Jonathan Tobin: Smearing Theodore Roosevelt

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jonathan Tobin is executive editor of Commentary.]

The cultural vilification of the politicians and officials who launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has not satisfied those intellectuals and activists who view American history as a continuum of racism, imperialism, and aggression. The authors of two new books have now extended the hunt for the spiritual antecedents of the George W. Bush administration. Their prey is an unlikely villain: Theodore Roosevelt.

For Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers, and James Bradley, who has just published The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War,1 Roosevelt is the source of much of what ails America today. Thomas offers an account of this nation’s drift to war against Spain in 1898 in which TR (as he was known in his day) is the central figure in a movement driven more by aristocratic male insecurity than national priorities. The author believes that this suggests “eerie” parallels with the invasion of Iraq. In his book, Bradley blames TR for not only inspiring neoconservatives to wage war and torture innocents but also for the fact that the United States was attacked by Japan in 1941, 22 years after Roosevelt’s death.

The stock of every historical personage rises and falls over time. Even George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were subjected to abuse from their critics before assuming their status as secular saints in America’s civic religion. Theodore Roosevelt’s seven and half years in the White House, from the middle of 1901 through 1909, were not marked by the sort of major conflicts that tested those other men. But he has always seemed to elude the grasp of revisionists. The enduring image of this energetic, eclectic scholar, soldier, naturalist, and politician has always appealed to a broad political cross-section of Americans. Staggeringly popular in his own day, the legend of the “Rough Rider” president has persisted in the nine decades since his death. Every survey of scholars or the general public has placed him among the first rank of America’s chief executives. Indeed, in a 1982 poll of historians in which the participants were asked to identify themselves as either liberals or conservatives, both ranked Theodore Roosevelt the fifth-greatest president, after Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson....

The steady stream of admiring biographies intended for popular audiences published in recent decades, a genre that has included books by David McCullough, Edmund Morris, H.R. Brands, Kathleen Dalton, and Douglas Brinkley to name just a few, testifies to TR’s ideologically diverse appeal. But the question now is whether smears of Roosevelt’s character rooted in the politics of our own day will finally topple him from his pedestal, as the Theodore Roosevelt found in both The War Lovers and The Imperial Cruise is the personification of vainglorious American hubris, a showy fraud whose machinations cost untold lives and constitute a blot on the honor of his country....

Roosevelt was a man with flaws as well as virtues, but what makes him truly objectionable to his new critics is not so much his politics as his personality. Roosevelt’s romantic sensibility is the quality both Thomas and Bradley find inscrutable. His desire to lead the vigorous life, to stand up for right against wrong, and to follow the flag to war are not explained but dismissed as a form of psychiatric disorder. And yet the legacy that has so endeared Theodore Roosevelt to successive generations is not so much his progressivism, enthusiasm for global American power, or even his environmentalism. It is, instead, based on an understanding that the spirit of adventure, service, sacrifice, and yes, valor that Theodore Roosevelt exemplified is one they find uniquely admirable regardless of the politics of his day or our own. Far from discrediting him, these virtues are precisely the ones that have earned him his enduring popularity. One suspects that as long as Americans admire courage, this will remain the case.

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