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Presidency: W ... You're No TR

A highlight of the 1988 presidential campaign that brought George Bush Senior to the White House was the moment in the televised debates when Lloyd Bentsen turned to Dan Quayle and said, “You are no Jack Kennedy.”

A couple of weeks ago, at George Bush Jr.’s press conference about the latest vogue in corporate chicanery, a reporter asked him if he likened his situation to that of Theodore Roosevelt when Teddy famously decried the “malefactors of great wealth” who sacrificed the public welfare to the idol of greed.

George W. did not give a bad response to that question. He simply gave a businessman’s response. To his credit, he recalled that T.R. was referring to trusts, whereas our current scandals have to do with fantastic accounting, cynical stock manipulations, and good old-fashioned lying. The president’s largest concern, he emphasized, was that the public not lose faith in capitalism on account of a handful of capitalist bandits. He wants us to remember the obvious, that not all CEOs are corrupt and that the current crop of newsmakers do not typify all the rest. The rest may be wealthy, like the president and vice-president and some other top officials, but they earned their wealth by working hard and doing the right thing for their companies and shareholders.

We need not divert ourselves here to consider the accuracy of that last statement. What George W. failed to understand about the reporter’s T.R. question was the most fundamental thing about T.R. as a leader of an advanced capitalist society. I’m not referring to his advocacy of federal regulation of business, although he is properly well known for that. I’m referring to something more elemental and profound, and that is the system of values that T.R. embraced.

Not only was T.R. not a businessman himself, but he devalued business in a society that seemed to worship it. He placed military men, statesmen and even scholars -- but not businessmen -- at the top of his hierarchy of values. He viewed business almost as a necessary evil, and he certainly looked down upon money-making as an end in itself.

This did not mean that he was antagonistic to businessmen – on the contrary, at times his administration helped some of the biggest of them become even bigger – and he was no populist. Teddy cringed at William Jennings Bryan’s momentous “Cross of Gold” speech – with its “class” feeling against the business elite -- and he dreamed of lining up anarchists before a firing squad.

But all of these feelings were consistent with his style of conservatism, which is something that purported conservatives such as the president should probably learn about. The radicalism of T.R. – his crusades against the trusts and in favor of such causes as conservation of the nation’s forests and wildlife sanctuaries (i.e. against laissez-faire capitalism) – came from his conservative outrage over businessmen (especially the timber interests) who cared only for their own interests and not for the larger public good. Such men were moral weaklings in Roosevelt’s eyes.

Roosevelt had an organic view of society: everyone was connected to everyone else. Stability and health depended upon all citizens fulfilling their civic and personal duty to each other. From his father, a merchant-philanthropist whom he adored, T.R. learned the civic ethics of responsibility and duty. Rather than become a lawyer, the vocation that his upper class New York City peers considered natural, he began his career by entering the rough-and-tumble politics of downtown Manhattan, mixing with immigrants – to the chagrin of his genteel friends – and collaborating with (immigrant Jewish) cigarmaker Samuel Gompers on a tenement house law that forbade the double exploitation of workers by employers who were also their landlords.

Astute historians have noticed the irony that, in at least one respect, T.R. embraced values that were not typically American – his watchword was not “happiness” or “success” but “duty.” Selfishness, especially materialistic selfishness, offended him as a profound moral dereliction.

The reporter who asked the T.R. question asked the right question. The president’s answer was not so much wrong as businesslike. Since that press conference, he has been quoted as suggesting that the core issue is whether or not people will follow the Golden Rule. That reply, however, is too little, too late. No one doubts that the president takes religion seriously (T.R., by contrast, had virtually left the church).

The point is this: when called to address the public, G.W.B. gave a mercantile response to a question that was spiritual, moral and political in the deepest sense of that term. What the people want, what the people need is righteous indignation – equity not equities, values not dividends. T.R. would have understood that.