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The Crack-Up: Teddy Roosevelt's Complicated Legacy, with Patty O'Toole

January 8, 2019

Teddy Roosevelt in 1910. CREDIT: American Press Association / Public Domain

This podcast references O'Toole's New York Times article on Theodore Roosevelt, which was published on January 6, 2019. 

TED WIDMER: From the Carnegie Council in New York City, this is Ted Widmer. Today's podcast is part of a special series about the events of 1919, a year that in many ways shaped the 20th century and the modern world.

I'm delighted to be talking to the distinguished historian Patricia O'Toole, who has written a wonderful piece about Theodore Roosevelt on the 100th anniversary of his death in The New York Times. Welcome, Patty. Great to be talking to you.

PATTY O'TOOLE: Thanks for having me, Ted.

TED WIDMER: Can you tell us about your piece that appeared and what you were trying to say?

PATTY O'TOOLE: What I was trying to do is talk about why we remember Theodore Roosevelt and then introduce an idea about him that as far as I know no one was written a book about—it just gets mentioned in passing—and that is that throughout his public life he had a really strong commitment to trying to improve the health of the American people, first when he was in the New York State Assembly and then when he was governor, and even in his service in the Spanish-American War, and then when he was president.

This is mostly an untold story because he didn't have very much luck. Congress was against him in most social legislation, so the story has kind of fallen by the wayside. But it's a wonderful story about perseverance in a worthy cause.

TED WIDMER: It sounds a little surprising that a Republican president was a leader in health reform. Was that unusual for the GOP of that period, or was it equally unlikely that a Democratic president would have done the same thing?

PATTY O'TOOLE: There was not a lot of appetite in either party for doing such a thing. TR was a Republican, but he counted himself a progressive Republican, and a lot of progressives on the Republican side and somewhat in the North on the Democratic side allied themselves with all the social reformers who turned up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in New York, dealing with the problems of industrialization and the problems of having a huge influx of immigration. So there are all kinds of health challenges, poverty challenges, housing challenges, and all of this stuff is kind of boiling away, and he was very interested in these reformers.

TED WIDMER: It's so interesting and so surprising because he grows up in such privileged circumstances, but why did he get interested in health care and in other kinds of urban reform?

PATTY O'TOOLE: One of the interesting things about him is he did grow up in wealth and privilege. Those were the two high cards that he was dealt when he was born.

But his long suit was this childhood illness. Lots of people know the story about how he had asthma; he was this very weak little boy, and he succeeded in making himself strong. But usually that's where the story ends. We have this image of Theodore Roosevelt as this strong man on a horse fighting grizzly bears in the West and charging up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War and with a big stick in foreign policy. Kind of buried in all of that is this other side of him. I think that he never forgot what it was like to be weak, and so he cared a lot about people who could not thrive on their own for reasons beyond their control, whether it was poverty or old age or some sudden catastrophe like the loss of a breadwinner in a family.

He got this in part I think from being sick, but also his father was supposed to carry on the family business, but the father was not a very business-minded kind of guy. He was much more interested in the charitable side of life in New York, services for the needy, and also starting great institutions like the American Museum of Natural History. He was involved in many, many things like that. So TR grew up in this home that was not only wealthy and privileged, but it had a real concern for the have-nots.

TED WIDMER: And New York at that time is a city of both great poverty and great wealth, but you don't hear very often about the wealthy New Yorkers even noticing their fellow New Yorkers, and yet somehow TR did. He got out there and he noticed poverty. How did that begin to happen?

PATTY O'TOOLE: He did. He was elected to the New York State Assembly when he was 23. Samuel Gompers was a very young labor organizer in those days, and he was up in Albany because he had a measure that he wanted the legislature to pass. Cigars were made in those days mostly at home in these tenement apartments, and Gompers wanted the legislature to pass a ban forbidding the home manufacture of cigars because if you were exposed for a long time to raw tobacco it caused a lot of chronic and serious illnesses, lung things, skin things, and eye things.

