By TIMOTHY EGAN Nytimes.com/campaignstops Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.)
In most every profile of John McCain, there is some mention of his hero and role model – the bespectacled progressive who is one of the fab four on Mount Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy has aged well, beloved both by Democratic environmentalists who feel he would appreciate the Emily Dickinson line that “hope is the thing with feathers,” and by Republican foreign policy hardliners who see a bird of a different type – the hawk.
I’ve spent the last two years trying to understand Roosevelt’s life and political convictions, reading his letters, books and speeches, as well as press accounts of him. From nearly every perspective, the John McCain of 2008 is no Teddy Roosevelt.
You start with the obvious: Roosevelt was the youngest man to become president, sworn into office in 1901 at the age of 42, after McKinley was shot. McCain, if elected, would be the oldest at 72.
McCain has attacked Barack Obama for his popularity, on the advice of Karl Rove acolytes in his camp who think that being a global celebrity is a bad thing.
You want celebrity? As the most popular American in the dawning decade of the American Century, Teddy Roosevelt was a global superstar – “the most popular human being that has ever existed in the United States,” as Mark Twain wrote.
He spoke to throngs in Europe, gave lasting speeches at the Sorbonne and Oxford. Often, he parried with his foreign guests in their own language. During his travels throughout Europe, South America and Africa, he could not so much as bite into a sandwich without being asked to comment on the bread.
Stirring words meant something coming from Roosevelt. The man and the persona could shape world opinion. Both McCain and Roosevelt are Republicans, though Roosevelt famously bolted from his party to run as a Progressive in 1912, trying for a third term after sitting out four years in favor of the befuddled William H. Taft.
But Roosevelt clearly tried to steer his party away from what would now be seen as its hard-right elements – big money, anti-environmentalism, race-baiting – into what he called in his autobiography “the fairly radical progressive party.”
Born of money in New York City, educated at Harvard and fussy in dress, Teddy Roosevelt might today be seen as, um, an elitist. But he turned against his class, not just busting the monopolies and promoting public ownership of natural resources, as most students of his presidency know, but taking hard verbal swipes at the predatory rich.
He called them “malefactors of great wealth” and “the most dangerous members of the criminal class – the criminals of great wealth,” in two of his best-known phrases. Appalled by the historic gap between rich and poor, Roosevelt favored a national inheritance tax. “Of all the forms of tyranny, the least attractive and most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of plutocracy,” he said.
A century later, in a time of similar disparity between rich and poor, McCain wants to cut the corporate tax rate, and keep those tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans that ushered in the Bush age of privilege. His campaign is thick with lobbyists who embody everything about how power in Washington has shifted to the well-connected moneyed class. “I have often been called a socialist,” Roosevelt wrote. In fact, he despised the far left as much as the far right. But he said, “I have always maintained that our worst revolutionaries today are those reactionaries who do not see and will not admit that there is any need for change.”
McCain sidles up to Big Oil and calls for more drilling, whereas Roosevelt went after the resource monopolies. When Standard Oil donated $100,000 to his campaign, he requested that it be sent back.
Teddy was also known for a big stick foreign policy and his heroics as a warrior; in that sense the McCain comparisons may be closer to the mark. Roosevelt was honest enough to admit that war could be stirring.
“All men who feel any power of joy in battle know what it is like when the wolf rises in the heart,” he wrote.
Yet, this saber-rattler was also a master diplomat, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for helping to resolve the Russo-Japanese conflict.
In at least one way, Roosevelt is closer to Obama. A prolific author who also penned more than 100,000 letters, Teddy wrote 15 books by his 40th birthday. Obama got his start as an author, and shows a literary flair rare among politicians.
On race, Roosevelt was a man of his time, sharing some of the more absurd anthropological notions of the day.
Yes, he brought the wrath of the South on him by hosting the black leader Booker T. Washington in the White House. Yet it was a different Roosevelt who wrote his friend Owen Wister on the question of what to do about “the negroes” in 1906.
“I entirely agree with you that as a race in the mass they are inferior to the whites,” he wrote. But he added, “I do not know a white man in the south who is as good a man as Booker Washington today.”
The John McCain of old – who stood up to his party’s nasty demagogues, fought special interests and embodied the word maverick – was someone Roosevelt might admire.
The John McCain who ran a Paris Hilton ad, mocked Obama for inspiring people abroad and has proposed nothing to right the ship of economic inequality would be his fierce opponent.
© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Aug. 13, 2008