Asked recently by the New York Times to name a conservative model, John McCain cited Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy, of course, had no shortage of virtues. Conservatism, alas, wasn’t one of them.
It’s one thing for a conservative to admire T. R.’s style and gallantry, the charge up San Juan Hill, the rounding up of crooks in the Badlands. It’s something else for a conservative to identify Roosevelt as a fellow reformer, as Sen. McCain did in the Times interview. 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.
True, as a young man T. R. resisted the Progressive agenda. In the New York State Assembly he opposed attempts to monkey with the free flow of goods and services, and he voted down a minimum-wage bill. But he was eager to advance himself, and he soon discovered which way the winds were blowing.
As president he proposed the progressive taxation of incomes and estates, to the dismay of classical liberals who argued that laws should not discriminate against particular classes of people, even rich ones.
The Hepburn Act of 1906, for which he worked lustily, strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission’s grip on the railways — a step that led eventually to the dilapidation of the railroads and to Amtrak.
As for the 1906 Food and Drug Act, which established the FDA, its principal beneficiaries (so Milton and Rose Friedman contend in Free to Choose) were the meat-packers, who were glad to have taxpayer-subsidized help in ensuring the quality of their cattle.
Roosevelt’s dance with the command economy culminated in his “New Nationalism” manifesto. In the suitably visionary precincts of the John Brown Cemetery in Osawatomie, Kansas, on a hot day in August 1910, the ex-president mounted the tripod and lamented, in lugubrious and apocalyptic tones, the “absence of effective state” in America. He called for a paternalist form of government that would “control the mighty commercial forces” of the Republic.
Two years later, having failed to wrest the Republican party from Taft, Roosevelt ran for president as the candidate of his own Progressive party. Though he out-polled Taft, he lost to Woodrow Wilson.
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Teddy and his fellow Progressives were on a wild-goose chase. They failed to see what was really wrong with America’s system of political economy in their day, its lack of an effective anti-monopoly regime. Although the Sherman Act had been on the books since 1890, antitrust law was in its infancy. Roosevelt’s own approach to monopoly was emotional and neurotic. He acted as though he were on safari in Africa, trying to bag big game like the Northern Securities Company for purposes of psychological catharsis. There was nothing, in his predatory technique, of the professional coolness and method of Taft, who during a shorter spell of executive power brought nearly twice as many antitrust suits, and without nearly as much ranting and raving.
Roosevelt made up for his want of inspirational principle by striking out in all sorts of irrelevant directions. His tax proposals were designed to bring the “criminal rich” and “malefactors of great wealth” into line. But wealth per se (which in a free society is merely an account of useful activity) was not the problem. The problem was wealth derived from monopoly.
More vaguely Roosevelt argued that laissez-faire economics had been superseded by a new, more efficient gospel of administrative supremacy. Edmund Morris, who in Theodore Rex was manifestly hypnotized by his hero’s sound and fury, argued that “the outdated system of laissez-faire . . . was accelerating out of control.” So, at any rate, Roosevelt believed. Rather than use government to promote freer, more competitive markets, he used it to promote government itself. The state, not the market place, was his ideal. In the Roosevelt lexicon “bourgeois” was a pejorative.
Yet if Roosevelt was not a capitalist, neither was he deeply or sincerely a Progressive. He was a man of the state. Robert La Follette perceived the falseness of his reformist strutting: “Theodore Roosevelt is the ablest living interpreter of what I would call the superficial public sentiment of a given time, and he is spontaneous in his reactions to it.” Teddy’s Progressive agenda was driven not by principle but by political opportunism and a heightened sensitivity to the mood of the moment. The deviousness with which he negotiated the shoals of public opinion might have passed for wisdom, had it not been so patently pressed into the service of self-glorification.
In advertising his hero-worship of Teddy, Sen. McCain exhibits a little too blatantly an aspect of his own psyche that would best be kept under wraps. He, too, has been accused of political narcissism. If he wants to reassure conservatives, he needs to persuade them that, unlike Roosevelt’s, his own policies will be grounded in something more solid than expediency and a canny reading of the whimsies of the moment.
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There is another problem with McCain’s attempt to induct Roosevelt into the conservative pantheon. 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. True, the warrior virtues are, in the last resort, what keep us free. But it is possible to take one’s admiration of the iron-jointed, supple-sinewed hero (he who catches the wild goat by the hair and hurls his lances in the sun) too far, especially in a country like ours, a commercial and as a rule pacific nation.
In disparaging the “timid and short-sighted selfishness” of the “bourgeois type,” in cultivating the mystique of the warrior, an adoration of strength and muscle-tone, Roosevelt revealed his psyche to be tropically rank with that morbid second-growth of romanticism which Wagner and Bismarck, Treitschke and Nietzsche, did much to nourish in the latter decades of the 19th century.
In his 1915 book Händler und Helden (Merchants and Heroes), the German prophet-economist Werner Sombart offered a précis of the degenerate philosophy of late romanticism. Sombart glorified the heroic aspirations of the Germans, which, he maintained, were of a higher order than the piggishly commercial credos of the English (and by extension the Americans).
The union of the romantic yearning for the heroic-archaic and the socialist craving for an anti-capitalist utopia (to be administered by a vanguard of élite technocrats) which Sombart’s thought embodied led to those cults of blood and bureaucracy which spelled disaster, not only for Germany, but also for Russia and China, and for the many smaller countries which followed their examples.
The inbred, déclassé romanticism of Sombart was alive in the swampier places of the sage of Sagamore Hill’s soul. Teddy read the German romantics with enthusiasm and interpreted them to an American public; he shared their affection for the police power; he could rattle the saber with the best of them. There was something distinctly Bismarckian in his reactionary progressivism, which bears affinity to the pathology of “liberal fascism” identified by Jonah Goldberg.
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All in all, John McCain would do best to talk more about Ronald Reagan, and less about Theodore Roosevelt. And while he is at it, he might come up with a new “favorite book,” one that isn’t, like For Whom the Bell Tolls, a maudlin lament for a socialist bridge-bomber.
– Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.