How is it that nearly a century after his death, Theodore Roosevelt is still making news, shaping campaigns, influencing public policy, defining decisive leadership, and molding the character of the American presidency? It was just a year ago that Time magazine put Teddy on its cover claiming that he remains as influential at the beginning of the twenty-first century as he was when he pushed America across the threshold of the twentieth century.
A year later, TR is a hot topic again. Out on the campaign trail John McCain mentions Teddy almost as often as Barak Obama invokes the mantras of "change" and "hope." This past week he splashed his invocation of TR across the nation's front pages when he told the New York Times that he is a "TR Conservative."
Of course, this isn't an idea he's just started to roll out for the present electoral season. He's been saying this sort of thing throughout his entire political career. During the presidential campaign in 2000, the National Review asserted, "TR makes obvious sense as a model for McCain: Roosevelt was also a war hero, who exuded a manly vigor, and relentlessly trumpeted a rhetoric of reform."
Indeed, the appeal of TR is obvious. By any measure he was a remarkable man. Before his fiftieth birthday he had served as a New York State Legislator, the Under-Secretary of the Navy, Police Commissioner for the City of New York, US. Civil Service Commissioner, the Governor of the State of New York, the vice-president under William McKinley, a Colonel in the US. Army, and two terms as the President of the United States.
In addition, he had run a cattle ranch in the Dakota Territories, served as a reporter and editor for several journals, newspapers, and magazines, and conducted scientific expeditions on four continents. He read at least five books every week of his life and wrote nearly fifty on an astonishing array of subjects--from history and biography to natural science and social criticism.
He enjoyed hunting, boxing, and wrestling. He was an amateur taxidermist, botanist, ornithologist, and astronomer. He was a devoted family man who lovingly raised six children. And he enjoyed a life-long romance with his wife.
During his long and varied career, he was hailed by supporters and rivals alike as the greatest man of the age—perhaps one of the greatest of all ages. According to Thomas Reed, Speaker of the House of Representatives, he was a “new-world Bismark and Cromwell combined.” Indeed, according to President Grover Cleveland, he was “one of the ablest men yet produced in human history.” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge asserted that, “Since Caesar, perhaps no one has attained among crowded duties and great responsibilities, such high proficiency in so many separate fields of activity.” After an evening in his company, the epic poet Rudyard Kipling wrote, “I curled up on the seat opposite and listened and wondered until the universe seemed to be spinning round—and Roosevelt was the spinner.” Great Britain’s Lord Charnwood exclaimed, “No statesman for centuries has had his width of intellectual range; to be sure no intellectual has so touched the world with action.” Even his life-long political opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was bedazzled by his prowess. “Search the annals of history if you will,” he said. “Never will you find a man more remarkable in every way than he.”
If McCain really were a "TR Conservative" that would be no small beer. Alas, a host of TR wannabes have come and gone in the century since his departure from the national scene and none have yet stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him. Maybe that's part of the reason why it is TR that continues to make the headlines.