Late last month, Vice President Mike Pence compared Donald Trump to former President Theodore Roosevelt.
“In President Donald Trump, the United States once again has a president whose vision, energy and can-do spirit is reminiscent of President Teddy Roosevelt,” said Pence at a ceremony at the Panama Canal.
The comparison is absurd. Donald Trump will surely go down in history as America’s worst president, displacing Warren Harding and Millard Fillmore at the bottom of the rankings. Theodore Roosevelt is typically ranked among the five best presidents, one step below George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Both TR and DJT came from wealthy New York families, but Roosevelt devoted his life to public service, while Trump single-mindedly pursued getting richer. Roosevelt was the nation’s youngest president, while Trump is its oldest. While a strong proponent of what was considered “manliness” in his era, Roosevelt was a devoted family man. Trump is a twice-divorced, thrice-married serial sexual predator whose relationships to his children seems to be based on their ability to promote the family brand and wealth.
Taking office at a time of rising literacy and the spread of newspapers, Roosevelt may have been the first “celebrity” president, but unlike our current president, he was also a man of intellectual and wide-ranging interests. A prolific writer, he authored 18 books, including volumes on national parks, foreign policy, nature, wildlife, ranching, naval history, an autobiography, and the four volume The Winning of the West about the American frontier. Trump can hardly read, much less write. All the books with his name on the cover were ghost-written and were all about the same topic: Donald Trump. They were self-promotional books designed to promote Trump’s brand and his grifter business activities. Tony Schwartz, who wrote every word of Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal, observed that Trump “has the smallest vocabulary of any person who has ever run for any kind of office, much less president.”
Whether you view the Panama Canal as an imperialist adventure or a beacon to expand global trade and cooperation, Roosevelt made the deal to get it built. Trump, who boasts of his deal-making abilities, can’t even get a wall built on America’s own border with Mexico.
Roosevelt volunteered to serve in the military during the Spanish-American War. Trump dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, not out of principle but out of selfishness and privilege.
Whereas Trump is one dimensional, a man with no capacity for self-reflection, a man driven entirely by ego rather than vision, Roosevelt was perhaps the nation’s most contradictory president. He was an imperialist and a racist who was also a strong advocate for consumer protection, the environment, business regulation and, on occasion, workers’ rights.
“Teddy” Roosevelt, as he was known, always seemed ready to go to war—against other countries, against business titans, and against his fellow Republicans. As president (1901–1909) and as the Progressive Party’s candidate for president (in 1912), he believed that a strong chief executive should use the power of the federal government to lift up the downtrodden and bring the country and the world into the new industrial age. In doing so, he significantly expanded the influence of the presidency.
In foreign policy, Roosevelt was an imperialist, a militarist, and a jingoist who sometimes justified his views with racist stereotypes. In the domestic arena, he was a reformer who usually sided with workers and consumers against big business. The force of his colorful personality often stirred controversy even among his allies. Because of this, he often missed opportunities to accomplish his goals. But in several key arenas—particularly taming the power of corporate America—he achieved important progressive triumphs that moved the country toward greater democracy and social justice.
Born to a wealthy family, Roosevelt (1858-1919) was frail and sickly as a child and was often bullied. In response, he began a strict regimen of exercise and weight lifting and developed a rugged physique as a teenager. For the rest of his life, he advocated the “strenuous life,” including exercise, mountain climbing, hunting, and frequent treks in the wilderness. He graduated from Harvard in 1880, briefly studied law at Columbia University, but dropped out to pursue politics. In 1881, at age 23, he won a seat in the New York Assembly as a Republican.
He lost a campaign for mayor but leveraged his connections into an appointment to the U.S. Civil Service Commission and then, in 1895, into an appointment to the presidency of the New York City Police Board. When Republican William McKinley was elected president in 1896, he reluctantly appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the navy to pay off a political favor. Roosevelt used the position to prepare the navy to invade Cuba and the Philippines in retaliation for the explosion of the US battleship Maine in Havana harbor, which Roosevelt and the American press blamed on Spain. Once the Spanish-American War began in 1898, Roosevelt resigned his post to command a volunteer cavalry division, known as the Rough Riders, in Cuba. He led a daring charge up San Juan Hill and returned a war hero. A prodigious self-promoter, he used his new celebrity to win the governorship of New York that year.
