Media Watch: The NYT Falls for the TR Myth

Fact & Fiction

New York Times reporter Alison Mitchell recently found a clever way to criticize President Bush's indifference to campaign finance reform. In an article in the January 13"Week in Review," she noted that Mr. Bush has been reading Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex. Perhaps, she suggested, in the wake of the Enron scandal,"Mr. Bush might seize the moment to remake himself" into a Teddy Roosevelt-style reformer.

Ms. Mitchell has fallen for a myth. TR's record as a reformer is decidedly mixed. The position Mr. Bush finds himself in today is the same as TR in 1905. That year the media were filled with stories of corporate corruption. The year before corporations had made millions of dollars in political contributions, most going to the campaign of Teddy Roosevelt. TR in his annual message to Congress championed reform, declaring himself flatly in favor of a ban on corporate contributions. But according to historian Robert Mutch, TR promptly lost all interest in the issue. Congress passed a weak ban without his support in 1906.

The following year TR again seized the high ground in the battle for reform, this time telling Congress he favored the passage of a"radical measure" to allow for the public financing of presidential campaigns. He wasn't serious. Mutch says that what Roosevelt really wanted was to use the proposal to divert public attention from a bill to require the disclosure of the names of political donors, which was gaining in popularity.

Perry Belmont, head of the National Publicity Bill Organization, which was established to lead the campaign for a disclosure bill, charged afterward that TR had sabotaged the organization's efforts:"[N]ever once did he do anything to promote such [reform] legislation. . . . He retarded the movement by his indifference and deliberate neglect, and his last message on the subject, proposing Treasury appropriations for campaign contributions . . . was in fact, and was intended to be, a hindrance to our movement."

Says Mutch:"Roosevelt treated public funding with the same seriousness as his earlier proposals. He made no attempt to introduce a bill and never mentioned the subject again."

SOURCE Robert Mutch, Campaigns, Congress and Courts: The Making of Federal Campaign Finance Law (1988).

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