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?

  • Pingback: Glenn Beck’s black & white (or, enough Teddy-bashing!); About that CPAC “Statue of Liberty” finale - barrypopik’s Diary - RedState

  • Pingback: Glenn Beck’s black & white (or, enough Teddy-bashing!); About that CPAC “Statue of Liberty” finale - barrypopik’s Diary - RedState

  • jimmyd

    As with everyone, you have to place TR’s actions into the context of the times. Not many would disagree that the robber barons of that era fully deserved that name. Sweat shops, child labor, price fixing, plundering of the enviroment and a mirriad of excesses were the rule when he took office. Modern conservatives would, in context of our times, cringe at the living conditions of the working men, women, and children. He sought only to address the most grevious abuses. He also supported business when he thought they were in the right.

    TR was a complex man, and yes a political man, who was however guided more by his sense of right and wrong than the political consequences. No wonder at the end of his term of office he was hated by the old guard of both political parties, but loved by the hard working man in the middle. I wish we had a person in that office that understood a balance was needed in the needs of business and of the worker and of the enviroment. None should superceed the other.

  • akw1

    Yes, it was a very fair criticism! Read the entire quote, and if you’re interested, the entire speech is pretty eye opening.

    “We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.” – Theodore Roosevelt, “THE NEW NATIONALISM”. Osawatomie, Kansas, August 31, 1910

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Thomas-Senda/1612059255 James Thomas Senda

    as beck says…don’t take his words about things, go find out for yourself.

    Roosevelt thought that the Constitution “should be treated as the greatest document ever devised by the wit of man to aid people in exercising every power necessary for its own betterment, NOT AS A STRAIT-JACKET CUNNINGLY FASHIONED TO STRANGLE GROWTH.” Thus TR wasn’t a strict constructionist but someone who thought it was the President’s right as well as duty “to do anything that the needs of the nation demanded unless such action was forbidden by the Constitution or the laws.” TR believed that “the organization of the labor into trade unions and federations is necessary, is beneficent, and is one of the greatest possible agencies in the attainment of the true industrial, as well as a true political, democracy in the US.” I don’t think I agree with that statement. In 1907, TR approved both the income and inheritance taxes and believed that such taxes should be laid in order to bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth and greater equality of opportunity among citizens. sounds pretty progressive too me.

  • Facebook User

    T.R. may have mixed his progressivism with individualism, but like Mark Steyn says “if you have a bowl of yummy ice cream and you put just a little bit of dog poop in it, what you have is a bowl of dog poop”

    sorry if that isn’t exact.