Truth to Executive Power

By Woods, Thomas E., Jr. | The American Conservative, November 2, 2006 | Go to article overview

Truth to Executive Power


Woods, Thomas E., Jr., The American Conservative


Truth to Executive Power

[Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt's Legacy, Jim Powell, Crown Forum, 336 pages]

A FAIRLY RELIABLE rule of thumb when it comes to books on history and politics is that whatever Publishers Weekly advises you to do, spare no expense in doing the exact opposite.

An excellent case in point is Jim Powell's new book, Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt's Legacy. Its author, Publishers Weekly informs us, "sees Roosevelt as a dangerous tyrant who sought to expand the power of the executive office in order to promote his own interests." Powell's book is "irresponsible revisionism at its worst."

Now you might think Publishers Weekly, in the Age of Bush, would be more inclined than usual to look with sympathy on a book that holds the executive branch, and those who contributed to its expansion, up to fresh scrutiny, but being a 21st-century liberal means attributing all government wickedness to the uniquely perverse George W. Bush. The possibility that the Source of All Iniquity may be building upon precedents set by his predecessors, including those who our intellectual class has told us belong to the ranks of our "great presidents," is to be rejected with a kind of indignant horror.

Powell's study of TR is truly withering. It's one thing to argue that taxes are too high, that eminent domain has been abused, or that maybe Bill Clinton shouldn't have bombed that pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. What's so "irresponsible" about Powell's book is that it goes well beyond obvious cases like these and looks critically even at those government initiatives that everyone knows are indispensable and wonderful and that are taught to schoolchildren as evidence of the marvels of democracy.

Responsible people stick to the script: the state protects you, the state fosters prosperity, the state pursues justice, and without the state every one of you would revert instantly to barbarism. The cartoon version of TR's presidency that Powell seeks to overturn reinforces these civic myths, which is why our betters so often trot him out as a "great" or "near-great" president.

Thus the very accomplishments that the standard text cites on behalf of TR's greatness are what Powell uses to hang him. It hasn't exactly hurt TR's reputation that arguments on his behalf fit neatly into the space of a bumper sticker ("He made our food safe!" "He tamed big business!" "He protected the environment!"), while the inevitably more nuanced and accurate rendition of these historical episodes requires many pages of explanation. That, at last, is what Jim Powell has done in Bully Boy.

Decades before Powell's book there was Henry Pringle's unflattering study, Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography, but Pringle's analysis was uneven, and in any case his book is long out of print. Powell's book differs from Pringle's in that, rather than being merely an unfavorable biography, it is a self-conscious critique of Roosevelt and his legacy.

That critique is especially refreshing given the cross-ideological adulation that TR has enjoyed for a full century. The neoconservative Right loves him because in TR's rhetoric and leadership style they perceive the birth pangs of "national greatness conservatism," while the hopeless Left, which weeps over the Bush administration's lawlessness, can be counted on to cheer the lawlessness of TR because, well, his target was big business.

With certain New Left exceptions, moreover, the Left typically celebrates TR's contributions to the federal regulatory apparatus, quaintly taking the comic-book version of the story-why, these agencies were established by disinterested public-sector crusaders to protect the public from unscrupulous businessmen!-at face value. (Why the Left can be withering on the official rationales given for American foreign policy but views domestic policy with an almost childlike confidence in paternal government is a good question. …

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