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

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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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?

Interestingly, if he searched, Beck would probably find much to like about TR. For example, much of Beck’s CPAC speech focused on “personal responsibility”—an area where TR and Beck would have likely found much agreement.

After all, Roosevelt was the ultimate “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” promoter of rugged individualism and toughness, who famously began a 1912 campaign speech by saying: “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

Beck described himself as a “self-made man,” but TR was, in his own way, the consummate self-made man. Though born wealthy, he was a small, near-sighted and sickly child who determined to make himself a success. In order to change his circumstances, Roosevelt became a tireless champion of what he called the “strenuous life.”

Beck talked about being self-educated, a notion that TR would have probably applauded. In fact, TR once said of academia, “if, in any individual, university training produces a taste for refined idleness, a distained for sustained effort, a barren intellectual arrogance, or a sense of supercilious aloofness from the world of real men who do the world’s real work, then it has harmed that individual.” Beck mentioned in his speech that his education primarily came from reading. This, again, is something that TR—a voracious reader—would also have applauded.

And while Beck and I may disagree with much of TR’s “progressive” political philosophy, in an era when many conservatives are worried about the loss of American Exceptionalism—and about winning the war on terror—the patriotic “Roughrider,” TR—who promised to “speak softly and carry a big stick”—would probably make Dick Cheney look like a dove.

Ultimately, like every leader, TR’s record was mixed. He was strong in some areas, and weak in others. In an era when too many politicians are beholden to lobbyists, it’s inspiring to look to TR, who said, “I will not stay in public life unless I can do so on my own terms…” And while Beck and I may disagree with much of TR’s political philosophy (had I been alive, I would have probably voted for Taft), one can’t help but admire his courage and toughness.

Strock tells me Beck is simply focused on the wrong attributes of TR: “That ethic of service—that very American evocation of service—is what we should focus on, celebrate, learn from, and attempt to pass to the rising generations.”

Ultimately, while Beck and I enjoy the luxury of commentating, TR inherited the presidency when McKinley was assassinated, and was thrust head first into the arena. In this regard, Beck would do well to read one of TR’s most famous speeches, in which he said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…”

Matt Lewis is a conservative writer and blogger, based in Alexandria, Va.