Theodore Roosevelt, whom John McCain invokes more often even than Ronald Reagan as his political hero, referred to those in his own time who were reluctant to use military force to expand U.S. influence as “flabby,” “sentimentalists,” and on at least one occasion as “traitors.”
Historical analogies can be complicated things, highly selective and often politicized (as I am perhaps about to do here). It’s easy to see why McCain doesn’t call himself a Bush Republican. Reagan is the last figure beloved in almost all Republican circles, and McCain has often styled himself a “Reagan conservative.”
But Teddy Roosevelt is a name that can attract independents and even Democrats. I was struck Sunday morning, listening to McCain’s interview with George Stephanopoulos, by his invocation of T.R. as his model. “I’m a Teddy Roosevelt Republican,” McCain said twice, verbatim (I don’t believe Reagan was mentioned).
Larger than life
Teddy was a larger-than-life personality, whose image suggests several qualities that are not part of the currently tainted Republican brand. For example, Teddy can be portrayed as an environmentalist and, especially valuable at the current moment, as the trust-busting scourge of Wall Street greedheads. In fact, the second McCain invocation of Teddy went like this:
“I’m a Teddy Roosevelt Republican. I believe there’s a role of government. I believe that government has to be part of the solution. I mean, regulation and oversight has to be absolutely essential. Teddy Roosevelt said unbridled capitalism leads to corruption. I believe in it.”
But as I snuck in a little book-reading between watching the Sunday talk shows and the Twins game, I was reminded of another side of the first President Roosevelt that is less-mentioned but particularly inconvenient for McCain. Teddy was a bully and a militarist of the first order. He used gunboat diplomacy to liberate Panama from Colombia so the United States could build a canal. (In case you’re unfamiliar with the tale, Panama was a territory of Colombia and Colombia was balking at the price Washington was offering for the isthmus.)
Teddy found war thrilling. He pushed a major Naval spending spree to project U.S. power. He came to personify the new United States that, during his lifetime and with his active involvement, became the newest of the great global imperial powers.
One of my own biggest worries about Sen. McCain as a potential president is that, despite the suffering he endured as a prisoner of war, he seems too enthusiastic about war as an instrument of U.S. policy. He seems, like his hero, to be spoiling for a fight.
The book that brought this to mind is “Overthrow,” by Stephen Kinzer, a history of the too-many “regime changes” engineered by the United States, usually for self-serving reasons disguised as altruistic ones, starting in the 1890s as Teddy Roosevelt was coming up politically. Kinzer writes that:
“For at least a century, many people in the United States had believed it was their ‘manifest destiny’ to dominate North America. Most cheered when, 1898, they were told that this destiny was now global and entitled them to influence and dominate lands beyond their own shores.
“An outspoken band of idealists, however, denounced this change of national course as a mean-spirited betrayal of the American tradition. Among these protesters were university presidents, writers, several titans of industry including Andrew Carnegie, clergyman, labor leaders, and politicians of both parties, including former President Grover Cleveland.
“They condemned America’s interventions abroad, especially the war against nationalist guerrillas in the Philippines, and urged Americans to allow other nations the right to self-determination that they themselves so deeply cherished. One of these critics, E.L. Godkin, the crusading editor of The Nation, lamented that by new standards, no one was considered a ‘true-blue American’ who harbored ‘doubts of the ability of the United States to thrash other nations; or who fails to acknowledge the right of the United States to occupy such territories, canals, isthmuses or peninsulas as they may think it is desirable to have, or who speaks disrespectfully of the Monroe Doctrine, or who doubts the need of a large navy, or who admires European society, or who likes to go to Europe, or who fails, in case he has to go, to make comparisons unfavorable to Europe.’
“This kind of talk drove expansionists to distraction. Theodore Roosevelt denounced Godkin as ‘a malignant and dishonest liar.’ The anti-imperialists as a group, he wrote in a letter to his friend [Sen. Henry Cabot] Lodge, were ‘futile sentimentalists of the international arbitration type’ who exhibited ‘a flabby type of character which eats away at the great fighting features of our race.’ On another occasion, he described them as ‘simply unhung traitors.'”
The Kinzer passage seems redolent of the period leading up to the Iraq war. The business about people being derided as Europe-lovers as “international arbitration types” (at least T.R. didn’t have to feign respect for the United Nations), and basically as weenies who didn’t understand the benefits to the world of a good butt-whipping by America, all conjured unhappy 2002 memories.
But it also reminded me that McCain, less than a month after 9/11 and before Bush had publicly done so, began talking about an attack on Iraq and others of its ilk.