True Believer: TR, McCain, and Conservatism

By Boot, Max | World Affairs, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

True Believer: TR, McCain, and Conservatism

Boot, Max, World Affairs

Theodore Roosevelt is carved onto Mount Rushmore along with our greatest presidents. (At least the greatest as of 1927, when work on the monument began.) But does he belong in the conservative pantheon? John McCain thinks so. "I count myself as a conservative Republican," he told the New York Times, "yet I view it to a large degree in the Theodore Roosevelt mold." In some conservative circles this caveat deepens the suspicion that McCain may not be one of them. Writing in National Review Online, the Web site of the magazine that has defined mainstream conservatism for move than four decades, author and biographer Michael Knox Beran complains, "Far from allaying conservative fears, McCain can only add to them by trying to make a conservative of a man who, largely for reasons of expediency, embraced a host of dubious reforms, and who ended his public career by embracing the Progressive dream of a state strong enough to command the industry and commerce of the nation." A similar case was made in Bully Boy, a polemic published in 2006 by Cato Institute fellow Jim Powell. (Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt have come in for similar thrashings from Powell.) From the other side of the political spectrum, historian Douglas Brinkley opines, "Roosevelt today would be on the left," and New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes that TR "was a far, far cry from John McCain and today's G.O.P."

Is Roosevelt a proper model for today's conservatives? That question isn't easy to answer. For one, we have no commonly accepted definition of conservatism. There is, mercifully, no conservative Vatican to settle just who is and who is not of the faith. Conservatism, in fact, is not a faith at all but rather a disposition, and one that hardly requires adherence to a particular set of policy positions. If some doubt John McCain's conservative credentials, well, that does not make him all that different from Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, or Alexander Hamilton.

All of the above count as icons to most conservatives, indeed to most Americans, yet all were bitterly criticized from the right during their lifetimes--Reagan for not shrinking the size and scope of government and for negotiating with the Soviet Union, Lincoln for trampling on states' rights and individual rights, Hamilton for encouraging the growth of the federal government. Further, no successful politician has ever boasted the philosophical purity demanded by his own side. Even Barack Obama, the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007, now finds himself forced to verify his own liberal credentials.


Two new books shed an interesting light on the ideological attitudes of an earlier politician and, when consulted along with such classic studies as John Milton Cooper Jr's joint biography of Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, The Warrior and the Priest, they allow us to ponder the complex question of whether TR qualifies, in any sense of the term, as a conservative. The approaches are as different as their authors.

Joshua David Hawley, a young Yale Law School graduate clerking for Chief Justice John Roberts, has written Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness. The thesis of this meticulously researched, densely argued study runs counter to the conventional wisdom, popularized by Beran and many others over the years, that Roosevelt was above all an improviser, a man of emotion concocting policy by whim. On the contrary, Hawley argues, "Roosevelt was no crass intellectual opportunist." He developed a coherent political philosophy early in life that continued to guide him through to his death--a philosophy centered on "righteousness." He insisted on the primacy of individual character at home and the character of nations abroad, and in both cases he wanted the world to aspire to a loftier standard. Such ambitions do not fit naturally on the modern political spectrum, but in practical terms his views made TR more conservative than not, albeit with a reformist twist alien to "stand pat" Republicans then and now. …

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