You Are No Theodore Roosevelt

by Evan Isaacson

September 05, 2017

Last month, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke submitted his long-anticipated report to President Trump that recommends dismantling and looting some of America's treasured monuments and antiquities. (This was interesting timing, given that the president stood firmly behind the preservation of some other, far less-cherished monuments.)

In anticipation of the report, Theodore Roosevelt IV, the 26th president's great-grandson, wrote a letter to the editor in the Houston Chronicle telling Zinke that his actions have failed to live up to the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt, whom the Secretary of the Interior claims to admire. The lifelong Republican wrote that, in stark contrast to Zinke and Trump, his great-grandfather had a "fierce determination to take on profiteers who were seeking to exploit public lands for private gains."

Picking up where Roosevelt IV left off, it is worth exploring this point a little further, as it reveals perhaps the most striking distinction between two Republican presidencies only a little more than a century apart. At first glance, a superficial comparison of Donald Trump and Teddy Roosevelt is quite easy to make. Both were wealthy, bombastic, trust fund kids from New York, helped in their elections by surprising levels of populist support from America's heartland.

But this is where the similarities end.

Teddy Roosevelt's presidency marked the zenith of the progressive reform movement. Roosevelt's Republican Party – the one that started with Lincoln and was carried on by Grant, Taft (in his earlier years), and Roosevelt – was the party of intelligent policymaking, of abolitionism, and of a more expansive role of the federal government in the protection of civil rights.

Roosevelt carried forward a progressive agenda that included attempting to bring about a more just allocation of the nation's rising wealth between labor and capital, regulating railroads and corporate giants, and strengthening the hand of government by promoting regulation in the public interest against the abuses of the nation's massive trusts.

To be sure, the Republicans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had their own brand of corrupt machine politics that backed corporate wealth over the public interest. The U.S. Senate at the turn of the 20th century was run by a cabal of machine Republicans under kingmaker Mark Hannah, whose leadership was described by one of the era's leading reporters as "the management of the American people in the interest of the American businessman for the profit of American business and politics."

But Roosevelt had dedicated his career to pushing corrupt, corporate-dominated, machine politics out of power and was not about to back down to the corrupt leaders of the conservative wing of his party. Instead, he pursued the fight for his progressive agenda with what one contemporary journalist described as "full publicity, strict enforcement of the law, and utter disregard of partisan political considerations."

Would anyone today expect to hear President Trump or any official in his administration utter these words from Teddy Roosevelt? "We Republicans hold the just balance and set our faces as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other." Much to the contrary, not a week goes by without a demagogic rant by the president against public institutions, those who support governance in the public interest, or his favorite target, the press. Roosevelt, by contrast, maintained a famously close relationship with the leading reporters of the era, whom he recognized as a potent weapon in shining a light on the crippling influence of political and corporate greed and corruption.

But what makes Roosevelt's interest in protecting America's natural heritage so astonishing and so wrapped up in his historic legacy is that it was a fight he largely took on himself. With so many battles raging in the progressive movement's expansive war in the early 20th century, few expected that Roosevelt would open a new front.

In the midst of Roosevelt's fight with the trusts, he pivoted, suddenly turning his vision for greater federal authority to the preservation of some of the landscapes he fell in love with during his younger years. He recognized that immediate action was needed to protect lands that he believed should belong to all Americans from exploitation by private interests.

In fact, in many respects, the beginning of America's long history of preserving public lands is precisely the inverse of the policies of the Trump administration and its most prominent natural resource manager, Secretary Zinke. Roosevelt took unprecedented and historic actions to create public lands protections, and many of his successors have followed suit. More than a dozen presidents since Roosevelt have designated dozens of national monuments, for example.

Consistent with Trump's executive orders, Zinke has embarked on a frenzied effort to remove constraints on development of our public lands and to serve the short-term narrow interests of the energy industry by opening them up to fossil fuel extraction, regardless of the need for such resources or the impacts on the integrity of invaluable ecological or cultural resources.

To his opponents, Roosevelt made no apology in employing expansive federal powers to protect lands from private exploitation or economic development. "There is nothing more practical in the end," Roosevelt argued, "than the preservation of beauty, than the preservation of anything that appeals to the higher emotions of mankind." Trump and Zinke likewise offer no apologies for the elevation of the corporate interests of their energy industry allies over those of the American people who are the owners and beneficiaries of the national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and other public lands that the administration seems intent on plundering and defacing.

Of course, Theodore Roosevelt was far from perfect. Many of his words and actions can only be explained through the lens of the period in which he lived and governed. But we have anointed Teddy Roosevelt to the pantheon of American leaders because of his relentless dedication to advancing the public interest and his courageous fight against political and corporate corruption.

And that is why Zinke and Trump's efforts to reverse a key aspect of Teddy Roosevelt's legacy are emblematic of all that is wrong with this administration.

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Evan Isaacson, J.D., is a CPR Policy Analyst. He joined the organization in 2015 to work on its Chesapeake Bay program, having previously worked as a policy analyst at the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

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