Roosevelt is this young aristocrat and he's representing the silk-stocking district of Manhattan in New York and is kind of a laissez-faire guy—that's how he has been brought up, that government shouldn't interfere in business—so he's expecting to support this ban, and Gompers said, "Will you please come with me to the tenements on the Lower East Side and let me show you around?"

He has this tour of the tenements, and he's just appalled by seeing whole families suffering from these diseases. The visits have changed his mind, and he goes back to Albany and puts together this measure to get a ban on the home manufacture of cigars. He manages to persuade the legislature to support it. The governor signs it, and it goes into effect. So he thinks he has this nice victory for social justice and is doing something good for the unfortunate. Then the court threw it out saying that it violated the sanctity of home. The courts of this era are very much against social legislation. They see it as an infringement on individual liberties.

This happens all the time with strikes and with measures to prevent the exploitation of workers and other areas. The rulings are always for not doing anything in these fields, so that was a force that Roosevelt was up against, not just when he was a young man but throughout his presidency.

Then in the 1880s and the 1890s he met a number of women—like Lillian Wald at the Settlement House on Henry Street and others, both men and women—who were working to alleviate some of these urban problems that were a result of changing industrial conditions and the great influx of immigrants. He learned a lot from them, and he valued their advice. So he's collaborating with women from a very early age.

TED WIDMER: Then, even as governor and then president he kept that ethical set of priorities and that empathy with Americans very different from himself, right?

PATTY O'TOOLE: Absolutely, absolutely.

The one place where it's different I think is in foreign policy, and there his mindset was we were on the cusp of becoming a world power after the Spanish-American War. Even though that was a very small scuffle that lasted for only 10 weeks, it kicked Spain out of the New World and gave us some possessions in the Caribbean. We had already made Hawaii a territory, and as a result of the Spanish-American War we acquired Guam and the Philippines.

Those things plus when he in 1903 seized Panama away from Colombia—it's without much sympathy for the peoples of those countries. He didn't want to wipe them out by any means, but he was behaving like a great power: "We're taking this territory. We're going to control it, and it's essential to American power."

He brings one set of values—he was principled about it, but the principles were about national interest and accumulating power, they weren't about "love thy neighbor."

TED WIDMER: It's interesting to draw that distinction. I'm wondering if there were ethical problems in foreign policy where he was a little more sensitive to the plight of weak peoples like refugees or Armenians having a hard time under the Ottomans or other defeated peoples. Is there evidence of that anywhere in his foreign policy?

PATTY O'TOOLE: Usually in those situations he's thinking about the empires that control these places. There was a crisis in Morocco, and it involved the French and the Germans really, so he's getting them not to go to war. That was a big emphasis with him. He won a Nobel Peace Prize very early on for bringing the Russians and the Japanese together to stop the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905.

In the territories where we had territorial governors, such as Puerto Rico and for a while Cuba and also the Philippines, there were some progressive experiments that were tried there. What's interesting about them is that they were things that he felt he could not ever convince Congress to pass here, but you could try them out in these other territories.

TED WIDMER: Like a laboratory.

PATTY O'TOOLE: Exactly. In Puerto Rico, for example, they instituted the eight-hour day long before that became standard in the United States. Also, universal education, universal public school in Puerto Rico.

TED WIDMER: Fascinating.

PATTY O'TOOLE: Yes. In the Philippines there was an opium ban that set a precedent that turned out to be important later when the United States decided it needed some laws to tamp down the international traffic in drugs. So "laboratory" is exactly the right word.

TED WIDMER: It's interesting to note, as I have, that Democrats today feel pretty positively about TR, and Republicans don't disown him, but they don't celebrate him quite as much. Would you agree with that? Are there exceptions to that?

