Advancing a Free Society

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Shtick

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

If there’s such a thing as safe harbor for presidential rhetoric, it would be quoting, referencing or otherwise ripping off one of these three previous occupants of the White House: John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

Why these three?

Kennedy embodies fuzzy idealism and stark pragmatism, plus unrealized promise.

Lincoln, likewise a felled martyr, struggled mightily with the weighty issues of his times.

And T.R.?

You’ll have to ask President Obama, who traveled to a remote spot in Kansas to deliver a speech mimicking a Roosevelt address of 101 years ago calling for a “New Nationalism” – in essence, sticking it to the wealthy.

Not that it was the President’s first time in Kansas. He has family ties to the state. On Kansas Day 2008, he journeyed to El Dorado to deliver a “Reclaiming the American Dream” speech in El Dorado, Kans.

And in visiting Osawatomie, as he did on Tuesday, Obama could tap into the legacies of both Roosevelt and John Brown, the 1850s abolitionist (and yet tie-in to Lincoln).

Here’s something else Tuesday’s speech accomplished for Obama: the final leg of the Abe-JFK-TR trifecta.

As a presidential hopeful in 2008, Obama relied on the endorsements of brother Teddy and daughter Caroline to tap into the JFK’s “Camelot” mystique (for reasons never really explained, Obama also asked Caroline Kennedy to help vet his vice-presidential picks).

As a president-elect, Obama rode the rail into the nation’s capital ala his fellow Illinoisan, Lincoln – a ride for Obama that began in Philadelphia, where 148 years earlier Lincoln had stopped en route to his inauguration to raise a flag near Independence Hall.

And now the speech in Kansas, where the White house (with the help of at least one sympathetic presidential historian) tried to spin the press on the idea of Obama as a 21st Century Rough Rider, sans monocle.

This was no accident, as Teddy Roosevelt serves at least three purposes for a Democratic president – and they all have more to do with tormenting his Republican foes rather than rally the public to a particular cause.

This includes:

  1. T.R., the populist. Democrats love to embrace the first President Roosevelt (a Republican, unlike his Democratic fifth cousin, Franklin) as an avatar of cutting against the conservative grain, citing his distrust of corporate trusts and America’s “malefactors of great wealth”. Of course, this conveniently overlooks the one little factoid from back in 1910: there was no income tax at the time of Roosevelt’s speech. A federal income tax was instituted during the Civil War, but later abolished. Congress tried to impose a flat-rate income tax in the 1890s, only to have it struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. Not until 1913, when enough states had finally ratified the 16th Amendment, did the feds have the power to directly levy income taxes (here’s the first Form 1040).
  2. T.R., the environmentalist. The second way to torment conservatives: hold up Roosevelt as the Father Earth of American conservation. Roosevelt did indeed form the U.S. Forest Service. The federal Antiquities Act enabled T.R. and future American presidents to convert government property into national monuments. But Roosevelt also had this to say – ironically, at the same Kansas locale as Obama: “Conservation means development as much as it does protection. I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful means, the generations that come after us." Not a guy who’d put up a WalMart in Yellowstone. Then again, also a guy who might have a quibble or two with the worst excesses of the EPA and the ESA.
  3. T.R., the executioner. As in: the man who turned the 1912 presidential election into a GOP circular firing squad by abandoning his party for an independent run. And few Republicans, these days relish the thought of the same being done by Ron Paul, Donald Trump or some other disaffected media-hound. Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” bid cost his party the White House (the results: Wilson 41. 8%, T.R. 27.4%, Taft 23.2%). But it wasn’t the most principled of runs. Yes, T.R. was ripped off at the 1912 Republican convention. And, by the fourth year of the Taft presidency, he was genuinely disturbed by his successor’s more conservative approach to governing. But as Candice Millard recounts her terrific The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, Roosevelt was also a restless, ego-driven, 53-year-old former president who missed the limelight by the time of that election (think Bill Clinton in 2004, free to roam in a world without the 22nd Amendment).

If there’s a Teddy Roosevelt in 2012 America, it would be . . . not Barack Obama, but the Democrat he defeated to get to the White House: Hillary Clinton. Like T.R., the Secretary of State has a gripe about her rival taking her party in a direction different from when she was in the White House. And, like T.R. in 1912, a Hillary third-party run most likely would be lights-out for the Obama Presidency.

As for speeches based on events of a century ago. Forget Kansas, and think something closer to the ocean.

April 1912 is the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s voyage. Is there a better occasion for this President to talk about his handling of the economy?