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True Believer: TR, McCain, and Conservatism

Theodore Roosevelt is carved onto Mount Rushmore along with our greatest presidents. (At least the greatest as of 1927, when work on the monument began.) But does he belong in the conservative pantheon? John McCain thinks so. “I count myself as a conservative Republican,” he told the New York Times, “yet I view it to a large degree in the Theodore Roosevelt mold.” In some conservative circles this caveat deepens the suspicion that McCain may not be one of them. Writing in National Review Online, the Web site of the magazine that has defined mainstream conservatism for more than four decades, author and biographer Michael Knox Beran complains, “Far from allaying conservative fears, McCain can only add to them by trying to make a conservative of a man who, largely for reasons of expediency, embraced a host of dubious reforms, and who ended his public career by embracing the Progressive dream of a state strong enough to command the industry and commerce of the nation.” A similar case was made in Bully Boy, a polemic published in 2006 by Cato Institute fellow Jim Powell. (Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt have come in for similar thrashings from Powell.) From the other side of the political spectrum, historian Douglas Brinkley opines, “Roosevelt today would be on the left,” and New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes that TR “was a far, far cry from John McCain and today’s G.O.P.”

Is Roosevelt a proper model for today’s conservatives? That question isn’t easy to answer. For one, we have no commonly accepted definition of conservatism. There is, mercifully, no conservative Vatican to settle just who is and who is not of the faith. Conservatism, in fact, is not a faith at all but rather a disposition, and one that hardly requires adherence to a particular set of policy positions. If some doubt John McCain’s conservative credentials, well, that does not make him all that different from Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, or Alexander Hamilton.

All of the above count as icons to most conservatives, indeed to most Americans, yet all were bitterly criticized from the right during their lifetimes—Reagan for not shrinking the size and scope of government and for negotiating with the Soviet Union, Lincoln for trampling on states’ rights and individual rights, Hamilton for encouraging the growth of the federal government. Further, no successful politician has ever boasted the philosophical purity demanded by his own side. Even Barack Obama, the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007, now finds himself forced to verify his own liberal credentials.



Two new books shed an interesting light on the ideological attitudes of an earlier politician and, when consulted along with such classic studies as John Milton Cooper Jr.’s joint biography of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, The Warrior and the Priest, they allow us to ponder the complex question of whether TR qualifies, in any sense of the term, as a conservative. The approaches are as different as their authors.

Joshua David Hawley, a young Yale Law School graduate clerking for Chief Justice John Roberts, has written Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness. The thesis of this meticulously researched, densely argued study runs counter to the conventional wisdom, popularized by Beran and many others over the years, that Roosevelt was above all an improviser, a man of emotion concocting policy by whim. On the contrary, Hawley argues, “Roosevelt was no crass intellectual opportunist.” He developed a coherent political philosophy early in life that continued to guide him through to his death—a philosophy centered on “righteousness.” He insisted on the primacy of individual character at home and the character of nations abroad, and in both cases he wanted the world to aspire to a loftier standard. Such ambitions do not fit naturally on the modern political spectrum, but in practical terms his views made TR more conservative than not, albeit with a reformist twist alien to “stand pat” Republicans then and now.

While Hawley’s career has just started, David Fromkin now approaches the end of a long, distinguished tenure as a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He has authored numerous histories, of which the most acclaimed was A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914–1922. His new book, The King and the Cowboy: Theodore Roosevelt and Edward the Seventh, Secret Partners, amounts to a slight effort by comparison, intended for a popular readership. It focuses on the commonality of views between King Edward VII and TR, “both of them liberal imperialists, [who] shared a belief that it would be best for the world if the English-speaking peoples were to dominate it.”

Much of Fromkin’s gaze centers on the now-forgotten Algeciras Conference, held in southern Spain in 1906. The subject was the fate of Morocco. France was doing its utmost to dominate the North African nation, while Germany was opportunistically backing its independence. Thanks in part to the influence of its francophone king, Edward VII, the British delegation backed France’s claims. In an unusual episode, Roosevelt dispatched an American delegation to this European parley, and he used his influence to pressure Germany into accepting what amounted to the French position. This was an early test of the Entente Cordiale concluded in 1904 between Britain and France, which would determine the shape of European politics for the next half century. More important for our purposes, it shows that TR did not conform to the militaristic stereotypes held by his numerous critics, starting with Henry James (“a dangerous and ominous Jingo”), William Howard Taft (“he has the spirit of the old beserkers”), and Mark Twain (“the President is insane”), whose views prefigured those of Beran, Powell, and other modern debunkers.

