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Updated on June 18, 2016

Theodore Roosevelt and Donald Trump


Donald Trump’s bruising battle with his fellow candidates for the Republican nomination and the party leaders harkens back to Teddy Roosevelt’s struggle against the establishment in 1912, to gain what he rightly believed was his. The two men do share some similarities- blunt speech and not afraid to give their opinions forcefully. Both were/are adept at the down and dirty aspects of politics, able to mud-sling with the best of them. There are major differences, however, between the New Yorkers. Roosevelt possessed a volcanic amount of energy, while demonstrating a depth of character that the Donald has yet to show. Despite his frequent protestations that the system was rigged against him, Trump has actually benefited from it, where TR was hamstrung by a political process in transition.

When Donald Trump declared his intention to run last year, not many took it very seriously. The blustery businessman obviously had the money to launch a challenge for the Republican nomination, but most believed self-implosion would quickly take place, through his outrageous and politically incorrect pronouncements. The list of these foot-in-mouth utterances is lengthy and disturbing, yet have not derailed the Trump train in the least. The Donald adroitly tapped into the immense dissatisfaction permeating the nation over the dysfunctional federal government and out-of-touch mainstream politicians. The Republican party big-wigs badly misjudged the temper of the primary voters, until it was too late. Early on, they championed Jeb Bush, member of one of the country’s most powerful political families. Poor Jeb never knew what hit him, his candidacy being buried in an avalanche of Trump denunciations. Mr. Bush could not escape the image foisted upon him by the Donald- the spineless jellyfish.

When none of the other people from the lengthy list of contenders (17 at its peak) managed to gain traction against Trump, party leaders, in desperation, turned to two men they loathed just slightly less than the Donald- Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Rubio floated from the scene rapidly, dismissed out of hand by the Donald as a lightweight powder-puff. Cruz hung in longer, with his supposed credentials as a true conservative, but even he made little headway on Trump’s ever-increasing delegate lead. Ted pulled out all the stops, including naming Carly Fiorina as his running mate. Cruz’s portrayal, however, as the most disliked man in the Senate, and caustic criticism by former Speaker of the House, John Boehner, cut into his appeal. Last gasp calls for a brokered convention were bantered around, but grew quiet when it became apparent Trump could not be stopped. Attempting to steal the nomination from somebody who won a clear majority of delegates might splinter the Republicans irretrievably. Thus, Donald Trump has been assisted by the very system he attacked as rigged when things were not going his way. The same cannot be said for what Teddy Roosevelt faced in 1912.

TR is one of the most iconic figures in U.S. history. A tornado of vitality and exuberance, Roosevelt overcame personal tragedy to become a NY State legislator at age 23; a rancher and cowboy; a member of the civil service commission under President Benjamin Harrison; police commissioner of New York City; author of 40 books; assistant secretary of the navy for President William McKinley; Rough Rider and war hero during Spanish-American War in 1898; then vice-president in 1901, again under McKinley. Poor health as a child, and the tragic deaths of his first wife and mother on the same day when he was 25, drove Teddy to take on challenges and succeed at a breakneck pace. He earned a reputation as a hard-working, no nonsense reformer after entering public service in the Gilded Age of massive government corruption. He exhibited traits, and took actions, that it is hard to see the Donald replicating. TR would not lash out at critics, but heartedly enjoyed debating them. He could also move beyond perceived personal slights, as exhibited by the time, when a young legislator, three bullies accosted him in a local tavern for his dandified dress and speech. After realizing the thugs were not going to leave him alone, Teddy calmly removed his glasses, placed them in his pocket, and then proceeded to deck two of his assailants, while the third beat a quick retreat. To show there were no hard feelings, Roosevelt helped the men from the floor, and shared a pint of ale with them. So far, Trump has displayed little or no graciousness toward those who dare to criticize him.

Roosevelt also manifested a capacity for growth and change, that it is hard to see the Donald being capable of. After being elected the youngest minority leader ever in the NY Assembly, his head became swelled, as he himself admitted later. He disrupted legislative business, made bombastic speeches lambasting his opponents, only to discover he could get nothing done. Nobody in the assembly wanted to cooperate or work with him. Teddy grasped that successful politics is a give and take process, along with compromise. A lesson Trump has yet to learn, and highly debatable whether he could suddenly master it as president. In addition, TR expanded beyond his privilege upbringing, to develop empathy for the poor and down-trodden. Although educated in the laissez-faire philosophy extremely prevalent among the well-to-do at the time, which was taught as gospel at the nation’s best universities, such as Roosevelt’s Harvard, he came to believe the government could play a constructive role in reducing the inequalities that had arisen in the U.S. economy. Can the billionaire businessman Donald Trump do the same?

