McCain as Teddy R.
Jude Wanniski
March 13, 2000


To: William F. Buckley, Jr.
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Bully for Rich Lowry

In the course of a presidential campaign, I know we both read hundreds of newspaper and magazine pieces about individual candidates, looking for fresh news or insights. I don't know about you, Bill, but at the end of a campaign, there are not more than a half dozen pieces I will be able to "download" from the back of my mind with great pleasure. I'm happy to say the February 7 essay "TR and His Friends" by Rich Lowry, your handpicked editor at National Review, floats to the top of my mind as the best of the season. If I were still doing the MediaGuide, it would be among the ten best political reports of the year even though there are nine months left to 2000. There were several efforts by others to compare John McCain to his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, but Rich got it into the third dimension. I e-mailed him words of praise and told him the piece was on a par with Buckley in his prime and that if anyone collects an anthology of this election year, it would be a good place to start. Here it is again, with his copyright permission:

TR & His Friends by Rich Lowry

John McCain mentions Teddy Roosevelt almost as often as Gary Bauer invokes Reagan's "shining city on a hill." TR makes obvious sense as a model for McCain: Roosevelt was also a war hero, who exuded a manly vigor and relentlessly trumpeted a rhetoric of reform. And TR is in the air. The office of George W. Bush's strategist Karl Rove is full of Roosevelt memorabilia. Rove himself has been compared to another figure of that era, Mark Hanna, the Republican operator who got McKinley elected from his front porch in 1896. Four years later, Hanna the insider had to accede to placing TR the insurgent on the ticket with McKinley. If W. wins the nomination, Rove and McCain may well reprise their respective roles later this year.

These are just the first of the parallels between our own America and the "Gilded Age," the period roughly from 1870 to 1912, when runaway economic growth overshadowed politics. After the U.S. Steel deal in 1901, one journalist wrote that "the world [has] ceased to be ruled by . . . so-called statesmen, [who are] in place simply to carry out the orders of the world's real rulers -- those who control the concentrated portion of the money supply." After the AOL-Time Warner merger in mid-January, Frank Rich of The New York Times wrote that the deal "reduced the imminent presidential primaries to quaint sideshows" and would "shape our lives long after we've forgotten which politician had which health or tax-cut plan." So, if we are in a new Gilded Age, do we need a new TR?

In American history, new technologies have often led to declining prices and productivity-driven growth. The Gilded Age, thanks to the "robber barons," is a prime example. Average railroad freight rates dove from 20 cents a ton mile in 1865 to as low as 1.75 cents in 1900. By the time Rockefeller's Standard Oil had captured 90 percent of the oil market, it had, through efficiencies, pushed down the price per barrel from 58 cents to 8 cents. Andrew Carnegie drove the price of steel rails from $160 a ton in 1875 to $17 a ton in 1898. The railroads, oil, steel -- all were the fiber of America's industrialization, and the effect of the low prices energized the entire economy.

Something similar is going on today, as new technologies loosen the constraints of time and space, and the global marketplace puts downward pressure on prices, making for a blessed dynamic: economic growth lowering inflation. Like their "robber baron" forbears, the agents of the digital revolution -- Bill Gates, Steve Case & Co. -- aren't themselves the technological innovators, but instead marketers of what others have wrought ("Pioneering don't pay," Andrew Carnegie liked to say).'s Jeff Bezos, who by creating a larger, better-informed Internet marketplace is cutting retail prices, had a Gilded Age analogue in Richard Warren Sears, who created a mail-order mass market and essentially invented the affordable sewing machine and refrigerator.

During the spurt of economic change 100 years ago, men such as Carnegie and Rockefeller eclipsed the politicians, who were characterized by their mediocrity and petty corruption. Sound familiar? Take your pick. Is President Clinton most similar to Chester A. Arthur, the accidental president who always had a stink about him, owing to his roots in the New York Customs House (the 19th century's answer to Little Rock, Arkansas)? Or is a better model Grover Cleveland, the hard-money, anti-labor Democrat who scrambled the differences between the parties?

Pick whichever Gilded Age president you like, and Clinton will have in common running down of the stature of the office, while boasting one major, negative accomplishment: managing not to interfere with the good times. "The function of the political system was not so much to promote this process of market democracy," Paul Johnson writes in A History of the American People, "as to enable it to take place, and accelerate, by removing obstacles, natural or man-made. It was a case of allowing the ship of state to float downstream under the impulse of a mighty current of innovation and improvement."

The exception was TR, an intellectual and outdoorsman, who believed in "energy in the executive." He bashed the trusts, regulated the railroads, and established the Departments of Commerce and Labor. Most appealing to contemporary conservatives is Roosevelt's robust interventionism and unstinting defense of American patriotism and self-government. TR booster David Brooks of The Weekly Standard has argued that today's Right desperately lacks a Rooseveltian sense of national mission. He approvingly quotes Roosevelt's warning that Americans risk becoming "sunk in a scrambling commercialism, heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk." TR's "muscular progressivism," according to Brooks, was the antidote.

