Before he became president, he was a war hero, a charismatic leader of men; he was a maverick in a conservative party; he drew strong support from independents; he was quite willing to face the interest groups in his search for reform legislation; and he was a traditionalist in his respect for American institutions. It sounds like one is talking about John McCain, but it is also a summary of the career of Theodore Roosevelt.
Teddy was one of the most famous American adventurers to cut his teeth in the Wild West badlands and the hero of the charge of San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. Luckily for him (and probably the Spanish) he was never a long term prisoner of war as McCain was in Vietnam. But they loved the military life and were deeply patriotic men.
A graduate of Harvard, Teddy came from a professional family of some wealth. He was a young naturalist and also an early writer of history and biography. His work is still of interest to specialists. McCain was kind of a cut-up in the academy, but he took the military life serious.
Teddy was a maverick, which in his time meant being a progressive who wished to use the powers of government to curtail the new big business concentrations.
McCain is seen as a maverick because he supports humane immigration laws, the curtailment of PAC money, and an end to earmarks. Both have earned the disdain of members of their Republican parties.
When he became governor of New York, conservatives hoped to put TR on the shelf, but they could not control the volcano. So they put him into the hole marked Vice President under President William McKinley hoping that he would vanish into obscurity. Mark Hanna cried out that that madman would be only one life away; he was right. TR regarded the presidency as a bully pulpit, one from which to exert moral leadership. McCain insists on using his Senate seat to do that too-even to the extent of leading the charge for greater ties with his old enemy, Communist Vietnam.
Almost single handedly TR brought progressivism into national politics and into the conservative Republican Party. He sought out the ideas of intellectuals, for he was one of them; he sought out the feelings of black leaders, most especially Booker T. Washington; he sought out the support of labor unions and laboring men. McCain has worked well with Democrats, even liberals like Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold.
TR could explode in frustration, but he generally remained the patrician, the class into which he was bred. However, he would call his once friend, William Howard Taft, a “puzzlewit” once and criticized those who refused to buy into his bellicose foreign policy such as Woodrow Wilson. John McCain is also a man of quick temper who doesn’t tolerate fools, a critical weakness in politics.
TR is the youngest president we have ever had; McCain, if elected, would be our oldest. Both seem to enjoy politics and both seem to like personal contact with the people.
When TR was having dinner once, and people began to crowd outside the large window of the restaurant. The owners started to close the curtains, until Roosevelt bellowed, “Let the people see their president eat!”
John McCain, in the long 2008 campaign, not only takes questions but welcomes a follow up dialogue with the interrogators. In democratic politics, one must not only like THE PEOPLE, but must also like people.
They both share a great sense of publicity. In dealing with the media of their time, neither would dodge a question, or neglect voters for the attention of intermediaries. Thus, both drew good crowds wherever they went.
On the other side of things, both had a heightened desire to use the military option in the international arena. TR said that one should speak softly and carry a big stick, though he really did the opposite. He had few troops and a limited navy, but he insisted on intervening in the world. As he grew older, he became increasingly angry at the pacifist tendencies of Woodrow Wilson who tried to keep the nation out of World War I. He actually wanted to drag his weary body into military service, but the generals stopped that craziness. McCain is also too prone to go to war and to use troops. He is one of the major supporters of a continued long term commitment to waging war in Iraq, even to the ludicrous point of saying that the USA would stay there a century if it had to.
Like all of us, these two colorful men have the vices of their virtues, and as we look for a president we have to understand them and the historical analogies that might be useful to our understanding.
Michael P. Riccards is Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey.