Remembering Teddy Roosevelt in the Era of Trump

Though Donald Trump is arguably the most unhinged president in modern history, Theodore Roosevelt is often recalled as a “picturesque” or “exaggerated” personality. This larger than life quality was lampooned in the 1944 film Aresenic and Old Lace, considered one of the great screwball comedies.

It’s centered around a husband-to-be (played by British expat Cary Grant) whose crazy relatives temporarily sabotage his nuptial plans. His brother Teddy thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, and goes around leading imaginary charges, digging the Panama Canal, and preparing graves for yellow fever victims in the family cellar. Between trumpet blasts and cries of “Chaaaaaarge!,” he sprinkles his conversation with liberal helpings of the word “bully” (a period colloquialism similar to “fab” or “awesome”).

Teddy Brewster (played by actor John Alexander) from the film "Arsenic and Old Lace"

Teddy Brewster (played by actor John Alexander) from the film “Arsenic and Old Lace”

A more sympathetic portrait is painted in the PBS production Simple Gifts, about which I have written more here. This clip is a short vignette based on a page from the actual diary of an 11-year-old Teddy Roosevelt:

It is charming in its own right, but does little to dispel the sense that Roosevelt was the product of extraordinary privilege. (The truth is more complicated. His early life was marred by illness and tragedy.)

Writing in the Chicago Tribune in 1995, Richard Norton Smith describes him in ways that may seem eerily familiar to a 2017 audience:

Certainly Roosevelt brought to the White House a child’s need to control events, coupled with a carnival barker’s ability to call attention to himself. His self-dramatizing flair found expression through the agitation of foreign rebellions, the cult of the Teddy Bear, TR’s famed “Bully Pulpit,” which converted the presidency from an administrative to an exhortatory office, and an exuberant family life tailor-made for the emerging mass media of the day.

Between obstacle races and pillow fights, lunch with Buffalo Bill, nightly “romps” and helpings of Norse mythology, every day in the Roosevelt White House was filled with violently pursued enthusiasms. It was Roosevelt’s madcap daughter Alice who, when not sliding down banisters or shocking traditionalists by smoking cigarettes and betting on horse races, complained that her father wished to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral and the baby at every christening.

— Richard Norton Smith, “Roosevelt Family Values,” Chicago Tribune

While some portrayals focus on TR’s eccentricities, this clip from a History Channel documentary strikes me as a more balanced picture:

Though he possessed an extravagance of style, he was genuinely concerned with the plight of laborers such as coal miners, and his so-called “Square Deal” was actually a precursor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

Thus, while he shares with Donald Trump the effect of “sucking all the air out of a room,” history remembers TR as a fundamentally good president who (paradoxically) was both Republican by party, but progressive in many of his policies. His legacy includes welfare legislation, regulation mitigating the most devastating effects of industrial capitalism, the breakup of huge corporate monopolies, food safety regulation, and conservation of America’s wilderness.

According to the National Park Service, “Theodore Roosevelt is often considered the ‘conservationist president.’ [His conservation legacy] is found in the 230 million acres of public lands he helped establish during his presidency.”

He was bold in the area of foreign affairs. If TR’s policy was to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” DT’s policy is to “speak loudly and carry a sack of alternative facts.”

Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Though his look and manner may strike us as archaic a hundred-odd years later, he’s actually considered the first modern U.S. president, bringing an unprecedented level of energy and charisma to the office.

teddy-roosevelt-with-teddy-bearInterviewed for the documentary, historian Douglas Brinkley says:

Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is with us every time you turn on a faucet and take a sip of water that’s not contaminated. It’s with you every time you cook a hamburger on a grill and know you’re not going to die from it. [Editor’s note: Not quickly, anyway.] It’s with you every time you want to take a hike up through the Sierra Nevada mountains or go for a swim in the Great Lakes.

Can President Trump amass such a legacy which redounds to the benefit of millions of Americans? Only time will tell. The fear among political analysts is that he has promised working people a lamentation of swans, but is delivering up a travesty of Goldman Sachs executives.

Does Trump care about America’s unspoiled wilderness as Roosevelt did? His orders to revive the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines answer with a resounding “no.”

If TR is remembered fondly by history, it’s because his eccentric manner was joined to numerous good works, and because his nature encompassed an air of jollity — even teddy bear cuteness.

By contrast, Trump’s first month in office has been marked by gruffness, rudeness, combativeness, and grim humourlessness. If few good works follow, it may not go well for him in the annals of history.

TR was a voracious reader, and the author of literally dozens of books. Mr. Trump is reportedly “not a big reader,” and while he’s published books such as The Art of the Deal, they’re typically co-written, perhaps extensively ghosted. When extemporizing, Mr. Trump does not give the impression of one who cares about ideas or language in the manner of an intellectual. (This is my entry in the Understatement of the Century contest.)

It’s hard to imagine him as an ebullient and precocious boy in the TR style. It’s hard to imagine him anywhere near a teddy bear, though Trump teddy bears in baggy suits, clutching piles of green folding money, are shamelessly marketed to rubes.

In fact, it’s really hard to imagine him as president. If I were marketing a Trump-related tchotchke, it would probably be a button saying “Somebody slap me.” (And with my luck, somebody would.)

The Trump teddy bear, only $79.95 from vermontteddybear.com. Vomitorium not included.

The Trump teddy bear, only $79.95 from vermontteddybear.com. Vomitorium not included.

History tells us that we must let Reagan be Reagan, and Trump be Trump. But Teddy Roosevelt Donald Trump certainly is not.

To learn more about TR in historical and political context, read this article by Fordham University professor Kirsten Swinth.

Michael Howard
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Joke of the Day

In response to a claim by former House Speaker John Boehner that Trump “kind of reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt, another guy who saw himself larger than life,” commenter Kim Hamilton wrote: “Trump’s very much like Teddy Roosevelt — they’re both currently brain dead.”

Of Further Interest

“What we in 2012 can learn from Teddy Roosevelt in 1912” on CNN.com
Arsenic and Old Lace on DailyMotion

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