Watching the first episode of PBS’s series on the Roosevelt family last night, I was struck once again by the notion that Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed himself to be a dedicated Republican, but didn’t act like one who is defined by today’s Grand Old Party.
Let’s call TR the original RINO — a Republican In Name Only.
The first part of “The Roosevelts” documentary produced by historian Ken Burns tells of TR’s ascendance to the presidency. He was the youngest man ever to assume the office. He got there by way of the assassination of President William McKinley.
He set out to bust up monopolies, rein in oversized companies, while making them pay their fair share of taxes. He didn’t believe business could build the country all by itself. Teddy Roosevelt believed in activist government.
TR used government muscle to secure land in Panama and begin construction of the Panama Canal. Is that an “infrastructure project” or what?
Imagine today’s Republican Party doing any of that. It wouldn’t happen. TR would be laughed out of the party that we’ve come to know and — in my case anyway — loathe with a passion.
“The Roosevelts” is going to be broadcast throughout the week. It will continue through TR’s post-presidential life and the battle he fought with his own Republican Party. He didn’t think it was “progressive” enough, so he launched a presidential bid in 1912 under the Bull Moose party banner. He failed, but laid the groundwork for what would become the modern progressive movement.
The series will chronicle the careers of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, two champions in their own right. They were dedicated Democrats.
Teddy Roosevelt, though, more or less broke the mold that used to define early-20th century Republicanism. What has emerged in the century that followed is a mere shadow of what it used to be.