Teddy Roosevelt, all barrel of chest and pince of nez, dropped by the living room the other day, courtesy of the folks who run public television. Now there was a man who enjoyed politics and government and power. There was none of the silly pretense that he “entered public service” because he was “looking to give something back” to the nation or the old neighborhood. He liked being in charge. He liked government. He liked the fact that government did things and could do them well .
He was, of course, a Republican-an aristocratic, Ivy League, blue-blooded Northeastern Republican. Were he among us today, Senator Jesse Helms would impugn his patriotism and Ralph Reed would question his commitment to the free marketplace. No Republican Presidential nominee would dare put him on a national ticket, for fear of alienating the Republican Congressional sophomores who won’t be happy until the Capitol is sold off to Archer Daniels Midland Company. (Then again …)
Roosevelt’s visit to the living room was timely for several reasons, first among them as a reminder that there was a time, long ago, when a President of the United States could publicly refer to the Wall Street crowd as greedy fools. These days, of course, Democrats and Republicans alike depend on Wall Street for their (political) lives, their (campaign) fortunes and their (nonexistent) honor. Casting aspersions on the motives and practices of Wall Street is considered a quaint practice, like whistle-stop campaigning and telling the occasional truth, best left to the history books.
The tale of Roosevelt the First also highlighted an argument that’s beginning to make the rounds in Republican-conservative circles: If the G.O.P. wants to be taken seriously as a steward of government, it must start taking government seriously. Red-meat denunciations of government work well in certain precincts, but they are something of a barrier to the grunt work of governance.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal , William Kristol and David Brooks have challenged their fellow true believers. They ask: “How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?”
“A conservatism that organizes citizens’ resentments rather than informing their hopes will always fall short of fundamental victory,” they wrote. This argument, along with its embrace of-hey, what a coincidence!-Teddy Roosevelt’s brand of Republicanism, set off the folks on the righteous right. Columnist Robert Novak wiped the foam from his lips long enough to assert that Teddy Roosevelt was little more than an enabling agent for the fledgling welfare state.
See what happens when you refer to the Wall Street gang as fools?
Mr. Novak and his sort parade their distrust of government as a virtue, though they tend to keep their skepticism in check when the subject turns to matters economic and financial. Government, they suggest, is forever in search of freedoms to regulate or dismantle. Put your faith in the free market, they say, and liberty will be yours (assuming, of course, that the free market doesn’t require that you work 100 hours a week for slave wages, and that the unregulated workplace doesn’t kill or maim you).
Of course, it ought to be self-evident that if Republicans are to run Congress and state governments and large cities, they can’t be motivated by mere hatred and distrust of government. They, like the Rough Rider himself, will have to come to view government as a means to achieve something, great or small, beyond the occasional tax cut or the privatization of some two-bit agency.
Rudolph Giuliani certainly is a far cry from Teddy Roosevelt (you won’t see this Mayor’s lips curl at the mention of Wall Street), but he clearly enjoys power, loves being in charge of something as vast and complicated as city government, and takes great pleasure in his government’s achievements. The Mayor is no welfare state liberal, but, unlike the politicians Mr. Novak worships, he is unabashed about using government as a positive force.
To cite the work of just one agency, the city’s Economic Development Corporation has been using the scorned mechanisms of government to nurture small businesses in economically depressed neighborhoods. A fair percentage of the corporation’s work has been with immigrant business owners: a Colombian immigrant (and Vietnam vet) who opened an elevator-parts shop in Long Island City; a Taiwanese immigrant looking to expand his small factory in College Point, Queens; a plastic-bag factory whose Dominican owner was looking for more space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. All benefited (with little fanfare) from the E.D.C.’s ability to use political and governmental power on behalf of an agreed-upon social good: jobs, jobs and more jobs.
According to E.D.C. figures, the Giuliani administration has retained 78,576 jobs since 1995 and has helped create 33,844 new jobs. Some deals have been better than others; still, it’s an impressive use of the tools at City Hall’s command.
Were it left to the stouthearted Republicans out yonder, government would stand by and let the market act on its own accord. Teddy Roosevelt’s successors know better.