Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) passes over the Continental Divide at Marias Pass, noting the double duty that monument does as a marker of the geological phenomenon and a monument of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt has lately reached across the decades to become a brief part of today's political debate. To see where Marias Pass is located, reach across to the map.
"The highway ascended the west slope of the Continental Divide. In the middle of the pavement at the top of Marias Pass stood a tall limestone obelisk marking the divide and also commemorating Teddy Roosevelt. Your basic double-duty monument."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 4
Marias Pass, Montana
Theodore Roosevelt has made a brief but important return to the news lately. Just the week before I am writing this post, our current president Barack Obama spoke in Osawatamie, Kansas and his speech was said by many commentators to be reminiscent of a speech given there by Roosevelt 101 years before. Why? I'll come back to that a little later, but first more about Roosevelt.
Roosevelt was the 26th president of the United States and a myth that is only slightly bigger than the man himself. A lot of people know the basics of his story. He was born into a wealthy family, and was a sickly child that gave himself over to strenuous activities in order to compensate. After college, he became the youngest New York State Assembly member, and aggressively attacked corruption in New York state politics. Roosevelt's activities in politics included New York City Police Commissioner, head of the Department of the Navy, Governor of New York, Vice-President of the United States, and President. A Republican, he broke with the party in 1912 and kick-started the Progressive movement into high gear. He lost the election to Woodrow Wilson but became the only third-party candidate to finish second in an election.
Along the way, Roosevelt became a war hero for his leadership in the charges up Kettle and San Juan Hill. He was an adventurer and outdoorsman who was an avid conservationist and who set aside the lands that became the U.S.'s first national parks. As president, he established regulatory standards for foods and medicines. He was the first U.S. citizen to ever win a Nobel Prize when he claimed the Peace Prize for his efforts in ending the Russo-Japanese War, and his posthumous award of the Medal of Honor for his performance in the Spanish-American War was the only one ever given to a U.S. president.
That's all interesting stuff, but what really interests me is the thing that has led to comparisons between a speech by a current Democratic president and a former Republican president. Given the polarization in current U.S. politics, I find the comparison intriguing, to say the least.
Roosevelt was not your typical Republican, and politics during his lifetime was little different than it is today. At the time, the Republican Party's conservatism was tested by the evolution of the U.S. from a rural to an industrial power. This transformation made strange bedfellows between rural farming and agriculture and industrial interests under the same party. Increasingly, agricultural interests saw their influence wane in favor of business interests, and there were charges of corruption in government especially as monopolies proliferated in a number of key industries. Then as now there was a widening gap between rich and poor with the danger that the poorest would be left behind.
Roosevelt stepped into the picture with a vision to move the Republican Party toward Progressivism, which was a popular reaction toward modernization focused on giving the average citizen more political power in democracy, reducing government corruption, regulating large businesses and busting up monopolies. As president, he realized many progressive ideals but failed to significantly change the Republican Party, which continued to remain allied to big business after the Roosevelt and Taft presidencies.
In Roosevelt's 1910 speech, he lambasts what he describes as "the sinister influence or control of special interests" in government. These he lays specifically at the door of "the great special business interests" that "too often control and corrupt the men and methods of government for their own profit." He argues that "there can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains." He decries the growth of "a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power," and decries the interests that do not work for the general welfare of all people. "This, I know," he argues, "implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary."
This does not sound like a Republican, and his speech was decried by many, including the New York Times, as being socialist or even communist. Roosevelt, considering his remarks in the speech, even anticipates such a reaction.
Fast forward 100 years. Obama, speaking in the very same city, repeats many of these arguments. The inequality that has reached "a level that we haven't seen since the Great Depression," says Obama, "...gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder." Obama aims to fix it through a combination of things. Increased government spending to offset the decline in business investment and to increase employment. Cutting taxes to the middle class while raising taxes on the wealthy. This is very similar to what Roosevelt proposed - a graduated income tax where the wealthy would pay more, and a tax on the inheritance of big fortunes.
Perhaps this comparison is overblown, as a recent commentary at National Public Radio's website suggests. But I find it interesting that in this era of polarization where Republicans and Democrats cannot reach across the aisle to compromise and come up with meaningful solutions to fix our financial and economic mess, we can look to a Democrat and a Republican shaking hands across an aisle spanning a century in time, and see them addressing almost the same problems with a similar set of solutions.
The obelisk to Theodore Roosevelt in Marias Pass might serve double-duty as a marker of the Continental Divide and as a monument to the president, but it straddles a physical divide that mirrors the barrier between our parties. These are the people who have been elected to represent us and our interests in government and who should come together in a time of deep uncertainty and fear and make policies that will give us hope for our futures. I think that Roosevelt - adventurer, soldier, peacemaker, Progressive, conservationist - would urge us to stride into that breach and, as quoted from his Osawatamie speech, "to raise to the highest pitch of honor and usefulness the nation to which [we] all belong."
I'm going back to Steve Earle for today's musical interlude. It just seems to fit, and whoever put the video together tied it in with the theme discussed in today's post. Enjoy The Revolution Starts Now!
If you want to know more about Marias Pass
Next up: Browning, Montana