Why did our political system become so corrupt and unresponsive? How did we end up with such a rigid, Old Europeanstyle class system — in which you can’t get ahead unless you were born that way? America: What Went Wrong?, a 1992 paperback by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, went a long way toward answering those questions.
It may be, however, that America was doomed long before then.
The historian Edmund Morris recently published the final entry of a magisterial trilogy about the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Though frequently listed among the greatest American politicians today, TR was an “accidental president” who ascended to power thanks to the murder of William McKinley. His blustery and impolitic style — his supporters called it speaking truth to power — would never have allowed him to win a presidential election.
Roosevelt sussed out the perils of unregulated capitalism early on. “The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them wherever need of such control is shown but it is in duty bound to control them,” he said in 1901.
No president since Nixon has followed TR’s advice. The result of unbridled corporate corruption is disparity of wealth worse than much of the Third World, and 20 percent unemployment.
Morris' book Colonel Roosevelt addresses TR’s life after leaving the presidency in 1909: his 1912 run on the independent Bull Moose ticket, his disastrous expedition through the Amazon, and finally the decline of this legendary dynamo after the start of World War I reordered the international landscape and doomed him to political irrelevance.
Few presidents are as revered by both the left and the right. Liberals love TR for his record as an environmentalist and trust-buster. Conservatives like his unapologetic imperialism: The American empire as we know it began with Roosevelt.
Although it describes events that took place a century ago, this new biography shines light on many of the systemic ills that afflict the United States today.
On the domestic front it is brutally disheartening to read that even a figure as historically transcendent as Theodore Roosevelt found it impossible to break the lock of the two major parties on the political process. As schoolchildren learn, the Bull Moose Party marks the apex of third-party attempts in presidential politics. In 1912 it was an empty farce.
Along with their allied press barons, the Republican and Democratic Party machines blocked the charismatic (albeit longwinded) ex-Rough Rider every step of the way, rendering Roosevelt’s thirdparty defeat as much of a foregone conclusion as Ralph Nader’s.
During the Bull Moose run, Roosevelt was shot as he arrived for a campaign appearance in Milwaukee. The bullet, slowed by the printed text of the 50-page speech folded over in his jacket pocket, had nevertheless “pinked” the former president.
Morris’ description of TR’s grace under fire inspires awe: “Don’t hurt him. Bring him here,” Roosevelt shouted to men restraining his would-be assassin.
“Let’s go the hospital,” urged an aide. “You get me to that speech,” Morris says Roosevelt replied, “with a savage rasp to his voice.”
“[The bullet wound] was a ragged, dime-sized hole, bleeding slowly, about an inch below and to the right of his right nipple. … The whole right side of his body had turned black,” Morris writes.
TR took the podium. “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose,” he said, going on to speak for an hour and 15 minutes.
Roosevelt spent his last years hurling scathing critiques of Woodrow Wilson’s reluctance to enter World War I on the side of Britain and France.
“He scoffed at the hypocrisy of Wilson’s grandsounding phrase ‘self-determination for all peoples’ [in Wilson’s Fourteen Points], noting that the President was in no hurry to grant liberty to Haiti or Santo Domingo.” Both were under U.S. military occupation.
Were such self-awareness in greater supply in the U.S. today, we might not be fighting wars of aggression on three fronts at the same time we’re lecturing other countries about sovereignty and human rights.
Roosevelt’s martial spirit was his blind spot. Unlike most Americans today, he had served valiantly. His bravery was unquestioned. One of his greatest disappointments was Wilson’s refusal to allow him to fight in the Great War.
Despite his experience in battle, TR shared with today’s armchair, “support our troops” warriors an excess of willingness to send others to face shells and poison gas.
Roosevelt pushed his sons to enlist and get to the fighting. Then his son Quentin, a pilot, got shot down. “Quentin’s mother and I are very glad that he got to the Front and had a chance to render some service to his country, and to show the stuff there was in him before his fate befell him,” he told the press.
But the cold reality of Quentin’s permanent absence marked the beginning of the end of a man known for his vigor. “The old side of him is gone, the old exuberance, the boy in him has died,” a friend noted the day after he learned of his son’s death. “I am not what I was,” TR confessed to his sister.
Two years later, Roosevelt was dead — a victim of the American militarism he extolled and symbolized.
Ted Rall is an author and cartoonist. His work appears in alternative weekly newspapers across the nation.