To make sure that Roosevelt did not run again for governor, New York’s Republican power brokers persuaded McKinley to make Roosevelt his vice presidential running mate in 1900. The vice presidency was viewed as a do-nothing position, but Roosevelt campaigned feverishly and helped McKinley defeat populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan by a huge margin. But in September 1901, only six months after taking office, McKinley was assassinated, making Roosevelt, at age 42, the youngest president in the nation’s history.
In foreign affairs, Roosevelt’s goal was to expand America’s fledgling empire, export its values, and increase its global influence, using diplomacy when possible but using force when necessary. Viewing the United States as the global police force, his motto was to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Under Roosevelt, the United States intervened in the Philippines, Panama, Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic), and elsewhere, but he also used diplomacy to settle the Russo-Japanese war and a colonial dispute among Germany, England, and France that led to France’s undisputed control over Morocco and, eventually, British control over Egypt.
Roosevelt became president at a time of rising racism and Jim Crow segregation as well as a large wave of immigrants from Asia, Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe, and ongoing tensions between the federal government and native Americans. He embraced many of the racist views of his era, but on this issue, too, he was full of contradictions. While serving as New York governor, Roosevelt frequently had black guests to dinner, and even invited some of them to sleep — views not widely accepted among people of his class background and political position. Reflecting the white supremacist “manifest destiny” views of the time, he justified U.S. imperialism with his belief that the superior white race had an obligation to lift up color around the world. He referred to white Americans as “the forward race,” who had the responsibility to raise the status of minorities through training “the backward race[s] in industrial efficiency, political capacity and domestic morality.” He believe that white people had a responsibility of “preserving the high civilization wrought out by its forefathers.”
But soon after taking office in 1901, Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington, the influential African American educator and his close adviser on race issues, to dine with his family at the White House. Previous presidents had invited African Americans to attended meetings at the White House, but none had ever invited an African-American to a meal, which for many Americans meant that blacks were equal to whites. For dining with Washington, TR was viciously criticized by Southern politicians and newspapers.
In 1905, soon after he had been elected president in his own right, Roosevelt spoke to the New York City Republican Club about the state of the nation’s race relations. He said that if “morality and thrift among the colored men can be raised,” then those same virtues among whites, would “rise to an even higher degree.” Roosevelt had adopted Washington’s gradualist and individualist approach to race relations rather than W.E.B. Du Bois’ more collective view of black advancement, but he also saw the fates of white and black Americans as intertwined, a step in finding common ground. He warned that “the debasement of the blacks will, in the end, carry with it [the] debasement of the whites.”
Roosevelt’s claim to a place in the progressive pantheon rests with his efforts to curb the growing power of America’s big corporations and to preserve America’s natural resources.
Roosevelt took office a time when unregulated capitalism was running rampant. It was a period of increasing concentration of wealth. Corporate power brokers known as Robber Barons controlled the banks, railroads, food, steel, and other major economic sectors. These big corporations generated great riches for the fortunate few, but at the expense of workers, many of them immigrants, who worked long hours, under dangerous conditions, for little pay. Corporations gouged consumers and corrupted politics with their money.
In his first message to Congress in December 1901, only two months after assuming the presidency, Roosevelt warned, “There is a widespread conviction in the minds of the American people that the great corporations known as the trusts are in certain of their features and tendencies hurtful to the general welfare.” He called for tougher business regulation and for the business world to be rid of its “crimes of cunning.”
These words understandably shook up the nation’s business leaders as well as most of Roosevelt’s fellow Republicans. The first sign that he was not bluffing came quickly. Without even telling his cabinet, he asked Attorney General Philander Knox to prepare a suit against the Northern Securities Company, a huge railroad trust run by J. P. Morgan, for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. Morgan, the nation’s most powerful capitalist, had contributed $10,000 to Roosevelt’s gubernatorial campaign in 1898 and had lots of friends in Congress. He quickly arranged to meet with Roosevelt, and he brought with him two of the most influential Senate Republicans, Marcus Hanna of Ohio and Chauncey Depew of New York, both with close ties to business. Roosevelt was willing to go toe to toe with Morgan to make a point: the president, representing the American people, was more powerful than corporations.
Fortunately for Roosevelt, the U.S. Supreme Court backed him up and ordered the company dismantled. He soon became known as a “trust buster,” the champion of the average American against big business. That reputation helped him win reelection in 1904 but alienated many other Republicans. The reality, though, was that the Northern Securities case was the high point of Roosevelt’s trust-busting. In his seven years as president, his administration filed forty-three other antitrust suits but won a major victory in only one, against the beef trust. The courts did not share his enthusiasm for breaking up big corporations.
