Independent Nation: How Centrism Is Changing the Face of American Politics

Independent Nation: How Centrism Is Changing the Face of American Politics

by John Avlon

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400080724
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 02/24/2004
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

JOHN P. AVLON is a columnist for the New York Sun and served as Chief Speechwriter and Deputy Communications Director for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He is the president of Prides Crossing Executive Communication and worked on Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign. His essay on the attacks of September 11—“The Resilient City,” published in the anthology Empire City: New York Through the Centuries—won acclaim from Fred Siegel, author of The Future Once Happened Here, as “the single best essay written in the wake of 9/11.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt



"We Republicans [must] hold the just balance and set ourselves as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other."
-Theodore Roosevelt

The former president began to speak with a bullet lodged in his chest.

Less than five minutes before, a deranged gunman had shot Theodore Roosevelt at close range as he walked to give a speech on behalf of his bid to recapture the White House in 1912 as a Progressive. Aides insisted that Roosevelt head straight to the hospital, but flush with a sense of destiny, the old lion refused. He would not retreat; he would give this speech if it killed him. With the blood spreading against his white shirt, he began:

I have altogether too important things to think of to feel any concern over my own death. . . . I am ahead of the game anyway. No man has had a happier life than I have led. . . .

This effort to assassinate me emphasizes to a peculiar degree the need for the Progressive movement . . . every good citizen ought to do everything in his or her power to prevent the coming of the day when we shall see in this country two recognized creeds fighting one another, when we shall see the creed of the "Have-nots" arraigned against the creed of the "Haves" . . .

My appeal for organized labor is two-fold; to the outsider and the capitalist I make my appeal to treat the laborer fairly . . . That is one-half appeal that I make. Now, the other half is to the labor man himself. My appeal to him is to remember that as he wants justice, so he must do justice.

Theodore Roosevelt was publicly issuing his political last will and testament, standing his ground on the idea that societal division between special interests could mean suicide for the American experiment.

As president, TR had used the full weight of the White House to reign in the power of big business while also instituting reasonable reforms on behalf of organized labor. It was his belief that "constructive change offers the best method of avoiding destructive change . . . reform is the antidote to revolution."

Extremists on either end of the spectrum detested him, but TR's studied independence-especially his defiance of the Wall Street robber barons who considered themselves the backbone of his Republican Party-led directly to his landslide victory of 1904 and made him one of the most popular presidents in American history.

Roosevelt was a man of action who preached the virtue of "the strenuous life"-"I believe in men who take the next step, not those who theorize about the two-hundredth step," he said-and his politics defied easy categorization. He sometimes described himself a "conservative radical," who was devoted to keeping "the left of center together."6 As one contemporary explained, "Neither reformers nor bosses were satisfied . . . but this fact only confirmed him in the notion that he was steering a course equally safe from the mercenary rocks on the one side and the doctrinaire shallows on the other."

In happy times, Roosevelt found the fervor of his critics on the left and the right amusing. Energetically dismissing them, he coined the term "lunatic fringe." Even after the presidency, Roosevelt joked that opponents regarded him as "a kind of modified anarchist . . . hesitating only whether to denounce my speeches as containing only platitudes, or being incitements to revolution. . . . They may fall into either category but they can't fall into both."

In both his private and public lives, Theodore Roosevelt transcended all labels. His friend, the nature writer John Burroughs, said that "Roosevelt was a many-sided man and every side was like an electric battery." TR was a Harvard-educated son of the aristocracy, but his character was forged by tragedy and the Badlands of North Dakota. Omnivorously intelligent, he was the first true Renaissance man in the White House since Thomas Jefferson: soldier, statesman, scholar, politician, police commissioner, preservationist, and prolific author of over thirty books. He made himself president by the age of forty-two.

His best-known personal motto-the West African proverb "Speak softly and carry a big stick"-reflected TR's belief in balancing the idealism of peaceful diplomacy with the realism of overwhelming military strength. He remains beloved by modern conservatives for his strong advocacy of American military expansion. Yet he did more than any previous president to implement a progressive domestic agenda. He was a devout believer in military might who won the Nobel Peace Prize, a proud hunter of wild game who helped found the modern conservation movement, a reformer among politicians, and a politician among reformers.

What his critics never understood is that those contradictory qualities-along with his exuberant personality-were the key to his love affair with the American public and the reason why he remains so admired on both sides of the political aisle today.

Before there was a name for it, Centrism was the source of his popular support and political strength. In the words of historian John Morton Blum, "Roosevelt defined for himself an imprecise line between the 'lunatic fringe' he detested and the 'selfish rich' he despised. Equally to each of these extremes he was anathema. To many of the wholly sane but more impatient reformers

he seemed insincere. To the inert he seemed mad. Most of early-century America, however, agreed with or at least voted for his Square Deal." As his biographer Edmund Morris stated, "In situations involving extremes, Roosevelt's instinct was to seek out the center."

Theodore Roosevelt began life as a sickly boy born into privilege three years before the Civil War, son of a southern mother and a northern father. His father, Theodore Sr., taught him that to overcome the considerable challenges of ill health and chronic asthma, he would have to "get action" and embark upon a relentless process of self-improvement. Through sheer force of will, monotonous exercises dutifully performed over a period of months and years, Roosevelt slowly gained physical strength. He extended that spirit of self-improvement to every aspect of his life. TR later wrote, "There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to 'mean' horses and gun-fighters, but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid."

The roots of TR's rugged brand of independent reform politics are apparent in his early life. Roosevelt idolized his father, and when his father was passed over for a prominent appointed post, Roosevelt Sr. wrote in a letter to his son, "The 'Machine politicians' have shown their colors. . . . I feel sorry for the country . . . as it shows the power of partisan politicians who think nothing higher than their own self-interests." This contempt for party bosses would be handed down from father to son.

