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TR Speaks!

October 27, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor
Theodore Roosevelt, Pundit

THE former president, born 150 years ago today, was interviewed in his childhood home at 28 East 20th Street. He has long been a ghostly presence there. The house is now the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. Due to Roosevelt’s great age, it is difficult to tell how well he hears contemporary questions. But he is as forceful as ever in expressing himself. His statements below are drawn from the historic record and are uncut except when interrupted by his interviewer.

Q. Happy birthday, Mr. President! Or do you prefer being called Colonel?

ROOSEVELT I’ve had the title of president once — having it twice means nothing except peril to whatever reputation I achieved the first time.

Q. “Colonel,” then. Do you think the Congress elected two years ago as a foil to the Bush administration has fulfilled its mandate?

A. I am heartsick over the delay, the blundering, the fatuous and complacent inefficiency and the effort to substitute glittering rhetoric for action.

Q. Do you blame the House Democratic majority?

A. A goodly number of senators, even of my own party, have shown about as much backbone as so many angleworms.

Q. I hope that doesn’t include the pair running for the presidency! What do you think of Senator John McCain? He often cites you as a role model.

A. He is evidently a man who takes color from his surroundings.

Q. Weren’t you just as unpredictable in your time?

A. (laughing) They say that nothing is as independent as a hog on ice. If he doesn’t want to stand up, he can lie down.

Q. Mr. McCain has always prided himself on his independence. At least, until he began to take direction from chief executives and retired generals —

A. But the signs now are that these advisers have themselves awakened to the fact that they have almost ruined him.

Q. Does his vow to give Joe the Plumber a tax break remind you of Reaganomics?

A. This is merely the plan, already tested and found wanting, of giving prosperity to the big men on top, and trusting to their mercy to let something leak through to the mass of their countrymen below — which, in effect, means that there shall be no attempt to regulate the ferocious scramble in which greed and cunning reap the largest rewards.

Q. In Washington today, Colonel, you’re increasingly seen as the father of centralized, executive, regulatory control.

A. Great corporations exist only because they are created and safeguarded by our institutions; and it is therefore our right and duty to see that they work in harmony with these institutions.

Q. Especially now that we’ve seen the end of another age of laissez-faire economics?

A. These new conditions make it necessary to shackle cunning, as in the past we have shackled force. The vast individual and corporate fortunes, the vast combinations of capital —

Q. Even vaster in your day! John D. Rockefeller was richer than Bill Gates, dollar for dollar.

A. Quite right. (He dislikes being interrupted.) And please, let this now be as much of a monologue as possible.

Q. Excuse me, you were saying that vast combinations of capital ...

A. ... create new conditions, and necessitate a change from the old attitude of the state and the nation toward the rules regulating the acquisition and untrammeled business use of property.

Q. So you approve of the federal bailout?

A. I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

Q. Should we condone the huge severance packages paid to executives of rescued corporations?

A. There is need in business, as in most other forms of human activity, of the great guiding intelligences. Their places cannot be supplied by any number of lesser intelligences. It is a good thing that they should have ample recognition, ample reward. But we must not transfer our admiration to the reward instead of to the deed rewarded; and if what should be the reward exists without the service having been rendered, then admiration will come only from those who are mean of soul.

Q. So we should withhold our envy of Richard Fuld, the chairman of Lehman Brothers, for taking home half a billion before his company went down?

A. Envy and arrogance are the two opposite sides of the same black crystal.

Q. Extraordinary image, Colonel. What’s your impression of Barack Obama?

A. Unless I am greatly mistaken, the people have made up their mind that they wish some new instrument.

Q. You’re not afraid that he’s primarily a man of words? Like Woodrow Wilson, whom you once called a “Byzantine logothete”?

A. It is highly desirable that a leader of opinion in a democracy should be able to state his views clearly and convincingly.

Q. Not Mr. McCain’s strong point!

A. Some excellent public servants have not the gift at all, and must rely upon their deeds to speak for them; and unless the oratory does represent genuine conviction, based on good common sense and able to be translated into efficient performance, then the better the oratory the greater the damage to the public it deceives.

Q. Mr. McCain might argue that his life of service and suffering is eloquence enough. Have you read his autobiography?

A. I should like to have it circulated as a tract among an immense multitude of philanthropists, congressmen, newspaper editors, publicists, softheaded mothers and other people of sorts who think that life ought to consist of perpetual shrinking from effort, danger and pain.

Q. Has Mr. Obama not suffered too? Not at the heroic level of Mr. McCain, but in transcending centuries of race prejudice to become a viable presidential candidate — only to be nearly stopped by Hillary Clinton!

A. I think that he has learned some bitter lessons, and that independently of outside pressure he will try to act with greater firmness, and to look at things more from the standpoint of the interests of the people, and less from that of a technical lawyer —

Q. “Technical,” Colonel? He took his law degree straight onto the streets of Chicago and applied it to social problems.

A. He may and probably will turn out to be a perfectly respectable president, whose achievements will be disheartening compared with what we had expected, but who nevertheless will have done well enough to justify us in renominating him — for you must remember that to renominate him would be a very serious thing, only to be justified by really strong reasons.

Q. He doesn’t have Mr. McCain’s foreign policy experience. As president, how would he personify us around the world?

A. It always pays for a nation to be a gentleman.

Q. There’ll be Joe Biden to counsel him, of course. Assuming Mr. Obama can keep track of what he’s saying.

A. (laughing) You can’t nail marmalade against a wall.

Q. Talking of foreign policy, what do you think of Mr. McCain’s choice of a female running mate?

A. Times have changed (sigh). It is entirely inexcusable, however, to try to combine the unready hand with the unbridled tongue.

Q. How will you feel if Sarah Palin is elected?

A. I shall feel exactly the way a very small frog looks when it swallows a beetle the size of itself, with extremely stiff legs.

Q. What’s your impression of President Bush these days?

A. (suddenly serious) He looks like Judas, but unlike that gentleman has no capacity for remorse.

Q. Is that the best you can say of him?

A. I wish him well, but I wish him well at a good distance from me.

Q. One last question, Colonel. If you were campaigning now, would you still call yourself a Republican?

A. (after a long pause) No.

Edmund Morris is working on the third and final volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt.
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