Beran’s bill of indictment against Roosevelt, like Powell’s, begins with the charge that he was a “statist” and a tax hiker—that is, he “proposed the progressive taxation of incomes and estates.” It’s true that today such a charge would count heavily against any conservative politician; President George H. W. Bush’s agreement to hike taxes led to his final break with the right. But while one can legitimately make the claim that Americans bear a heavy tax burden today, that certainly wasn’t the case in TR’s day, when the federal government’s primary source of revenue was the tariff—a regressive tax that raised the cost of imported goods for rich and poor alike. One can also claim, as many conservatives do, that government has grown too large today, but that wasn’t the case in Roosevelt’s day, either. Thus his creation of a few government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, did not lead to a Leviathan state. When TR took office in 1901, the federal government consumed just 2 percent of gross domestic product. When he left office in 1909, the figure was 1.7 percent. Hardly Bolshevism. Even with his advocacy of income and inheritance taxes, Roosevelt imagined a government much smaller than the one we have today, when Washington takes for itself roughly 20 percent of GDP.

A related item in Beran’s and Powell’s indictment concerns Roosevelt’s support for government regulation. Arguing for more regulation today, at a time when the Federal Register runs to thousands of pages, would certainly raise legitimate questions about a candidate’s conservatism. But in Roosevelt’s day there were far fewer government-imposed standards. The bar had been set fairly low when he pushed for legislation bolstering the Interstate Commerce Commission’s regulation of railways and creating the Food and Drug Administration and a Bureau of Corporations to investigate (but not regulate) companies engaged in interstate commerce. As part of his “trust-busting policy,” TR also revived a dead letter, the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, promoting the breakup of J. P. Morgan’s Northern Securities Company, the huge railroad conglomerate.

By contrast, aside from a few extremist libertarians, few conservatives today believe our condition would improve by abolishing the FDA or permitting trusts to operate unimpeded. Indeed, Beran actually scores Roosevelt for not doing enough trust-busting—his successor, William Howard Taft, he writes, “during a shorter spell of executive power brought nearly twice as many antitrust suits, and without nearly as much ranting and raving.” That, of course, ignores the fact that Taft was merely continuing what Roosevelt bravely began.

Was Roosevelt anti-business? “I am in no sense hostile to corporations,” he wrote to Congress in 1905. “This is an age of combination, and any effort to prevent all combination will be not only useless, but in the end vicious.” On another occasion he celebrated corporations as “indispensible instruments of our modern civilization.” What troubled him was not Big Business so much as abuses committed in the name of Big Business—which he feared would elicit an opposite and equal reaction from an outraged citizenry mobilized by “muckrakers” (a word he coined). TR always tried to maintain a balance between government activism and a vibrant private sector. He meant to regulate railways and other businesses but never proposed nationalizing them. He reinvigorated the Sherman Act. He launched relatively few prosecutions under its authority.



Despite his incendiary rhetoric, Roosevelt’s actions were mostly cautious and sober. He never went nearly so far as radical reformers such as Robert La Follette and Upton Sinclair wanted. He expressed his horror of class warfare and revolution, which he suspected radicals meant to foment. “Any kind of class animosity in the political world is, if possible, even more wicked, even more destructive to national welfare, than sectional, race, or religious animosity,” he warned in 1902. He always believed that a man’s fate ought to be settled not by his social class or membership in an organization but by “his own character—that is, the sum of his common sense, his courage, his virile energy and capacity.” John Milton Cooper Jr. writes that “Roosevelt never renounced his fundamentally conservative outlook,” and that he “acted as the far-seeing, broadminded, dynamic leader of a conservative party.” Likewise, Joshua David Hawley, even while insisting that TR defies pigeonholing, writes that “Roosevelt’s unwavering commitment to the traditional family, private property, and historically revealed moral absolutes, all . . . marked him as a conservative.”

