Teddy is Teddy, and W is W, and the Twain Have Yet to Meet

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I heard a political commentator recently compare the presidency of George W. Bush to that of fellow fin-de-siecle Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, a man generally hailed as one of The Great Presidents. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard Republicans (or conservatives) make that comparison. It always puzzles me. The people making the comparison find the similarities striking, while I’ve always found the differences striking.

In foreign policy, there are some undeniable similarities between W and TR; however, they are mostly philosophical. Both men subscribed to a rather messianic view of America’s role in the world. Both men favored a strong military (in TR’s case, mostly the Navy). Both men favored using that military to further America’s messianic role. However, W’s vision of that role seems, to me, quite different from TR’s.

TR used his foreign policy strength to make peace. He headed off a German threat against Venezuela. He pulled out of Cuba, turning it back over to the Cubans. He stepped into the middle of the Russo-Japanese War — a fight in which it’s hard to imagine an American interest at stake — to help the 2 parties find a way to make peace. He did this despite the huge political risk, the very limited direct benefit to the U.S., and the very limited chances of success, given that neither country was much interested in making peace at the time, and he succeeded. For his effort, he won even greater international esteem and the Nobel Peace Prize of 1906. It’s striking how quaint, perhaps laughable, W’s foreign policy team would find the language used by the Nobel Committee when they presented TR’s Peace Prize:

Twelve or fifteen years ago, Gentlemen, the cause of peace presented a very different aspect from the one it presents today. The cause was then regarded as a utopian idea and its advocates as well-meaning but overly enthusiastic idealists who had no place in practical politics, being out of touch with the realities of life. The situation has altered radically since then, for in recent years leading statesmen, even heads of state, have espoused the cause, which has now acquired a totally different image in public opinion. The United States of America was among the first to infuse the ideal of peace into practical politics. Peace and arbitration treaties have now been concluded between the United States and the governments of several countries. But what has especially directed the attention of the friends of peace and of the whole civilized world to the United States is President Roosevelt’s happy role in bringing to an end the bloody war recently waged between two of the world’s great powers, Japan and Russia. — Gunnar Knudsen

Peacemaking (or peacekeeping) as well-intentioned but utopian: Mr. Knudsen could’ve lifted that dismissive language directly from a speech by Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld or Condoleeza Rice or Paul Wolfowitz. TR’s view could hardly have been more different from theirs. Only when they found themselves in the middle of a military occupation of a sovereign nation without any evidence to support their justification for being there did they suddenly discover “peace and democracy in the region” as a worthwhile goal. And while TR made peace through diplomacy, W’s Mushroom Cloud Gang find diplomacy contemptible.

On domestic policy, the GOP dumped Roosevelt Republicanism in the waste bin with the election of Ronald Reagan, and it has yet to look back. Roosevelt was an adamant environmentalist; Reagan-Bush Republicans are . . . not. Roosevelt believed huge corporations presented a real threat to American democracy and required regulation by the federal government; Reagan-Bush Republicans call that “creeping socialism.” Roosevelt favored protective tariffs; Reagan-Bush Republicans despise them. Roosevelt intervened in labor disputes on the side of labor; Reagan-Bush Republicans call that “class warfare.” Roosevelt favored promoting the advancement of minorities; Reagan-Bush Republicans consider Affirmative Action a cancer.

I don’t say all this to say I’m a fan of Roosevelt Republicanism. There are parts of it I agree with, and parts I do not. My point is simply that the effort by some contemporary conservatives to aggrandize the presidency of George W. Bush by hitching it to the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt is either laughable or reprehensible or both, depending on how drunk they were when they did it.

The truth is, W does have a chance of going down in history as a great president. With the death of Yasser Arafat and moves toward reform in Lebanon and elsewhere, he has a real shot at bringing peace in the Middle East. If he can pull that off, he will be a great president. But to get credit for it, he’ll have to do more than invade Iraq and call people “evil.” He’ll have to put himself on the line the way TR did, and engage in real, serious, tireless diplomacy. That requires a kind of patience W hasn’t thus far demonstrated. It also requires believing in diplomacy, which neither he nor his foreign policy wise men (and woman) have demonstrated.

As it stands right now, there is nothing on the Bush43 resume that benefits by comparison with Teddy Roosevelt. Conservative pundits would do well to put that argument back in their desks.

6 Responses to “Teddy is Teddy, and W is W, and the Twain Have Yet to Meet”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    You would think that “environmental policy” alone would keep ANYONE from doing too much comparison between the two.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Except for the not so subtle snipings at the president in your article(which I’ve come to expect from the left who think if they just hate him bad enough maybe he’ll go away), I agree that the TR comparison isn’t the right one. To me W is much more akin to Ronald Reagan. Another strong idealist hated by the pseudointellectuals and the media for not taking “nuanced” positions and bowing down at the altar of world (aka European and NY Times)opinion. Just like Reagan, W will be vindicated in time when historians (not revisionists)look back and give him credit for facing down evil and settig in motion the events that spread freedom and therefore security around the world.

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    “the not so subtle snipings”

    I’ve not made any attempt to conceal my opinion of W’s presidency. Thus far, it’s been abominable. In some ways, he has more in common with Nixon than with Roosevelt or Reagan. (As does your comment.)

  4. Michael Lasley Says:

    Can someone define a pseudointellectual for me? And also, a revisionist historian? As a graduate student who’s done quite a bit of work in historiography, I’d like to know if I’m either one of those. Also, and this is just something I find interesting, Morris wrote biographies of both Roosevelt and Reagan (didn’t he?). I’ve only read the former, so I’m not sure what he does with Reagan, but surely there’s some interesting connections in the two books (especially since he was working on them at the same time).

  5. juvenal_urbino Says:

    “Can someone define a pseudointellectual for me? And also, a revisionist historian?”

    I’ll take a crack at the second one. A revisionist historian is an historian who disagrees with the previously held understanding of historical events, or offers a view of those events as seen from a new vantage point.

    As both terms are generally used, though, I can’t tell that they have any meaning at all. They’re just ways of dismissing people who have views differing from one’s own, so one don’t have to actually think about those differing views (or, more to the point, question one’s own). If someone argues against you, don’t deal with their argument, just impugn their motives and move on.

    It’s a practice the Bush administration indulges in with regularity, but Nixon still holds the championship in it.

  6. Michael Lasley Says:

    So as long as we like what someone says, it is a ‘real’ history? Someone needs to let someone know about this.

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