By pure coincidence, I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” throughout the last month of silly season Republican politicking – the Donald Trump Show, the debate circus, and the Iowa State Fair “please-notice-me-I’m-wearing-dad-jeans-and-holding-a-fried-porkchop-on-a-stick” routine of American politics. Sadly, I’ve noticed the only thing unhealthier that what they stick in their mouths seems to be what comes out of them. But as I watch these pitiful bought-out attention-starved fundamentalist egomaniacs prance around trying to deport the most minorities, I can’t help but contrast this laughable state of public discourse with the debates of 100 years ago thoroughly outlined in DKG’s latest. Whatever happened to candidates like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft?
These guys were the original “progressives”: pro-worker, pro-social welfare, pro-market, pro-conservation, anti-trust, anti-tariff, anti-lobbying, and anti-establishment. Oh, and they advocated all of this as standard bearers of the Republican Party.
Roosevelt and Taft typified a time when the parties were probably closer ideologically than any other time in US history. In 1912, the two of them along with Woodrow Wilson campaigned against each other for president, all on platforms well to the left of any candidate today. It would be like the 2016 field were dominated by three candidates who all shared the politics of Bernie Sanders. We’ve changed a bit in 100 years.
By all accounts, Roosevelt was one of the great presidents of the 20th century. A Republican dynamo who couldn’t sit still for five seconds, he helped break up major railroad and oil trusts, fought for worker’s rights, intervened in labor disputes on behalf of workers, initiated civil service reform, preserved vast areas of the U.S. as National Parks and National Forests, and started the Panama Canal project. He was also a bit of a psychopath – violent, belligerent, thought that the U.S. needed to go to war with somebody every few years because it would keep us healthy and alert. But his Bull Moose spirit is what helped pushed much of the reform he advocated. Few, whether business or machine politicians – dared line up against him.
Taft, on the other hand, is not remembered as a great president, but he did more than most.