Beyond his father, the man Roosevelt most admired was Abraham Lincoln, who was president during his childhood. TR's later assessment of Lincoln provides a similar window to the political instincts that would define his career. "Lincoln," Roosevelt wrote, "was a great radical, but a wise and cautious radical. From all his record it is safe to say that if Lincoln had lived to deal with our complicated social and industrial problems, he would have furnished wisely conservative leadership; but he would have led in the radical direction." As president and after, TR would attempt to be the restrained agent of the radical changes in society that he believed were inevitable.

After attending Harvard, sustaining the crushing blow of his father's death but falling in love with a beautiful Boston girl named Alice Hathaway Lee, Theodore decided to embark upon a career in politics. At the time, many of his classmates viewed politics with distaste, as a lowly career for ambitious saloon keepers. But Roosevelt thought their objections soft and haughty; he was determined to be part of "the governing class."

He ran for the New York State Assembly from a wealthy district on the east side of Manhattan. Impressed by his father's good name and the precocious energy of the young candidate, residents sent young TR to Albany in 1881. Like children of the Victorian era, first-term assemblymen were supposed to be seen and not heard, but Roosevelt immediately set about attacking not only the Democrats from New York's notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall but the political bosses from his own party as well. He heartily criticized the assembly's atmosphere of "narrow and bitter partisanship," writing his sister that "most of the members are positively corrupt, and the others are singularly incompetent." Referring to a member of his own Republican Party's leadership, Roosevelt wrote that he had "the same idea of public life and civil service that a vulture has of a dead sheep." From the outset, Roosevelt made it clear that he was a reformer before he was a Republican. In the process, he made himself into the leader of the young reformers of both parties in the assembly.

Republicans were widely seen to represent the interests of the rich. Roosevelt toured tenements with Samuel Gompers, and purposefully set about sponsoring bills that benefited the poor sweatshop workers and tenement dwellers in the rapidly expanding metropolis. It was his intention to bring the Republican Party away from the defense of special privilege and to the forefront of progressive reform. To that end, he brought impeachment charges against a prominent judge for colluding with the multimillionaire Jay Gould and tried in vain to reduce the influence of the Tammany Hall machine in electing aldermen in New York City. He was more successful in achieving civil service reform by crossing party lines to form a coalition with the Democratic governor-and future president-Grover Cleveland.*

Roosevelt's career as a crusading young Manhattan politician was proceeding smoothly. He was reelected to his seat with nearly twice the number of votes than in the previous election, despite a general Democratic sweep of the state. His outspoken independence helped him to stand out and gain widespread support beyond party labels. Despite being blocked in a precocious bid to serve as Speaker of the Assembly, he was getting action in the direction of his father's beloved social gospel of good works.

Then, on Valentine's Day 1884, the sun suddenly sank on Theodore Roosevelt's charmed life. His wife, Alice, and his mother, Martha, both passed away suddenly, Alice after giving birth to their first child. The baby girl, also named Alice, was baptized the day after her mother was buried. Grief-stricken, Roosevelt wrote in his diary that "for joy or sorrow, my life has now been lived out." As newspapers recorded the tragedy in hushed tones, Theodore sought refuge in action-throwing himself into his work like a man possessed, writing, "I think I should go mad if I were not employed." It was evidence of a personal philosophy of dealing with grief memorably expressed in his phrase "Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough."

Even in despair, his high-voltage personality shone through the surrounding gloom. Inspiring friends and followers alike, he was a natural leader who would not allow himself to be isolated on the fringes of political life. Typical was journalist William Allen White's breathless account of his first meeting with TR: "I went hurrying home from our first casual meeting . . . he poured into my heart such visions, such ideals, such hopes, such a new attitude towards life and patriotism and the meaning of things as I never dreamed men had . . . it was youth and the new order calling youth away from the old order."

Roosevelt's determination to break free of the constraints of the old order almost led him to renounce the Republican Party while he was still a young man. In the 1884 presidential convention, the Republicans nominated Maine's James G. Blaine, who had been widely accused of accepting bribes from the railroad industry. Roosevelt aggressively opposed Blaine's nomination and put forward the name of the comparatively virtuous Vermont senator George F. Edmunds. When Blaine and the Republican bosses proved victorious, Roosevelt impulsively threatened to leave the party while speaking to a reporter from the New York Evening Post. Positioning himself as leader of the independents, Roosevelt reportedly said that he was ready to leave the Republican Party, adding that "any proper Democratic nomination will have [the independents'] hearty support."

But for all of Roosevelt's frustration with the old guard in the Republican Party, corruption in the Democratic Party-particularly within New York City-was worse. Roosevelt harbored a deep contempt for the corruption of Tammany Hall and would never consent to forming an alliance with Boss Tweed's machine. Roosevelt's friend Henry Cabot Lodge convinced him to campaign for the Republican ticket during the 1884 election, but TR spoke on behalf of the party, avoiding any mention of the name James G. Blaine.

Two-thirds of Roosevelt's fellow independent Republican objectors left the party in response to Blaine's nomination. TR's ultimate refusal to do so reflected the pragmatism that would make him president while earning him the enmity of many fellow reformers. He believed that the best way to be an effective reformer was to work within the imperfect bounds of the Republican Party organization. He later explained that "I am a loyal party man, but I believe very firmly that I can best render aid to my party by doing all that in me lies to make that party responsive to the needs of the state, responsive to the needs of the people, and just so far as I work along those lines I have the right to challenge the support of every decent man, no matter what his party may be." Until he formed the Progressive Party, Roosevelt would remain a party man, equal parts realist and reformer.

From the Hardcover edition.

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