Bully Boy: The Neocons' Favorite President

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Most of the high profile neocons are just wild about Teddy. Not the perpetually inebriated one from Massachusetts but the other one — the New Yorker, FDR’s cousin Teddy Roosevelt. To understand why, one must understand that the bedrock political belief of neoconservativism is the oxymoronic notion of "limited but energetic government," as David Brooks described it in the Winter 1998 issue of American Experiment Quarterly. So-called national greatness conservativism "insists that while government should be limited, it should also be energetic," Brooks and William Kristol nonsensically stated in a Sept. 15, 1997 Wall Street Journal article. So government must be big, yet small. Unlimited, yet limited. Energetic, yet lethargic. This is the neoconservative philosophy of government in a nutshell.

In a September 25, 2004 Weekly Standard article the self-described "godfather" of neoconservativism, Irving Kristol, explained that his heroes are "Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Ronald Reagan." Roosevelt, who the neocons affectionately label "TR," is listed first because of the belief that "energetic" government was "given new life by Teddy Roosevelt," as Brooks stated in his 1998 article. Even Steve Forbes, who sometimes postures as a libertarian, "has embraced Teddy Roosevelt," says Brooks. (Forbes is also a Lincoln idolater. Not surprisingly, Bill Clinton once said that Teddy Roosevelt was his "favorite Republican president").

Understanding the real Teddy Roosevelt is therefore important if one wants to understand the mindset of the warmongering imperialists who control the Republican Party (and the federal government) today. The truth is, Teddy Roosevelt was an imperialist who was morbidly fascinated with war and killing. He was a died-in-the-wool statist who considered himself to be the political heir to Hamilton, Clay, and Lincoln. He was a reckless, frenetic interventionist who displayed little knowledge (especially on economic issues) or even concern about the likely consequences of his interventions.

TR’s mental stability was questionable, to say the least. Mark Twain, who met him twice, judged that he was "clearly insane," as Tom Woods recalls in an essay on Roosevelt in Reassessing the Presidency (John Denson, editor). In biographies of TR we learn that after an argument with his girlfriend a young Teddy Roosevelt went home and shot his neighbor’s dog. When he killed his first Spaniard in Cuba he "abandoned himself to complete hysteria," as biographer Edmund Morris recounts.

As president Roosevelt would take morning rides through Rock Creek Park wildly shooting at tree branches with a pistol, oblivious to the harm he might do to the nearby private homes in the District of Columbia. He once strung a wire across the Potomac River so that he could hang on it because, he said, his wrists needed strengthening.

Far more important than Teddy Roosevelt’s insane antics, however, is his misbehavior as president, which was a disaster for the nation. The reasons why are catalogued in a new biography entitled Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt’s Legacy by Jim Powell.

It was TR who first declared that the U.S. should act as the world’s policeman, a dramatic contrast to George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s policy of commercial relations with all nations and entangling alliances with none. Consequently, writes Powell, "the United States has become involved in dozens of wars, and hundreds of thousands of American soldiers have died in wars that had little, if anything, to do with U.S. national security." Here you have the principal reason why the neocons are just wild about Teddy.

Roosevelt warned of "the menace of peace," and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize! "His many targets [for war] over the years included Cuba, Hawaii, Venezuela, China, the Philippines, Panama, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Canada." He always masked his imperialistic impulses with humanitarian rhetoric, says Powell, in the dishonorable tradition of the Party of Lincoln. The U.S. couldn’t admit that it was seizing territory simply because it wanted it, for example, so "he asserted that the United States must intervene . . . when a nation failed to behave." This was a philosophy of unlimited foreign policy interventionism, not unlike the Bush administration’s claim to be busy eradicating evil from the planet.

TR was "the most outspoken advocate of an interventionist foreign policy" and lusted for war and killing. The more the better. The reason for this, Roosevelt once explained, is that "All the great masterful races have been fighting races . . ." Master Race. National Greatness Conservativism. What’s the difference?

Powell shows how TR reinvigorated the imperialism of the early Republican Party, especially of the activities of William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state. To show just how imperialistic the late nineteenth-century Republican party was, Powell quotes historian Warren Zimmerman as explaining how Seward "wanted to push the United States north into Canada, south into Mexico, and west toward Asia. In the Caribbean he sought a coaling station for the U.S. Navy in the Dominican Republic, signed a treaty with Denmark for the purchase of the Virgin Islands, and won the agreement of Columbia for the right to build a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. He also made . . . probes at . . . Cuba, Haiti, Culebra, French Guiana, Puerto Rico, and St. Bartholomew. He courted Denmark for both Iceland and Greenland."

