The GOP's War on Teddy Roosevelt

While Glenn Beck disowns him, Obama just announced that he's reading the Rough Rider's biography. John Avlon on how a former Republican president helps define dysfunction in his own party.

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While Glenn Beck disowns him, Obama just announced that he's reading the Rough Rider's biography. John Avlon, author of Wingnuts, on how a former Republican president helps define dysfunction in his own party.

Here's how crazy our politics have become: Legendary Republican President Theodore Roosevelt is being called a socialist by conservatives like Glenn Beck. The man on Mount Rushmore, the Rough Rider president, is getting caught up in a party-purity dragnet 91 years after his death, an exaggerated symptom of the rabid hunting of RINOs—"Republicans In Name Only"—that could tank the Grand Old Party.

If conservatives want to kick TR out, Obama seems ready to welcome him in. As if on cue, the president's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, announced yesterday that the president is now reading the classic The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris, a book that inspired Reagan's senior staff to tap Morris as their in-house historian during the 1980s.

Balance seems too subtle a concept for all-or-nothing absolutists.

Beck's departure point for his now-frequent attacks on our 26th president was a post-2008 election snide swipe at John McCain, who he characterized as "this weird progressive like Teddy Roosevelt." In his subsequent book, Glenn Beck's Common Sense, Beck devoted a chapter to "The Cancer of Progressivism" and lays the blame at TR's feet, in addition to Roosevelt's rival Woodrow Wilson. It's a theme he has continued to hit on radio and TV and speeches like his keynote address at CPAC—claiming TR represents a road to "fascism"—because of actions like creating the national park system, his anti-monopoly trust-busting and his support of government interventions like the Pure Food and Drug Act. "It's big government, it's a socialist utopia and we need to address it as if it is a cancer," Beck said.

Edmund Morris: What Obama Is Learning From My Book It's all part of a determined rewriting of history that casts any Republican president not named Coolidge or Reagan as a progressive and therefore a socialist determined to undermine the Constitution. Beck proudly announces that he now uses a bust of TR as a doorstop in a symbolic show of his displeasure.

This history textbook rejection of the Big Tent is based on a misreading of American history driven by ideological blinders that dumb down our politics by dividing everything into not just right vs. left, but conservatism vs. communism. Even during Teddy Roosevelt's time, a more common-sense analysis characterized the divisions in America politics as radicals, reactionaries, and progressives.

The radicals were the far leftists who wanted revolutionary change—the anarchists, communists and socialists that Roosevelt derided as "the lunatic fringe." The reactionaries were the hard-core traditionalists and conservatives who resisted all change—for example, the conservative Southern Democrats who were determined to roll back Reconstruction with Jim Crow laws and segregation.

Progressives, in this formulation, wanted responsible change. As TR said, "constructive change offers the best method of avoiding destructive change, reform is the antidote to revolution… social reform is not the precursor but the preventive of socialism."

Beneath this formulation lies larger fault lines in the Republican Party between centrist reformers and conservatives that date back to a bitter primary fight in 1912 between President William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. TR won the primaries, was denied the nomination, split off and formed the Progressive Party (aka, the Bull Moose Party). TR believed he was fighting for the legacy of Lincoln against a "corrupt alliance between crooked business and crooked politics"—and clarified, "we draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth."

These fissures surfaced again in the 1952 primary fight between Senator Robert Taft, an isolationist who opposed intervention into World War II, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was called a "candidate of effeminates" by conservative chickenhawk activists at the time. President Eisenhower was later called a "dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy," by the right-wing John Birch Society.

But in an era of resurgent ideological absolutism, where the John Birch Society is welcomed as a co-sponsor of this year's CPAC after a half-century hiatus from movement conservatism, teeing off on TR in the most paranoid terms is back in fashion among the increasingly influential fringe.

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It's a sign of how far our political debates have been dragged off-center. For most of the past half-century, TR has been the most popular ex-president, with dozens of biographies published each decade, earning bipartisan praise as the model of an energetic executive by almost every successor in the White House. This year has already seen the publication of Douglas Brinkley's The Wilderness Warrior and this fall Edmund Morris will complete his epic trilogy. Doris Kearns Goodwin's next book will also focus on TR.

History is a neverending debate, but while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, no one is entitled to their own facts. TR's contemporary critics should ask themselves whether big-business monopolies represent the triumph of free-market capitalism or its corruption—because open competition, the essence of free markets, is protected by reasonable regulation. When China's exportation of toys made with poisonous levels of lead is rightly criticized by talk-radio hosts like Beck, it's worth remembering that U.S. government regulations are what protect American consumers from the same abuse. All government action is not a usurpation of individual freedom—it's a matter of striking the right balance.

But balance seems too subtle a concept for all-or-nothing absolutists, especially when they are trying to lead a conservative populist revival that characterizes centrist policies as a slippery slope toward socialism and then communism. Rather than trying to purge Teddy Roosevelt from the party rolls, today's GOP leaders would do well to remember TR's example and his advice: "We Republicans must hold the just balance and set ourselves as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other."

John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.