His battles against corruption and inequality garnered Roosevelt some public attention, but his heroics as a Rough Rider during the Spanish-American War of 1898, thrust him into the national spotlight. While the people loved him, Republican party leaders, not unlike Trump today, were very jittery about the meteoric rise of this uncontrollable, loose cannon. Desperate to deflate his soaring popularity, they thought the perfect solution might be to place him on the Republican presidential ticket for the 1900 election as William McKinley’s vice-president. The big wigs realized TR would not refuse the offer out of party loyalty. Everyone knew the vice-presidency was a dead-end, do-nothing job, the graveyard for political ambitions. As V.P. and then president Harry Truman once commented, “All the vice-president does is sit around and wait for a funeral.” Republican leaders in 1900 expected no such thing with a healthy and robust McKinley, not calculating, however, that an assassin would snuff out the president’s life just 5 months into his second term. A shocked political establishment, led by top Republican machine boss, Mark Hanna, all gasped, ‘That damned cowboy is now the president!” Yes, he was.

The White House had never seen, nor will ever probably experience again, even if the colorful Trump happens to reside there, the whirlwind of activity which occurred daily during TR’s time in office from 1901-09. Dinner guests could be expected to join Roosevelt on an invigorating 5 mile hike in nearby Rock Creek Park before their meal was served, or be challenged to a boxing match by the president. His 6 children ran amok through the hallways, creating mischief, often led by the biggest child, Teddy himself. Despite his exuberant and playful nature, TR took seriously his duties as president, and leader of the Progressive movement calling for social and economic reforms. Monopolies had wrested control of many industries, stamping out competition, often through illegal practices, and thus could set any price they wanted for their products. The American people were the overall loser in the end.

TR did not think all corporations were bad, just those that had grown too large, dominating the market to the detriment of the consumer. Roosevelt, upon taking the reins, attacked these economic monoliths with gusto, under the guise of the little employed Sherman Anti-trust Act of 1890. His first target was banker JP Morgan’s gigantic Northern Securities holding company. After a bitter two year court battle, Morgan’s monopoly was broken up. In an anecdote, relevant to Trump, despite having lost the Northern Securities fight against TR, JP thought he could still win over the president through the time-honored tradition of American politics- a large contribution for the 1904 election. Roosevelt’s top advisors all admonished him to return the then exorbitant $100,000 check JP sent, because TR was supposed to be fighting against everything the rich banker and his kind stood for. Teddy’s response, which no doubt made Morgan’s large, red and bulbous nose glow even brighter, was that JP might give the campaign as much money as he liked, as long as Morgan understood he could expect no special favors in return. Will Trump, who is now soliciting outside money (after loudly touting being beholden to no one by personally funding his own campaign), be able to resist the allure of Big Business and special interests, especially if they help put him over the top, and into the Oval Office? Time will tell.

Roosevelt’s motto in foreign policy became “speak softly and carry a big stick.” He carried out a massive ship building program to dramatically increase the size of the US navy. Unfortunately, he had caught the imperial bug which infected most of Western Europe in that era, and some of his initiatives were not in the best traditions of the United States. The most notable example being running roughshod of Colombia’s sovereignty, seizing land in their province of Panama, to build the Panama Canal. On the other hand, he did win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 for mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. As of yet, the Donald can only speak shrilly on foreign matters, his saber-rattling making many world leaders uneasy. His pronouncements on re-arming Japan, and allowing that country, along with South Korea, to acquire nukes as buffers against North Korea and China, reveal his habit of saying things without really thinking through the implications. Trump’s method of sticking to generalities and sound-bites has not been seriously challenged to this point. If TR discussed an issue, one could be certain he was well versed, having read every newspaper article or book available on the subject, while also consulting acknowledged experts in the field. An approach Donald Trump may well consider emulating.

After serving almost two full terms during one of the most productive presidencies in our history, Theodore Roosevelt left office in March, 1909. Under constitutional rules then in effect, he could have sought a third term, but promised the American people he would not after winning the 1904 election. A decision TR quickly came to regret, as he loved being president. Teddy hand-picked his successor, Secretary of War and close friend, William Howard Taft, who handily won the 1908 race for the White House. Taft’s true passion was the law, and he actually attained his dream job in 1920, when named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Only 50 when his second term ended, everybody knew Roosevelt would not go quietly into retirement. In fact, before leaving Washington, he announced his imminent departure on a year-long hunting safari in Africa, accompanied by his son, Kermit. The trip was a smashing success, while TR himself kept the U.S. public well-informed about the journey through periodic magazine articles. He even extended the sojourn by accepting invitations from various European heads of state to visit their countries on the way home.

