President George H.W. Bush died recently in November 2018, and a century ago America lost another former president: Theodore Roosevelt, at age 60. The week after his early January 1919 death, this eulogy recalled the man who had served as president from 1901 to 1909.
While our current president is often described as a populist, his policies in office have often been the opposite: lowering the tax rate on the top income bracket and making the overall tax system less progressive, doing nothing to curb the effects of big money in campaign finance, installing Supreme Court justices who have lessened the effects of unions.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, walked the walk. His administration brought more than double as many anti-trust lawsuits as his three predecessors combined, helped enact legislation to increase the safety of food and medicines, and established national parks free for all citizens. He attempted to create a national income tax on top incomes (which passed shortly after Roosevelt left office) and tried to institute an eight-hour workday for all employees.
This portion in particular does a vivid job of describing Roosevelt’s personality, at the intersection of the political and the personal — and what he meant to the American people:
His democracy was the true sort. It was not indiscriminate, and there was an aristocracy to which he paid tribute in his own mind — the aristocracy of Worth. Where he did not find it he was never at ease; he could use unworthy men (not for unworthy purposes, however) in the vast continental game of politics he played, as a party leader must, but never without contempt, and he always felt happy when he could get rid of them. A President or the leader of a national party must work with such instruments as the people choose to give him in Senate, House, and party machine, and the people do not always pick out saints.
It was his keenest joy to find this aristocracy of Worth in what to most people would be unexpected quarters. When he found it, he recognized an equal, whether the man having it was a wolf-killer, a ranchman, or a statesman. Neither did he care if public opinion were set against the man’s worth, so long as he himself had found it.
It was always strange to me to see how the solemn profundities and the unco’ guid [a Scottish term meaning people who are strict in matters of morals and religion] among our varied population used to regard this trait of his as something discreditable to him. He received visits from [heavyweight champion boxer] John L. Sullivan at the White House! He entertained Booker Washington there! He was a friend of boxers and actors! With what a sneer would they pronounce the words “Jack Abernathy, a wolf-killer,” and “Bill Sewall, a guide,” in listing Roosevelt’s friends.
Mean minds, incapable of imagining that a man would do anything except for advantage, cast about for Roosevelt’s motive. It must be that he had a motive; by which they meant a selfish one. They hit on it — it was spectacular drama to impress the crowd, or demagogic ostensible democracy to get votes. It was not possible to suppose that he actually liked these boxers and wolf-killers and reporters and wanted to be with them.
Recollections of Roosevelt
Published: Sunday, January 12, 1919
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