When my sister-in-law elegantly wrapped my Christmas gift, Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Bully Pulpit, did she know that Theodore Roosevelt is my favorite activist president? And when Goodwin began digging deeply into the power of presidential homiletics, did she know that a community of political entrepreneurs might consider her new book a brilliant meditation about one of our patron saints?
As Goodwin points out, Teddy Roosevelt transformed the American presidency, left us a prodigious canon of reflections and writings on a wide range of subjects and was the inspiration for the teddy bear. He was a big, creative leader -- full stop. Roosevelt left many reform examples to choose from, but the one I like best is his lifelong passion for preserving America's natural resources. This showed the height of his political entrepreneurship.
You could say that Teddy launched his first start-up as a boy. It was kind of a shoebox natural history museum consisting of artifacts gathered from the grounds of the family compound on Long Island. Roosevelt studied nature his whole life, logging his experiences with wildlife in a throng of notebooks. As he got older, he published article after article on the beauty of the land and creatures throughout the United States. In 1887, Roosevelt co-founded the "Boone and Crockett Club," banding together with other enlightened hunters to propagate a re-emerging and more muscular version of "conservationism."
For Roosevelt, conservation and game hunting were not only compatible; they were completely intertwined. Teddy absolutely partook of his share -- and loved it. The "Rough Rider" said once: "No, I'm not a good shot, but I shoot often."
Several years before becoming president, Roosevelt for the first time, visited the Dakota Badlands territory for a big game hunting expedition. He was venturing out to see with his own eyes if the once-prodigious herds of bison were indeed tragically thinned by constant recreational hunting, mining, town settlement and other man-made indicators of progress.
Back then, bison were valuable for lots of reasons. Their hides covered settlers and Native Americans from freezing temperatures out west. Bison horns became cups. Sinew made good rope, and hooves were melted into glue. Bison dung was burned for heat. And, let's face it, there was a deep thrill hunting giant buffalo with newly invented high-caliber rifles.
The American Bison Society reports there were once 25-30 million bison scattered throughout the American Plains. Between Lewis and Clark's famous expedition to Missouri in the early 1800s and 1883, when Teddy Roosevelt made his pilgrimage to the Dakotas, the Bison population dropped. Exponentially.
By 1820, bison were wiped out east of the Mississippi River. By 1889, one census puts the number of bison at 1,091. From more than 25 million to barely over a thousand in less than a century. And it was all our doing.
Faced with the prospect of a game-depleated American terrain, Teddy Roosevelt was not paralyzed into inaction or thinking that this was someone else's problem. He went out to observe the destruction for himself and moved decisively into action. Like King Conservation himself, Teddy badgered, cajoled and lobbied the Washington elite to focus on nature. He was instrumental in getting Congress to pass, and President Grover Cleveland to sign, the Lacey Act of 1894 preserving wildlife in Yellowstone National Park. As president, he really got going. Using the power of his bully pulpit and laws on the books, Teddy created the U.S. Forest Service, 150 national forests, five national parks and drafted a blueprint for the later formed National Park Service.
By the time he was done as president in 1909, Roosevelt had increased preserved land in the United States from 40 million acres to more than 200 million. Teddy modeled political entrepreneurship as both private citizen and as president.
2014 is the starting gun for the next presidential campaign cycle. Political entrepreneurs are observing this election fermentation extra-close. The next president must be loud enough to be heard above a social media cacophony and the grinding sound of Washington gridlock. Our not-so-secret wish is that the next president be an aggressive, committed political reformer. Whether emerging from the right or left, this man or woman should seek to pattern the creativity, drive, and entrepreneurial spirit of Teddy Roosevelt -- and be dedicated to moving beyond the petty incrementalism that currently grips Washington.
Between now and Election Day 2016, an army of creative political entrepreneurs is forming that can bring organization, funding, and implementation to a massive national reform agenda if laid out properly by the new president. And our promise to you Doris Kearns Goodwin is that we will bring more to the fight than just our teddy bears.
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