In defense of TR: Was Beck’s criticism fair?

During the first few minutes of his high-profile keynote address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Glenn Beck said: “We have a guy in the Republican Party who says his favorite president is Theodore Roosevelt. Well, I thought so too, until I read Theodore Roosevelt.”

Beck, whose speech was nationally televised on Fox News, then quoted Roosevelt, saying, “we grudge no man a fortune in civil life it is honorably obtained and well used…so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.”

The Roosevelt quote, of course, was hardly the stuff of Adam Smith—but it was also hardly Karl Marx. Nevertheless, Beck went on to say this sort of thinking is, “the cancer that is eating America”—a notion that seems to blame Roosevelt for all the world’s problems these past hundred years, culminating with President Obama’s scheme to nationalize health care.

Of course, as many historians would warn, the problem with Beck’s criticism is that it’s dangerous to judge a historical figure—especially one who served as president more than a century ago—by today’s standards.

Roosevelt’s tenure occurred at the dawn of the 20th century—when “The American Experiment” was still fairly new. Roosevelt didn’t have the benefit of seeing the disastrous results of liberalism that we witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s—results that led many Americans—including Ronald Reagan—to change their political ideology.

Roosevelt also presided during an era when big business and monopolies were more powerful than we can imagine (while most modern-day conservatives would gladly repeal much of the New Deal and the Great Society, I’m guessing few would want to repeal the Pure Food and Drug Act that Roosevelt signed in 1906).

When asked about Beck’s criticism of TR, James Strock, who has authored books including “Reagan on Leadership“ and “Theodore Roosevelt on Leadership; Executive Lessons from the Bully Pulpit” told me, “It is impossible to know what TR would have thought of our challenges today. But we know that he was a voracious learner, immensely creative. To take him, in amber, and thrust views expressed in 1910 may be amusing but it’s not serviceable.”

Of course, Beck’s inclusion of TR on the list of progressives like Woodrow Wilson serves several convenient purposes. First, it allows him to seize the bipartisan moral high ground of criticizing both Republicans and Democrats. Second, it serves as a metaphor for today’s political environment, where liberal Republicans like Charlie Crist have teamed with Obama on projects like the stimulus. And lastly, it affords Beck the opportunity to launch a thinly veiled attack on Sen. John McCain. But was it fair?