While many people influenced and shaped the course of the 20th Century, Roosevelt's contributions hold a special place in our history. One reason is timing: because he served as President from 1901 to 1909, his decisions on American domestic and foreign policy came first and therefore set the stage for everything that followed. More important, however, is character.
Though a Republican, Roosevelt adhered most strongly to the idealism first embodied by Abraham Lincoln and was anathema to the Republican establishment. In fact, he was positioned as the Vice Presidential candidate on William McKinley's ticket in order to remove him from the more-influential position of Governor of New York, where he had alienated Republican boss Thomas Collier Platt with a vigorous campaign again corruption. Only Mark Hanna, McKinley's campaign manager, recognized the irony of the choice, popularly credited with saying to his collegaues, "Don't any of you realize there's only one life between that madman and the presidency?
Indeed, that was all that stood between Roosevelt and the Presidency -- and on September 6, 1901, McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist with no particularly deep motive. Less than two weeks later, McKinley was dead, and Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States.
Politics in the first decade of the 20th Century were different than they are today in the first decade of the 21st. Conservatives would recognize some of their current policy interests in the pro-business cronyism of the Republican establishment. The Republican party was larger than that, however, including also a strong progressive element. Roosevelt was one of these, which made him in effect a centrist of sorts; the Left in Roosevelt's time was a combination of populists and socialists, with platform goals like inclusion of silver as a form of specie (called "bimetalism;" money in 1901 was exclusively backed by gold, which sharply limited the size of the money supply).
Many of Roosevelt's key accomplishments are with us today. He professionalized the Civil Service by instituting merit-based examinations rather than doling out most jobs on the basis of party affiliation. In 1906, he championed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act to guarantee the quality of medicines and foods sold in the United States; prior to these actions, regulation was very limited and the overwhelming doctrine was caveat emptor (buyer beware). These formed the basis of what he called his "Square Deal" with the American people.
Roosevelt also used the power of government to break up large corporate interests that had created near-monopolies called trusts, mediated labor disputes in the coal mining and railroad industries, and created the United States Forest Service along with the first National Parks. On the world stage, Roosevelt was the driving force behind construction of the Panama Canal, mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese War and greatly modernized the U.S. Navy.
As mentioned previously, however, none of this is an important as Roosevelt's character.
Observing his father's involvement in the extensive philanthropic societies of New York, Roosevelt came to understand that private charity, whatever its motivations, simply could not bring enough resources to bear to confront the most challenging problems of society. He denied the status quo of crony capitalism and asserted the subordination of business to government. However, Roosevelt opposed favoring unionized labor interests as strongly as he did favoring tycoons. His overriding goal was to create equality of opportunity, a system where in the best people who rise to the top rather than success going to those with the most connections.
A great deal of what Roosevelt wanted to do (and did) was opposed by the Republican establishment. The party leaders had sought to marginalize him, not give him the Presidency. But Roosevelt was perhaps the most popular leader in American history, and once in motion, he bulldozed opposition, using the "bully pulpit" of the Presidency to rally popular support for his programs.
As soon as Roosevelt left office in 1908 (opting at the time not to seek a second term which he almost certainly would have won), the establishment immediately began seeking to undo his programs. He returned and sought the Republican nomination for the 1912 election but was stripped of most delegates by political maneuvering before the convention. Furious, Roosevelt boldly called for his supporters to join him and created his own Progressive party.
The Progressive Party did not win the 1912 election (lacking any coherent platform beyond Roosevelt himself), but in an unprecedented and not-yet-repeated feat, Roosevelt came in second, defeating sitting President William Howard Taft and losing to Woodrow Wilson. This, too, shaped the course of American history.
Today, Republicans occasionally denounce but mostly ignore the contributions of Theodore Roosevelt, a man whose policies and goals are as anathama to their modern ambitions as they were to the party establishment in 1901. The origins of the Reagan Revolution and modern conservatism are ideologically at odds with the Roosevelt legacy in a form that is nonetheless constructive to the national discussion, but the neoconservatism that has co-opted that revolution is closely aligned with the crony capitalism to which Roosevelt stood opposed. It is a testament to Mr. Roosevelt that so much of what he did nonetheless still forms the foundation upon which the modern American middle class grew and prospered.
As we search for American solutions, we need not limit ourselves to the specific methods or intentions of Theodore Roosevelt. His time, after all, has passed; the future belongs to us. We can gain a great deal, however, from enshrining his support for the quintessentially American notion of the meritocracy, and his careful walk between the tempting dogmas of the Right and Left in search of policies that actually worked.
This litmus test, and no other, should be the foundation on which we base a new "Square Deal," and for that reason, this blog is dedicated to him.