Roosevelt scored much bigger victories trying to regulate corporations instead of breaking them up. Indeed, the public was probably more interested in gaining protection from corporate abuses against workers and consumers than in turning mega-trusts into smaller corporations.
Roosevelt was particularly impressed, and repulsed, by Upton Sinclair’s 1906 book The Jungle, which exposed the filthy and unsafe conditions in the meatpacking industry, conditions that endangered workers and consumers alike. Progressive reformers had tried for years to pass federal legislation to clean up these workplaces, but industry had too much clout. Once Roosevelt embraced the issue, he used all the powers of persuasion and publicity at his command. He pushed Congress to pass two landmark laws: the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. For the first time, the federal government took responsibility for the protection of consumes and the safety of America’s food and drugs. These laws, and the precedents they set, have had a much more lasting impact on American society than any of the antitrust laws.
Roosevelt also put his power and personality behind the Hepburn Act (1906) to increase the powers of the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate railroad companies’ shipping rates. When it appeared that the bill was dying in Congress because of pressure from the railroads, Roosevelt went on a speaking tour to whip up public support, knowing that the press would follow him and report his speeches and the audiences’ approval. The publicity worked, and Congress passed the legislation. Roosevelt was using the “bully pulpit,” a term he coined to describe how he took advantage of his position and personality to put issues on the agenda and mobilize public opinion.
Roosevelt’s experiences hiking and mountain climbing gave him an appreciation for wilderness that was rare at a time when most Americans thought their destiny was to exploit nature and expand the frontier.
“We do not intend that our natural resources shall be exploited by the few against the interests of the many,” he wrote. He was the first president to make conservation a national priority. He fought for and signed the 1902 Newlands Reclamation Act, which used funds from the sales of federal lands to build reservoirs and irrigation works to support agriculture in the West. He issued executive orders to create 150 new national forests, which expanded the size of protected land from 42 million to 172 million acres. He also created five national parks, eighteen national monuments, and fifty-one wildlife refuges.
In 1902, when 140,000 Pennsylvania coal miners went on strike, Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to negotiate a settlement. He feared a major coal shortage in the middle of winter and escalating heating costs. He had no official authority to intervene, but that did not stop him, for he sensed that the public wanted a strong president who would get his hands dirty solving problems.
The miner owners had a long tradition of using private thugs and violence to destroy labor unions. George F. Baer, the president of one of the largest Pennsylvania coal companies, once told a clergyman that “the rights and interests of the laboring man” would best be protected “not by labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom had given control of the property interests of the country.” Not surprisingly, Baer refused to negotiate.
Roosevelt had not been particularly sympathetic to labor unions, but in the face of the potential national crisis, he lost patience with the mine owners. The owners refused his invitation to meet union leaders at the White House. They wanted Roosevelt to send federal troops to break the strike and force the miners back to work. Instead, he threatened to use troops to seize the mines and operate them under government auspices. By late October, with both the midterm elections and cold weather fast approaching, Roosevelt got the two sides to settle their differences, with the miners winning a substantial pay increase. Roosevelt called the agreement a “square deal” for both sides, and the term soon became the watchword for his domestic agenda.
True to his word, Roosevelt did not run for reelection in 1908. But four years later, when he was still only 54 years old, the itch had not subsided, and he decided to challenge President William Howard Taft, an ally of big business, for the Republican nomination. When he lost, he and supporters bolted from the Republican Party and formed the Progressive Party, often known as the Bull Moose Party.
With California governor Hiram Johnson as his running mate, Roosevelt campaigned on a “new nationalism” platform of economic and social reform, including women’s suffrage, a minimum wage for women, an eight-hour workday, a system of old-age insurance, a national health service, a federal securities commission, and the direct election of US senators. The 1912 election pitted Roosevelt against Taft, New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson (the Democratic candidate), and Socialist Eugene Debs. Wilson won 41.9 percent of the vote to Roosevelt’s 27.4 percent, Taft’s 23.1 percent, and Debs’s 6 percent. By splitting the Republican vote with Taft, Roosevelt essentially handed the presidency to Wilson.
It was not until his distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933 that America would see another president with the personality and political skills to build on Theodore Roosevelt’s progressive foundation.
Over the years, that progressive tradition has won many victories for civil rights, women’s rights, environmental and consumer protection, workers’ rights, immigrant rights, reducing poverty, and improving public education, among others. Rather than build on that legacy, Trump is trying to reverse it.
Theodore Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to promote a more progressive America. Donald Trump is just a bully and bullshit artist.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).