Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Bull Moose

What a spectacle he must have been.

Standing there in Chicago that summer of 1912, no doubt flashing those big teeth and that famous grin, Theodore Roosevelt had done the unthinkable. He had bolted the Grand Old Party. Said good-bye to the corrupt do-nothings he believed had blocked his way to the nomination to save face for William Howard Taft, the man TR himself had picked as his successor when he left office four years earlier.

Cynical reporters there that day were even moved by the raw outpouring of emotions that greeted Roosevelt from the true believers. They had done it. Rid themselves of the shackles of the past to form a new Progressive party --- the Bull Moose Party. They would save America from turncoat Taft and the politically naive Woodrow Wilson.

But as Patricia O'Toole argues in her excellent new book, "When Trumpets Call," Roosevelt answered the bugler as much for personal ambition -- indeed more so -- than from any tidal wave of public outcry. TR, she says, often deceived himself, confusing his inner drive with the will of the people.

And yet TR's heart was in the right place.

"Roosevelt called for a party that would appeal to progressive-minded citizens, Democrats and Republicans alike, in every section of the country," O'Toole writes. "Such a party would live by two simple principles, he said: 'the people have the right to rule themselves,' and duty obliged them to "rule in a spirit of justice toward every man and every woman within our borders and to use the government so far as possible as an instrument for obtaining not merely political but industrial justice."

A blurb in one of the news magazines a few weeks ago said that President George W. Bush has been reading "When Trumpets Call." Apparently George W. is thinking about life after the White House.

If only he would take Roosevelt's words to heart while he's still there. Instead, Bush remains adrift, twisting in a malaise, a disappointment to conservatives and an antichrist to liberals.

TR's third party is like water to the thirsty soul, more so now than it must have been nearly a century ago. He was the last American giant -- an intellectual who read a book or two a day, an athlete who would often invite the best boxers of the day to the White House for a few rounds, a trust buster who called for industrial and social reform, a Nobel Prize winner who negotiated peace, and a hawk who paraded the Great White American naval Fleet around the world for all to see.

His kind has not been heard from again. And probably never will be. Especially not in Washington.

Where is that Bull Moose when we need him?


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