"T.R.? He's No T.R." Thus, in last Sunday's New York Times, began the latest round of mockery about one of President Bush's increasingly far-fetched historical comparisons. The editorial excoriated the environmental record of the wilderness-drilling, Halliburton-coddling second Bush, who, the paper argued, was no match for the wildlife-loving, trust-busting first Roosevelt.
The pattern, by now, is quite familiar. Over the bleak course of George W. Bush's second term, his loyalists have found themselves grasping for increasingly dubious role models for the embattled president — and then being roundly derided for their efforts. In the eyes of his dwindling band of admirers, Bush has been Harry Truman and Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and, most frequently, Theodore Roosevelt. Naturally, each comparison has had its own grain of truth: Like Truman and Lincoln, he has been sharply criticized for his handling of a war; like Reagan, he has been repeatedly underestimated by pointy-headed foes; like T.R., he cast off the manners of his eastern elitist upbringing and embraced a macho western persona. Also, all four lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, were male, and enjoyed diets that included proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
Alas, such similarities have done little to mollify critics. Every time the administration cites some new presidential parallel, scholars are duly called forward to pick it apart. Bush "lacks any successes of comparable magnitude to compensate for his mismanagement of the Iraq war," historian James Hershberg told The Washington Post in a story where he noted that at least Truman, for all his second-term unpopularity, presided over some notable accomplishments. "George W. Bush is Lincoln the way Dan Quayle is Jack Kennedy," the University of Oregon's Garrett Epps concluded in Salon following a speech in which Bush likened himself to the Great Emancipator. Bush's claims to the Reagan mantle have spawned an entire cottage industry of conservative denunciations — the most celebrated of which may be Bruce Bartlett's Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.
What such nit-picking ignores, though, is that Bush's presidential role models, like most great men, led lives that involved significant personal evolution. True, Bush may not seem much like the down-to-earth Truman of the White House, but his knife-wielding political team might have felt very at home with the Kansas City machine pol Truman of two decades earlier. His standard stump speeches, with their appeals to fear and their hints of sedition, might be a far cry from the sunny Reagan rhetoric of popular memory, but what about the foreboding Gipper that once took to the lecture circuit in support of Barry Goldwater? Bush's problem, it seems, isn't that he's entirely different from our secular saints. Rather, it's that he resembles the wrong parts of their biographies.
This is especially so in the case of Roosevelt — whose off-message years are also particularly well documented. A glance through T.R.'s biography makes it clear that, while the forty-third president has little in common with the twenty-sixth when it comes to reining in big business, embracing the environment, or reading and writing in voluminous amounts, he bears a strong resemblance to the angry, increasingly conservative Roosevelt who remained a major national figure well after his Bull Moose presidential run in 1912. Still in his fifties, the final T.R. incarnation was no shrinking retiree. Many historians believe that, had he not died of a pulmonary embolism in 1919, Roosevelt would have earned the GOP's nomination a year later and likely gone on to a third presidential term. And the president who held office over that term might have looked a lot like the current one. Consider:
Messianism. Today, Woodrow Wilson is remembered as the era's moralistic foreign entangler. But, for much of his stay in the White House, the twenty-eighth president was angrily denounced by Roosevelt for insufficient attention to the macho, interventionist demands of America's world legacy. When Wilson resisted entering World War I, Roosevelt tarred him as being in the grip of "ultrapacifists." "More and more I come to the view that in a really tremendous world struggle, with a great moral issue involved, neutrality does not serve righteousness," he wrote of a conflict that many historians now see as a self-interested squabble between great powers. From his vantage point on Long Island, the former president assumed a pose that would be at home in the self-consciously Churchillian world of the contemporary conservative commentariat, to say nothing of the current president. "I should be pretty well cast down at the fact that in this great crisis America, because of having unworthy leaders, has played an unworthy part."
Obsession. Like Bush with his predecessor, Roosevelt was obsessed with the sins of the man he hoped to succeed in 1920. The parallels are striking: T.R. described Wilson as a smooth-talking, manipulative, but ultimately weak man who failed to recognize the plain truths of the day. Blaming Wilsonian weakness for the German sinking of the Lusitania, he decried Wilson's "noble plan to bring peace everywhere by excellently written letters sent to persons who care nothing for any letter that is not backed up by force!" In a letter to Georges Clemenceau, he wrote that "the fundamental trouble with Mr. Wilson is that he is merely a rhetorician, vindictive and yet not physically brave." Toward the end of the war, this focus pushed Roosevelt to side with the allied leaders who wanted a vindictive peace against Germany, and not with Wilson, who preferred a more generous peace. (The results — a maximalist capitulation — are blamed for causing World War II.)
Trouble with his base. Roosevelt was the darling of the GOP's progressive wing, ultimately leading them out of the party in 1912. But, when his Bull Moose campaign went down to defeat, the ex-president headed to South America for an adventure while his erstwhile allies found themselves in electoral hot water. By 1916, the party was in disarray, and T.R. was making nice with the Republicans — alienating parts of his progressive base just as certainly as Bush's spending has alienated parts of his conservative base over the last few years.
Divisiveness. Anxious to insert America into the war, Roosevelt looked for someone to blame for the nation's reluctance. And he found one in the contemporary tensions over immigration, the day's equivalent of the culture wars. It was "hyphenated Americanism" and the refusal to accept the duties of "real Americanism" that made people reluctant to enter the war, he said. And, of course, it wasn't the ordinary Americans of foreign extraction who were to blame — it was their media-savvy spokespeople. He drew one distinction, for instance, between "decent Americans who are of German descent" and "the professional hyphenated German-Americans."
Unpopularity. Defeated in 1912 and arguing for entry into a foreign war that many Americans initially resisted, the old hero of San Juan Hill found himself in a novel position: deeply unpopular. According to biographer H.W. Brands, "Roosevelt had come to savor unpopularity; it made him feel more principled." And, according to Brands, T.R. comforted himself with a tactic eminently familiar to the current president: historical comparisons. "Obsessed as he was with Lincoln and the Civil War, he dearly wanted to play a similar role during democracy's current crisis," Brands writes. Getting nowhere in his war effort, Roosevelt made the comparison himself, writing "Abraham Lincoln on one occasion when told that a given course of action would not achieve results responded that at least he was keeping his conscience clean."
Had Roosevelt lived long enough to come back to the White House in 1920, all of his wartime raging might not have meant much. Even T.R. might not have been enough to blunt the angry isolationism of the 1920s. Or perhaps he would have reacted to the era by returning to the progressive politics of his first administration. We'll never know. Which is probably a good thing: This way, the triumphs and tribulations of his nonexistent third administration make a perfect role model for Bush in his hour of trouble.
By Michael Currie Schaffer
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