Roosevelt’s arrival back in America prompted a joyous celebration in New York, with tens of thousands of people lining the wharves and nearby streets as his ship docked. He came back to find a serious rift developing in the Republican Party. Taft tried to continue TR’s progressive policies, but lacking his predecessor’s fire and energy, some reformers believed the steam had gone out of the movement. They thought the current president was a bit too cozy with special interests and the party bosses, while he also supported the courts, which were often blocking progressive legislation. Many looked longingly at Theodore Roosevelt as the man to re-ignite the drive for economic and social improvements, which had stagnated under the cautious Taft. By early 1912, a presidential election year, TR was seriously considering another run at the White House, though the possible bid contained numerous pitfalls.

First, he would have to take on his old friend and protégé, William Howard Taft. Second, the current electoral system tilted heavily in Taft’s direction. The people were for Roosevelt, but only 6 states at the time held direct primaries, where the voters decided who their party nominee should be. The remaining states called conventions, dominated by party bosses, to pick delegates to the national Republican convention. The party machines were decidedly in favor of President Taft. Third, a TR-Taft battle for the nomination could split the Republicans, opening the door for Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to steal the election. Lastly, a two-term limit for presidents, a tradition established by George Washington, was considered sacrosanct by many in the country. Despite the negatives, Teddy announced his candidacy with the famous, “I am throwing my hat in the ring.”

The contest between the current and previous president crystallized into a struggle between the entrenched, corrupt political establishment on Taft’s ledger, and the movement to make the process more democratic lining up behind Roosevelt. TR publicly challenged more states to institute direct primaries, and 7 responded, bringing the total to 13, where the people could chose their preferred candidate. The Teddy-William Howard race swiftly degenerated into a no-holds barred slug-fest, a match Donald Trump would have felt right at home in. Each side accused the other of spreading falsehoods about their man, with the name-calling following fast and furious. TR belittled Taft as a “puzzle-wit” and “fathead” (the rest of his body was also a bit overweight, as he tipped the scales in excess of 300 pounds), while the president blasted away at Roosevelt’s supposed monumental ego, and temerity to seek a third term. So much for friendship. Newspaper columnists decried the spectacle of the nation’s two most eminent statesmen wallowing in the mire of traded personal insults, something which shamed the United States in front of the world.

Bloody riots broke out at Republican state conventions throughout the country, the ferocity of the encounters making the disturbances at Trump rallies today pale in comparison. In Missouri, Taft supporters guarded the entrance to the hall with baseball bats and bricks, preventing any Roosevelt enthusiasts from entering. At a local assembly in Oklahoma, a person dressed as a Rough Rider, riding a horse, burst through the front door, galloped down to the stage, scattering the Taft lackeys running the meeting. Elsewhere in the Sooner state, a TR backer held a loaded pistol to the head of the local party boss, leading the gathering, saying he would not countenance any shenanigans on Taft’s behalf. In the end, Teddy won large majorities in 9 out of the 13 states which held direct primaries, a pattern that most probably would have repeated if all the states used the same process, thus securing Roosevelt the nomination. That is not the way it happened, however, as the political bosses made certain Taft had a delegate majority at the national convention, ensuring his re-election bid under the Republican banner.

As history knows. Teddy launched a third-party bid under the Bull Moose standard. This effort was highlighted by the extraordinary occurrence of TR being shot by an assassin before a scheduled speech in Ohio, still delivering his address with two bullets lodged in his chest, and then finally consenting to be taken to the hospital. Not surprisingly, the divide among the Republicans cleared the road for the Democrats. The campaign evolved into a two-way race between Roosevelt and Wilson, Taft only hanging in to guarantee his former buddy lost, which he did. Woodrow Wilson became the 28thpresident in 1913. While it does not appear Trump will have to go out on his own, having garnered enough delegates for the nomination, he still threatens to if the Republican leadership will not get on his bandwagon. There are also whispers on the 24-hour news channels of an “anybody but Trump” candidate jumping in at the last moment, but nothing as of yet has materialized. If someone does, they will not have the stature of Theodore Roosevelt.

Donald Trump, similar to TR, has proven to be an effective campaigner, but the other qualities showcased so far are not likely to hold him in good stead if he is elected president. Roosevelt’s tussle with Taft reinforced he could mud wrestle with anybody. Teddy, however, possessed a moral compass as well the Donald seems to be sorely lacking. Trump could learn a lot from TR, and other great presidents, such as his cousin, FDR, along with Washington and Lincoln. We might hope the Donald will start hitting the books. The American people and the world can only hold their breath.


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