In 1912, having lost his bid for the GOP nomination, he ran as the candidate of the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party against both the Republican incumbent, Taft, and the Democratic challenger, Woodrow Wilson. His platform, known as the New Nationalism, was really an extension of his former domestic agenda, the Square Deal. In his 1910 speech outlining the New Nationalism, TR called for “a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had.” That may sound like conservative apostasy, but his actual proposals—prohibiting child labor, mandating a day of rest for workers every week, an eight-hour workday, workmen’s compensation, inheritance taxes, a minimum wage—proved decidedly modest. His essential concern was to curb “the sinister influence or control of special interests.” Thus, he favored a prohibition on the use of corporate funds for political purposes, a forerunner of more recent campaign finance legislation authored by John McCain. As Hawley notes, “Viewed in context, neither Roosevelt’s proposals nor his logic were revolutionary.”

Roosevelt’s agitation, flavored with his trademark invective (he called Taft a “puzzlewit” and “fathead”), invited the wrath of Old Guard Republicans, but it should hardly concern modern conservatives who have come to terms with a welfare state far more pervasive than anything Roosevelt imagined or advocated. Aside, again, from a few extreme libertarians, few conservatives would contend that the kind of limited protections envisioned by Teddy Roosevelt—and ultimately brought into being by his cousin, Franklin—were incompatible with free enterprise or personal liberty. They were actually, as both Roosevelts intended, the ultimate safeguards of the capitalist system. TR was fond of quoting Edmund Burke, as Hawley notes, and one line in particular: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” It was this Burkean admonition that formed the basis of much of Roosevelt’s domestic vision.

There are other aspects of TR’s record that Beran does not dwell upon. Roosevelt denounced discrimination against immigrants but insisted that newcomers assimilate by embracing “Americanism”: “There can be no divided allegiance here,” he thundered. Roosevelt set aside five times more land for the federal parks than all of his predecessors combined. He condemned lynching, appointed African Americans to important public offices, and even invited Booker T. Washington for dinner at the White House. For these and similar actions that were condemned by Southern conservatives of his day, he should be applauded by modern conservatives.



Of course, the argument here does not depend principally on whether TR was a champion of equal rights or assimilation. Along with his record of conservation, his present-day admirers celebrate his contributions to foreign policy and military policy—his publication as a young man of the celebrated work of history, The Naval War of 1812, his service as assistant secretary of the navy at the beginning of the Spanish American War, and his subsequent decision to resign and lead the Rough Riders to glory in Cuba. Michael Knox Beran tries to turn all of this into a disadvantage, claiming that “T. R.’s contempt for what he called the ‘gold-ridden, capitalist-bestridden, usurer-mastered’ aspects of American life, his admiration for the élan of the warrior, did not reflect a conservative temperament, as conservatism is understood in America.” Beran thinks Roosevelt’s military heroics recall “Wagner and Bismarck, Treitschke and Nietzsche,” rather than “a country like ours, a commercial and as a rule pacific nation.” He goes so far as to imply that Roosevelt was guilty of “liberal fascism.”

This, to put it gently, amounts to a slight caricature of Roosevelt’s thinking. “I believe in material well-being,” TR said in 1905. “I believe in those who built it up; but I believe also it is a curse if it is not accompanied by the lift toward higher things.” As president, he championed many of those “higher things,” largely artistic and scientific endeavors. So far, so uncontroversial. What raises the hackles of twenty-first-century critics is the fact that Roosevelt counted war-making as one of those “higher things.” Along with many contemporaries influenced by Social Darwinist thinking, he believed that commercial prosperity was making Americans soft and flabby and that only warfare could restore the “barbarian” virtues. “There is an unhappy tendency among certain of our cultivated people to lose the great manly virtues, the power to strive and fight and conquer,” he lamented. “It is through strife, or the readiness for strife, that a nation must win greatness . . . No triumph of peace is quite as great as the supreme triumphs of war.”