PATTY O'TOOLE: He's a character where because there is such a strong distinction between foreign policy and domestic policy, I think his domestic ambitions, a lot of them—he had some luck in persuading Congress to regulate business, and that's something that would be on any Democratic agenda certainly. I wouldn't be surprised, for example, if Elizabeth Warren were an admirer of what TR tried to do in terms of taming the trusts and just getting more regulatory authority over business in terms of, for example, the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. But I don't think Democrats would necessarily admire his foreign policy because the big stick was such a prominent part of it.

And Republicans? I don't know that Republicans would admire his foreign policy either because in spite of his emphasis on getting the United States to great-power status he was a national interest man, so in that sense that would resonate I think with certain Republicans today who have nationalism rather than internationalism in the foreground. But he very much believed in cooperating with international institutions. The United States under Theodore Roosevelt was the first country to send an issue to arbitration at The Hague. So he very much believed in cooperating with other powers but always having the interests of the United States first and foremost.

He said an interesting thing about nationalism. After World War I we could see the damage that hypernationalism had done. It was a main cause of World War I. But Roosevelt looked at it—he's thinking of an earlier time, of course—and he thought that nationalism was "the feeling you have for your family, and internationalism is the feeling you have for your neighbors."

TED WIDMER: That's very helpful.

PATTY O'TOOLE: In other words, most people would always put the interest of their family ahead of the interests of their neighbors. But he didn't say, "Family is everything and forget everybody else." He wanted cooperation in the world. But he also wanted the great powers to run the world.

TED WIDMER: Right.

It's unfair of me to ask you an ahistorical question, but how do you think TR would fare in today's very complicated political landscape?

PATTY O'TOOLE: I think he would have no sympathy at all with the present Republican regime. I think he would think it was—even if he still had his mindset of when he was alive and didn't know all the things that had happened between then and now, he would find the desire not to cooperate, the desire to retreat just mindless.

TED WIDMER: Yes. It seems like the quality you focus on in this piece, which is the ability to see other kinds of Americans and empathize with them, is something we could use more of in today's politics.

PATTY O'TOOLE: Yes. Also, I think he would be making arguments about why it's in our self-interest to cooperate with other nations. Plenty of people are making those arguments now, but it's like talking to a wall.

TED WIDMER: Right.

You're a very valuable historian to all of us who love history because you've worked hard on Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. There are often pretty simplistic summaries of each—Wilson is an idealist and Roosevelt is a pragmatist—but you've studied each so much that you can help us get through the stereotypes into the real men themselves.

Have your feelings about them changed during the many years you've written about each person?

PATTY O'TOOLE: That's a really good question. I think my feelings have changed, and it's the result of learning more and thinking more and just stopping to consider, because the more you know, the more—one hopes—nuanced your judgments are.

I think it's unfair to tag Wilson entirely as an idealist. He understood that even when you're shooting for the stars—which he certainly was with his idea of international cooperation and an organization like the League of Nations—that it can only be worked out in practical terms.

At the Paris Peace Conference, which also we will be celebrating the centennial of that a little way down the line this year—maybe "celebrating" isn't the right word since the peace treaty didn't turn out so well—Lloyd George and Clemenceau found him very moralistic, and Clemenceau said at one point it was like talking to Jesus Christ when you were talking to Wilson. Wilson was kind of surprised by that. He said: "No, no, no. I don't follow Jesus Christ in these things because he didn't have practical solutions for things. He set out these ideals." Wilson was very much aware that you have these ideals and you call on your higher self, and a good leader tries to inspire the nation to higher things than self-interest. But he knew that you had to work this out in practical terms.

Theodore Roosevelt, I think it's fair to say, is different from Wilson in that he starts with the pragmatic rather than the ideal, but he was in his own way a very idealistic person who wanted Americans to rise to their new responsibilities in the world and believed very much—much more than Wilson—in helping the unfortunate and the sick, for example.

TED WIDMER: Patty, that is such a thoughtful answer, and we're really grateful that you gave us this time today. Thank you for the piece, too, which I hope will get a huge readership. We need more pieces like that.

PATTY O'TOOLE: Thanks so much. It was a great pleasure, Ted.

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