There is much Washington could learn from studying Theodore Roosevelt. Paying little regard to either the Republican or Democratic bosses, he was a natural maverick who did what he thought was right. A passionate believer in technology, TR, in 1902, became the first President to ride in an automobile something for which at the time, he was praised by the newspapers as an act of courage and foresight.
TR was also a deep believer in the moral power of reform. He was a reform police commissioner in New York City, a reform leader of the Civil Service Commission and a reform Governor of New York. He knew that modern society required honesty, transparency and accountability. His commitment to reform was so great that the New York Republican bosses promoted him for the Vice Presidency simply to get him out of Albany. Little did they know what a reformer they were about to foist on the nation.
After less than a year as Vice President, TR found himself the youngest President in American history, after President William McKinley was assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. As Mark Hanna, the leading Republican politician of the era lamented, "Now look that damn cowboy is president."
One area of reform that Republicans and Democrats alike could learn from was TR's approach to the environment. He understood that conservative and conservation have the same root and he was passionately committed to conserving America's natural resources for future generations. Most Republicans would do well to study his commitment to national parks, national forests, and the management of the natural world. On the other hand, Democrats would do just as well to note that Theodore Roosevelt saw man as part of nature and not as its opponent. As a rancher, big game hunter, fisherman and perhaps the most outdoor President in American history, TR believed that conservation included land use and not merely its preservation. I believe he would have resoundingly advocated a multiple use approach to Federal lands.
TR was President during a period of enormous stress over immigration and the meaning of being an American. He was unequivocally for control of immigration and for encouraging immigrants who wanted to be American while opposing those who would radically change America. As TR put it, "In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American. . . . There can be no divided allegiance here."
TR was also a leader in America's emergence as a world power. As a young political leader he supported the Navy League which advocated a big ship Navy capable of projecting American power across the world. As the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at that time the second highest job in the Navy he advocated war with Spain over Cuba and did all he could prepare Commodore Dewey's fleet so it could take the Philippines. When war came he resigned from his Washington desk job and formed a volunteer group of polo players and Western cowboys, including Native Americans, who became known as TR's "Rough Riders". Their great moment in the sun came in the Battle of San Juan Heights. (It wasn't actually San Juan Hill they charged up.) In typical TR fashion, he brought with him two men toting a tripod and camera, who filmed the invasion. And other journalists reported the heroic exploits of the Rough Riders who helped drive the Spanish off the heights.
As President, TR believed in a policy, as he put it, to "Speak softly and carry a big stick." He used American power carefully but effectively to dramatically increase the role of America in World Affairs. Finally, combining his sense of American patriotism and morality with his awareness of the power of technology and a growing national economy TR understood that government had to be dramatically modernized. He helped launch the Progressive Era, and reforms like the Pure Food and Drug Act dramatically improved America's ability to provide a better life within a regulated market which had to meet minimum standards of public health and safety.
Faced with today's challenges TR would undoubtedly be advocating a new generation of reform and a new commitment to aggressively winning the future by modernizing our systems, reforming the failures, and boldly fighting for an American definition of a better 21st century.
There is a lot we could all learn from his life.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich holds a Ph.D. in Modern European History from Tulane University. His latest book, Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America, will be released in paperback in July.