WASHINGTON -- John McCain, like many Americans who should know better, extravagantly praises Theodore Roosevelt. He is a kindred spirit of the impulsive Rough Rider, but the visceral McCain is rescued from some of TR's excesses by not having TR's overflowing cupboard of ideas.
In "Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness" (Yale University Press), Joshua David Hawley, 28, a former clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts, demonstrates that TR, far from being, in Henry Adams' acerbic description, "pure act," was a man of many complex ideas. Some were admirable; many were repellant.
He was an individualist who considered the individualism of others an impediment to the social unity required for national greatness. Having read Darwin's "The Origin of Species" at age 14, and having strenuously transformed himself from an asthmatic child into a robust adult, he advocated "warrior republicanism" (Hawley's phrase). TR saw virtue emerging from struggle, especially violent struggle, between nations and between the "Anglo-Saxon" race and lesser races. Blending "muscular Christianity," the "social gospel" -- which sanctified the state as an instrument of moral reclamation -- and Darwinian theory, TR believed that human nature evolved toward improvement through conflict.
This dark vision of progress through strife made him advocate concentrated national power to serve his agenda, which was radically more ambitious than the Founders' vision of limited government maintaining order, protecting property and otherwise staying out of the way of individual striving.
Like Winston Churchill, who said that mankind had entered "the region of mass effects," TR said "this is an age of combination" -- of vast interlocking economic entities. Big was, he thought, beautiful and, anyway, inevitable. So government, and especially the presidency, must become commensurate to the task of breaking American individualism to the saddle of collective purposes. Here TR and "Country First" McCain converge.
TR, who a critic said "keeps a pulpit concealed on his person," almost wore the word "corruption" threadbare before pastor McCain came along to make it the centerpiece of his political lexicon. TR, like McCain, rejected James Madison's vision of politics driven -- and freedom preserved -- by peaceful conflict between competing factions.