
I think also that TR's relationship with the center is more problematic than those who want to claim him on the right want to imagine because on some areas his views were proto-liberal.
I'm not as certain that the neo-cons have been misrepresented as that they may have never been the coherent group that they have been purported to be -- often by proclaimed neocons.