Truth on Teddy

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Clay Jenkinson, who portrayed President Teddy Roosevelt at the Great Basin Chautauqua recently, sounded in a recent RN&R article [”History lessons with a pulse,” Theater, RN&R July 7] as if he were from the Parson Weems School of American History.

He extolled Roosevelt so much that a reader might think TR was the greatest man who ever lived. It’s embarrassing. And it is so typical of Establishment thinking.

Has he forgotten the Teddy Roosevelt boast about the Panama Canal: “I took the Isthmus, started the Canal and then left Congress—not to debate the Canal but to debate me … while the debate goes on the Canal does too"?

Has he forgotten the imperialist TR? His chauvinism? His glorification of the military? His “dollar diplomacy” in the Caribbean? His wielding of a big stick over Latin America? His belligerency? His adventurism? His expansionism?

Roosevelt, as an assemblyman in New York in 1884, called a proposal for a 12-hour day for horse-car drivers communistic. On the subject of Native Americans, Roosevelt once said: “The truth is, the Indian never had any real title to the soil. … The settler and the pioneer have at bottom had justice on their side. This great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages.”

Also worth recalling are Roosevelt’s comments to a friend in 1897: “I should welcome any war for I think this country needs one.”

When the United States did not annex Hawaii in 1893, Roosevelt called it “a crime against white civilization” (he later got his way).

He told a Naval War College audience: “All the great masterful races have been fighting races. … No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war.”

After socialist Eugene Debs wrote a fiery article in Appeal to Reason in 1906, Roosevelt asked the attorney general: “Is it possible to proceed against Debs and the proprietor of this paper criminally?”

Roosevelt railed against socialists and Wobblies who wanted peace in 1917 as “a whole raft of sexless creatures.” (The quotations are from the Howard Zinn classic, A People’s History of the United States.)

Certainly, there is a marvelous side to Roosevelt. He rightly ripped the “malefactors of great wealth.” He busted trusts.

His love for the environment, the Great Outdoors, was magnificent. And, as a Bull Moose candidate in 1912, Roosevelt was probably the most progressive Republican America ever had.

Any public presentation concerning Roosevelt ought also to show the seamier side of the president, avoiding the David McCullough-type hagiographies of Presidents Adams and Truman.