Where is Teddy Roosevelt?

February 3, 2012

Sagamore Hill. Most people have never heard of the place, but history buffs know it to be the home of Teddy Roosevelt on the north shore of Long Island, overlooking Oyster Bay. It was the place where Roosevelt, as President of the United States, greeted the “great white fleet,” which others criticized as America’s version of colonialism. When I was a kid my father regularly took us to Sagamore Hill for picnics and tours of Teddy Roosevelt’s over-sized cabin and White House retreat, the way other kids went to amusement parks. The ride along the north shore of Long Island took us past the estates and mansions of the Fitzgeralds, the Lehmans, and other greats whose impregnable stamp upon the American psyche is not generally known but nonetheless remains part of the American DNA. At Sagamore Hill we enjoyed looking at the rolling hills and walking the lovely grounds, but the highlight was my father’s unrestrained enthusiasm for the interior of the Roosevelts’ home. The dark wood walls featured heads of animals, antlers, tusks, and horns of every imaginable beast that roamed the earth. The rugs were flattened lions, tigers, and bears, whose toothy grins were almost frightening to a child. My father could have been a tour guide, as he explained the large north room where the President entertained such notables as the future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and the legendary Eliyahu Root.

It did not take me long to realize that long before my father came to idolize Ronald Reagan, his hero was the man for whom the Teddy bear was named. Roosevelt came from money. He was from an elite and, some would say, bourgeois family. Nevertheless, Roosevelt rebelled against the excesses of the industrial revolution and the rise of the corporation as a competitor to government.

Roosevelt was a lawyer, having gone to Harvard undergraduate and Columbia Law School. He understood well the legal significance of corporations being treated as individuals. An individual has rights under the Constitution. An individual has the right to make campaign contributions to politicians. An individual has the right to lobby and exert influence over the political process. Roosevelt believed that corporations were capital created by individuals and therefore were not entitled to any life of their own. If our current Supreme Court believed in the values of Teddy Roosevelt, they would not have held unconstitutional campaign finance laws that sought to reel in the excessive power of the money created by multinational corporations.

Was Roosevelt a progressive or a conservative? The Republican party, in 1910, was split between those two factions. Roosevelt considered himself the true heir to Republican conservatism, with his emphasis on individual rights and liberties. A true conservative, Roosevelt understood, extols and protects each citizen’s contribution to the common good. A good conservative creates a level playing field, as the more modern conservative economic economist Milton Friedman explained. The purpose of government is to assure that those who create capital through their work, their energy, and their dedication are not repressed by those who exist merely to accumulate power. The rise of the large national corporation was viewed by Roosevelt and his followers as the rise of an unelected form of government. To the extent that corporate money was permitted to infest the electoral or lobbying process, the United States would go the way of ancient Greece, where senators were regularly bought and sold.

Today, is it Ron Paul who ensconces the values of Teddy Roosevelt? Paul talks more about his suspicion of government and international isolationism than about righting the balance of power in the United States. No one is talking about making sure the electoral process is fair and that working people are protected from the intrusion of unelected power centers. It seems unfashionable today, and even quaint, to compliment the values of a Roosevelt or a Truman. We give lip service to the accomplishments of these great men, but we look little at what they stood for.

Truman Democrats and Roosevelt Republicans are in retreat. Their souls have been purchased by the highest bidder, and the voters seem uninterested in the threats to liberty that result. Americans might wake up, pay attention, and even vote if the electoral process were about the role of the citizen in our national mosaic. We have come to embrace and even encourage bigness as a substitute for government. President Obama wanted a so-called government option in the National Health Care bill. Republicans regularly suggested that the salvation for national unemployment was to give business free reign. Big government and big business are not the answer and never have been. Giants like Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman understood and were not afraid to speak out against the view that we must turn our national conscience over to those who are the most well connected.

We can only hope that out of one of the political parties will emerge a true progressive, not one who is synonymous with the current fad of the “conservative” or the “liberal.” Rather, we must go back to the original definition of the term “progressivism” to find politicians whose emphasis is on the individual worker, rather than power centers based on financial acumen. However, so long as our campaign finance laws and electoral system reward those with the most money and count votes in terms of dollars, we have no chance of going back to the principles of Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman. The day will come, perhaps after we find that some major public official has been bribed, when the public will demand that conservatives and liberals be true progressives, supporting the rights of citizens to determine their own destiny. A corporation is not a citizen, although the law has come to define it as such.  Power and connections are not citizens. Citizens are people who work every day to support their families and their country. Citizens are those who cannot necessarily make a $25,000 contribution to their favorite candidate but nevertheless will vote on Election Day. It is time that we refuse to accept that it is permissible for money to influence candidates and determine elections. It is only when we are willing to take on the basic structure of the current American electoral system that we will see the kind of change that newspaper editors and other “progressive” thinkers really have in mind.

Cliff Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.

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