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Choosing the Right Role Model

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

McCain's signature legislation (McCain-Feingold) restricts what he calls "quote 'First Amendment rights'" in the name of taming "special interests." It expresses a TR-like rejection of Madisonian politics, a rejection McCain echoes when equating consensus -- about the public interest, as McCain understands it -- with patriotism. But another name for the "partisanship" McCain deplores is ... politics.

Ted Kennedy, speaking to the Democratic convention, advocated an end to a politics of "group against group." TR would have heartily agreed. But what is politics for if not the adjustment of such conflicts? McCain was in a TR mood when he said the bailout of the financial system should be "above politics." Wrong. It involves the fundamental political questions about freedom, justice and role of government.


TR invested the materialist doctrine of evolutionary struggle with moral significance for the most manly "races." He wanted the state to rescue America from the danger, as he saw it, that a commercial republic breeds effeminacy. Government as moral tutor would pull chaotic individualists up from private preoccupations and put them in harness for redemptive collective action.

Such as war. TR's response to William James' idea of a "moral equivalent of war" could have been: Accept no substitutes. TR wanted the body politic to be one body, whose head was the president. He disregarded civil society -- the institutions that mediate between individuals and the state, insulating them from dependence and coercion. He had a Rousseauan notion that the individual could become free only through immersion in the collective.

By the time TR tried to recapture the presidency in 1912, he was gripped by what Hawley calls "shocking personal hubris" that manifested itself in an anti-constitutional populism. For example, he thought the Supreme Court should invalidate no law that enjoyed public support, and the people should be empowered to overturn court decisions by referendums.

McCain's identification with TR is, fortunately, superficial -- more about TR's exuberant personal style than his intellectual constructs. McCain's preference for public involvement over private preoccupations stops short -- so far -- of TR's vague but menacing agenda of building civic identity through compulsory national service.


TR's collectivist nationalism became unhinged, polluted by sinister advocacy of eugenics, and by statist sentiments such as: "The woman must bear and rear the children, as her first duty to the state." McCain's Rooseveltian interest in our moral reclamation is at least better than that.

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