Most American conservatives find little in the various political ideas advanced a hundred years ago by Theodore Roosevelt worth salvaging, much less translating into present day policy. His agenda back then reads like a script worthy of a whole series of Glenn Beck programs. He was the poster-child for progressivism.
But he was—and remains—a fascinating character. And I’d like to think that if he were around today, his clearly conservative personal values would move him to the right. Just like I think that if John F. Kennedy had been around for the last decade, he wouldn’t have been a tax-cutting cold warrior, but would have likely drifted toward the views of a whole other Teddy.
In the words of that old Kenny Rogers’ song, Teddy Roosevelt knew when to “fold ‘em,” even if he didn’t get the part about walking—or running—away. Leaving the presidency in the hands of his handpicked successor William Howard Taft in 1909, TR went hunting, then toured Europe, dined with Kings (bored to tears by that part) and became “the most famous man in the world.”
George W. Bush joked with Oprah Winfrey recently about not being “dragged back into the swamp”—resisting the television host’s political questions. Theodore Roosevelt tried that for a while—a good while, actually—but eventually he entered the arena again. He was to politics at that time what a guy named Jim Jeffries was to boxing—someone who just couldn’t pull off the comeback.
And speaking of the arena—it is TR who made the political metaphor an enduring one with his famous quote about “The Man in the Arena.” It was part of a major address he delivered at The University of Paris (The Sorbonne) on April 23, 1910. While recently reading about the event in Edmund Morris’ new book, Colonel Roosevelt, I was struck by something else Teddy said that day.
The speech was titled “Citizenship In A Republic.” Roosevelt was at the pinnacle of his renown. One journalist wrote at the time, “When he appears, the windows shake for three miles around. He has the gift, nay the genius of being sensational.” He addressed a massive audience in the school’s grand amphitheater. The crowd included academicians, “ministers in court dress, army and navy officers in full uniform, nine hundred students,” and another 2,000 “ticket holders.”
The former President of the United States was introduced that day as “the greatest voice of the New World.”
Hiding in the shadows of his “in the arena” address was a rhetorical warning that has great relevance to all citizens of all true republics in our day and age: