Why Today's Politicians Love Teddy Roosevelt





12-19-11

Rosemarie Ostler writes about the cultural history of American English. She is the author of "Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics" (2011). Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

The country is experiencing a Teddy Roosevelt moment.

The most recent example is President Obama's decision to deliver an economic policy speech—featuring several TR quotations—in Osawatomie, Kansas, the site of Roosevelt's 1910 "New Nationalism Address."  Roosevelt's resurgence, however, started several years ago, with the 2008 collapse of Wall Street and the resurrection of the term "malefactors of great wealth," Teddy's label for corrupt corporations and businessmen.  Three years later the phrase is still popping up in blog posts and op-ed pieces.

Theodore Roosevelt's views on controlling big business and protecting the environment play well with modern progressives.  Democratic politicians also like the fact that he was a Republican.  By reminding Americans that Roosevelt fought to rein in corporate excesses, they slyly rebuke the modern party.  Roosevelt's unabashed zest for war fits poorly with today's progressive views, but conservatives admire his eagerness to project American power abroad.  

Yet Roosevelt's popularity across the political spectrum today might be explained, not by his policies, but by his passionate political style.  TR held strongly felt beliefs, and he wasn't afraid to express them.  And he had a pungent way with words.

An energetic stump speaker and prolific writer, Roosevelt is still eminently quotable.  Besides "malefactors of great wealth," he is also responsible for giving the language "lunatic fringe," "muckrakers," "loose cannon," and "parlor pinks."  "Parlor pinks"—originally "parlor Bolsheviks"—disappeared along with parlors and Bolsheviks, but the other catchphrases are still as apt today as when they first appeared.  He peppered his writings and speeches with memorable sentences, such as his famous advice on foreign affairs:  "Speak softly, and carry a big stick."

Roosevelt didn't pull his punches in political contests.  During the 1908 presidential election campaign, he coached his chosen successor William Howard Taft to hit hard against Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan:  "Do not answer Bryan; attack him."

When Taft and Roosevelt later disagreed on policy issues, TR decided to run for a third term. As the Progressive ("Bull Moose") Party candidate in 1912, he didn't hesitate to blast his former protégé.  He likened Taft to a rat in a corner and to a dead cock in a pit.  "He has yielded to the bosses and to the great privileged interests," Roosevelt said.  "He means well, but he means well feebly."  Rallying the crowd at the Bull Moose convention, he drew the battle lines in stark terms:  "We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!"

Roosevelt's forthrightness brought enemies as well as supporters.  Many were outraged by his decision to seek an unprecedented third term.  Scurrilous rumors circulated that he was an alcoholic, even that he was insane.  The attacks culminated in Roosevelt being shot in the chest as he was about to enter a Milwaukee auditorium to deliver a speech.  True to his combative reputation, he insisted on speaking before going to the hospital.  He took advantage of the assassination attempt to further attack his opponents, declaring that "it is a natural thing that weak and violent minds should be inflamed . . . by the kind of artful mendacity and abuse that have been heaped upon me."

Roosevelt lost the election, but he remains the only third-party candidate to have garnered more electoral votes than a major party opponent:  88 to Taft's 8.

Teddy Roosevelt's pugnacious political and moral certitude is largely unknown in American politics today.  His energetic commitment to his beliefs, whatever the cost, contrasts sharply with the carefully calibrated positions of most modern contenders for office.  Whether fairly or not, today's politicians are widely perceived to be flip-floppers who shift their views according to the latest opinion polls.  In such a political climate, it's no wonder that Teddy nostalgia is on the rise.


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