Powell describes how, as an assistant secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration, Roosevelt helped manipulate the media and Congress into declaring war with Spain. Unlike today’s cowardly cheerleaders for war (William and Irving Kristol, Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Sean Hannity, New Gingrich, William Bennett, and most of the employees of the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Weekly Standard and National Review magazines come to mind), TR did volunteer to participate in the war, and he did so in Cuba. He did have the courage to put his own life at risk.

His famed "rough riders" experienced a 70 percent casualty rate during their brief Cuban adventure, after which "Roosevelt . . . lobbied aggressively to have himself awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor." (His efforts failed, but he was awarded the medal posthumously by an admiring President Bill Clinton).

Powell does a good job of describing the opponents to Rooseveltian warmongering imperialism, namely, the Anti-Imperialist League, whose members included Grover Cleveland, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and William Graham Sumner. Roosevelt dismissed all of these men as "men of a bygone era."

Teddy Roosevelt became president by first serving as William McKinley’s vice president and succeeding him after he was assassinated. One of his first proclamations was that the Filipinos "must be made to realize . . . that we are the masters." (There’s that master race notion again). He referred to Filipinos as "Chinese half-breeds," "savages, barbarians, wild and ignorant people." Having demonized and dehumanized Filipinos in this way, under his "leadership" the U.S. military would kill more than 200,000 of them. "Torture became an accepted method of prompting Filipino villagers to disclose what they knew about the identity of guerrilla leaders," writes Powell, in a statement that must give chills and thrills to modern-day advocates of torture like Rush Limbaugh. (At a recent Heritage Foundation function Limbaugh thanked some of the actors from the television show "24" for "making torture respectable").

Being largely ignorant of economics and economic history, the neocon TR worshippers also praise him for his "trust busting" activities. Powell surveys the economics literature on Teddy Roosevelt’s celebrated "trust busting" and shows how this Quixotic crusade was a matter of using the blunt force of the state to punish and intimidate many of the most competitive businesses and industries in America, to the benefit of their less efficient (or sour grapes) competitors. It promoted protectionism, not competition.

While proclaiming himself to be a champion of the consumer Roosevelt supported the Republican party’s hyper-protectionist tariff policy, inflicting even further harm on hapless American consumers. No friend of the consumer could embrace protectionism as Teddy Roosevelt did.

Roosevelt also crippled the U.S. railroad industry by signing the "Hepburn Act" which allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to impose price controls on railroads, all but outlawed volume discounts to large freight customers, and regulate almost all other aspects of the railroad business. The result was a flight of capital away from the railroad industry that was a serious drag on the entire economy for decades, writes Powell.

"TR" also drummed up a phony "food safety crisis" in order to heroically "save" America from it. But as Powell shows, "there were no epidemics related to commercial food processing" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Roosevelt’s "pure food laws" were aimed "at protecting producers," not the general public. For example, as Powell recounts, some of these early laws set exceptionally high regulatory standards on imported foods as a form of veiled protectionism. Food inspection laws during the Roosevelt era were invariably favored by larger corporations who understood that the laws would disproportionately harm their smaller competitors. "The 1906 Pure Food And Drugs Act empowered the Agriculture Department’s notorious quack, Harvey Washington Wiley, to conduct crazy crusades against foods competing with the interest groups he served" (mostly larger corporate interests).

Teddy Roosevelt is also remembered as a "great conservationist" but in reality his "conservation" policies were another disaster. "In the name of conservation," writes Powell, "Theodore Roosevelt squandered huge amounts of money and degraded much of our natural environment. He launched a federal dam-building program that flooded canyons, disrupted natural water flows, silted up waterways, raised water temperatures, lost huge amounts of water through evaporation, and increased the salinity of irrigated soil so much that very little could grow on it. Roosevelt’s national forest policies contributed to overgrazing of grasslands and to forest fires of unprecedented ferocity."

Socialists of all stripes praise TR’s "conservation" policies, nevertheless, because he strenuously opposed the privatization of government-controlled land. Private property is the mortal enemy of socialism. In reality, TR’s "conservation" policies were just another Republican party mercantilist scheme. Mostly western "lobbying groups hoped to enrich themselves with . . . free dams, free waterway improvements, cheap water, cheap timber, cheap access to grazing lands, and other goodies, at somebody else’s expense."

Teddy Roosevelt’s biggest sin was that he "revived the idea of a federal income tax after it had been given up for dead." In doing so, the Philadelphia Record editorialized, "Roosevelt provided more encouragement to state socialism and centralization of government than all the frothy demagogues have accomplished in a quarter century." Having jump-started the crusade for the nationalization of all income, TR’s successors Taft and Wilson finished the job. Wilson would use the government’s newly-created riches to finance America’s disastrous entry into World War I.

This is yet another reason why the neocons are just wild about Teddy.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His next book, to be published in October, is Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe (Crown Forum/Random House).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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