Such sentiments, which have been expressed since Homer’s day, have fallen out of fashion since Verdun and Hiroshima. That makes them anti-modern but not neccessarily unconservative. Similar thoughts were expressed by many of Roosevelt’s contemporaries, including Kipling, Churchill, Patton, and MacArthur. Were they proto-fascists too? Some might say so, but usually not conservatives.

In any case, while Roosevelt spoke like a warmonger, he hardly behaved like one. David Fromkin argues that, after his military service in Cuba, TR had proved his manhood and vindicated his family’s honor, which, he believed, had been sullied by his father’s decision to sit out the Civil War. “Now that Roosevelt had fought in a war himself—and had waged it publicly, conspicuously, and heroically—he seems to have purged himself of that particular demon,” Fromkin writes. “Roosevelt the President did not believe that war was a good thing. He continued to believe that it might be a necessary thing.”

As president, he saw the Philippine War through to a successful conclusion in 1902, but he launched only two limited military interventions, declaring a protectorate over the Dominican Republic in 1905 and sending troops to establish order in Cuba in 1906. The foray of which he was most proud was his tacit support for Panama’s 1903 rebellion against Colombia, which allowed him to negotiate a treaty to build an isthmian canal. This objective was achieved with nothing more than a show of force—the dispatch of a couple of gunboats and a contingent of U.S. Marines to Panama to scare off the Colombians. He also used the threat of force, although not its actual employment, to dissuade Germany from intervening in Venezuela in 1902. Then came his diplomatic efforts to settle the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize. His highest desire was not to wage wars but “to bring civilization to the waste spaces of the earth” and to help accomplish “what has never before been done for any people of the tropics—to make them fit for self-government after the fashion of the really free nations.”

Later on, he favored American intervention in World War I to check German militarism and called for the formation of a League to Enforce Peace, or, as he sometimes dubbed it, a World League for the Peace of Righteousness, “as an addition to, but not as a substitute for, the preparation of our own strength.” (This, incidentally, was the inspiration for McCain’s call for a League of Democracies.) He had severe contempt for those who would “chat about peace to the accompaniment of the clicking of typewriters” rather than “dictate peace by the hammering guns.” Thus, he did not think that Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations had much chance of success. Besides the loss of American sovereignty (“We will not surrender our independence to a league of nations any more than to a single nation”), he feared simply that such an organization would be ineffectual: “There is no central police power, and not the least likelihood of one being created.” His vision was of an organization more along the lines of NATO than the League of Nations or the United Nations—a collective security organization that would be constituted of states which, in Hawley’s words, had “a reliable domestic legal system, competent armed forces, and demonstrated commitment to keeping treaty obligation.” Such an organization, TR believed, could enforce its writ, not simply issue hollow dictates.

Roosevelt, then, was an exponent of what today might be called “peace through strength.” That is why he started agitating for a buildup of the American fleet as early as 1882. “It is not merely unwise, it is contemptible, for a nation, as for an individual, to use high-sounding language to proclaim its purposes, or to take positions which are ridiculous if unsupported by potential force, and then to refuse to provide this force,” he said in 1904. No better criticism of Wilsonian idealism has ever been leveled. Surely, conservatives can applaud this sentiment, even if not all share TR’s willingness to employ force in the name of America’s moral as well as strategic interests—a willingness that might get the old Rough Rider tarred as an early “neocon.”

TR’s philosophy is not for everyone. He represented one strain of conservatism among many—a reformist strain of which Benjamin Disraeli was the other leading exponent. But it was conservatism nonetheless. Attempts to read him out of the conservative canon have no more persuasive power than attempts to exclude John McCain. Indeed, the energetic brand of conservatism that both men embody fits the temper of our times better than the anti-government rhetoric that defined the conservative movement of a decade ago. Some of the most influential tomes on Republican reform, by the likes of Newt Gingrich, David Frum, and Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, argue that the Grand Old Party needs to fashion itself more in TR’s image and less in Barry Goldwater’s and Robert Taft’s. The creed of these modern-day conservatives intentionally echoes Roosevelt’s: “It is not my intention to do away with government,” he said in his first inaugural address. “It is, rather, to make it work.”


Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and an informal foreign policy adviser to the John McCain campaign. He is author, most recently, of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.

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