"It seemed to work," Brooks writes. "At the beginning of the century, America practically burst with energy and nearly exploded with self-confidence. Corporate empires were built, industries established. Cities leapt skyward. The public buildings completed during that era bowl you over with their striving exuberance." But this has it backward, attributing the period's glorious accomplishments to national politics instead of to the daring and work of bold entrepreneurs. All of this bursting energy had a running start decades before Roosevelt took office in 1901. The genius architect Louis Sullivan, to cite one example, had 90 major commissions in Chicago between 1887 and 1895. And it kept right on going after TR left, a product of the work of Whitney and Edison and Ford and all those men Roosevelt excoriated: the Morgans, and the Rockefellers, and the Carnegies.

Today McCain self-consciously speaks in Rooseveltian terms. In a January 5 speech, he made an eloquent plea for renewal of American citizenship. He warned that "cynicism threatens to become a ceiling on our greatness. Too many Americans no longer see themselves as part of a cause greater than themselves. We are fast becoming a nation of alienated individualists." McCain therefore suggests a national cause that "brings us closer to others, to our families, to our communities, and ultimately brings us together in the uniquely American project of self-government." And what might that great cause be? New campaign-finance rules! (These would bring us closer to our families?)

Banning soft money is not exactly building the Panama Canal, and as a national cause it is characterized less by exuberance than by preening earnestness (Jedediah Purdy for reform czar!). But it does fit with TR's progressivism -- because progressivism wasn't just about energy, but also about fear and control, and grabbing power back from grubby businessmen and putting it in the hands of middle-class, college-educated experts. There is a direct line from Roosevelt (especially the TR of 1912, who was impatient with constitutional restraints and advocated new regulations and New Deal-style safety-net programs) to Woodrow Wilson, who was the first modern liberal: a college professor who pioneered the idea of the "living Constitution" and gave us the first tendrils of big, intrusive government.

A century ago, there were three groups of professionals who strongly identified with progressivism: lawyers, doctors, and muckraking journalists. Today McCain has a set of regulations to appeal to each of them (his tobacco bill, the Patient's Bill of Rights, and campaign-finance reform, respectively). He is still operating on the progressive model of protecting the public through regulation, when today it is businesses (and often the public) that need protection from the overweening administrative state built by progressives -- hence the eagerness of businessmen to contribute to politicians. McCain's own letters to the FCC in behalf of contributors stymied by the agency's bureaucrats made for a neat demonstration of the point. In the 1900s, trusts attracted the interest of regulators partly because they played too brazenly in politics; in the premier antitrust case of our age, the target is a company, Microsoft, that foolishly paid too little attention to Washington.

This suggests that, if there is an agenda of renewed self-government waiting to be born, it is anti-progressive and anti-regulatory. It would remove as many obstacles as possible from the new economy; it would devolve power to states and localities; it would take on the judiciary; it would insist on a basic national cohesion as against multiculturalism; and it would cut taxes. In its devolution and challenge to the courts, it would vindicate and foster political involvement, addressing the most worrisome trend on the right, which isn't that conservatives are too anti-government, but that they are flat-out anti-political. Taken as a whole, the agenda could be a project of national renewal, but one that would still depend on a limited federal government.

But limited government doesn't hold much interest for McCain. In his "no tax cuts for the rich" opposition to marginal tax-rate reduction -- the tax-cutting measure least subject to political control -- there is another echo of Roosevelt, who advocated a graduated income tax to close the gap between rich and poor. McCain's position may be only a political calculation, but it may be something deeper as well. When the hurly-burly of commerce is identified with "selfishness," as it is in the rhetoric of both TR and McCain, it seems natural to single out the richest as the most selfish. This is a perspective that neglects the well-springs of virtue underlying democratic capitalism: thrift, foresight, service to others (the consumer, one's family), and, pace Roosevelt, "toil and risk."

Most intellectuals share this blind spot, which is why they love presidents such as TR and Kennedy, who by inviting writers and artists to the White House supposedly save the nation from philistinism. Forgotten are the cultural contributions of people who aren't politicians. J. P. Morgan's library is one of the world's finest collections of rare books. By 1919, the Carnegie Endowment had given away $350 million and built 2,800 libraries and donated 7,600 church organs. Some of the nation's best universities -- the University of Chicago, Stanford, Duke, Carnegie-Mellon -- were founded by these gauche titans of business.

Ultimately, what is so appealing about Roosevelt is not that he fought these men, but that he shared their brash, self-confident spirit. And McCain's failing is that he represents the spirit of today's precious and guilt-ridden political class rather than the fast-moving creators of the new economy. McCain is a genuine hero, but his trial did not come in a great American adventure like San Juan Hill; it came in a drawn-out debacle. There is something ineffably sad, not triumphant, about him. Indeed, his favorite posture is the mea culpa. And he is politically too timid to challenge the multicultural pieties of the age. Imagine a great American patriot who can't muster a disapproving word about teaching American schoolchildren in Spanish.

But the good news is that America doesn't necessarily need a new Roosevelt now, doesn't need a vigorous executive or a national cause. Sometimes there are no great crises, no Cold War to win, no civil-rights revolution to effect. The genius of America is that, given freedom, these periods needn't be characterized by drift, but instead can be opportunities for great, galloping, world-changing progress. So what the country needs now is perhaps not a Roosevelt, but a McKinley, someone with the sense to stand back -- or even "pat," as they said at the time -- and let the creativity and imagination of Americans do its work. McCain often says he wants to give our country back to us. What he doesn't understand is that it isn't his to give.