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Resurrecting Teddy Roosevelt

Speaking loudly and carrying on like Theodore Roosevelt. It's a rare part of the 2008 presidential campaign rhetoric that crosses party lines.
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States of America (1901 - 1909), has found favor with both Republican and Democratic candidates for president.Hulton Archive / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Speaking loudly and carrying on like Theodore Roosevelt. It's a rare part of the 2008 presidential campaign rhetoric that crosses party lines.

Democrats and Republicans alike are frequently invoking the words of the nation's 26th president and renowned political maverick as they project a take-no-prisoners image in a time of protracted war and continuing terrorist threats.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney managed to mention Roosevelt, a GOP chief executive before he led the Progressive Party in 1912, twice during a recent GOP debate. First, Romney referred to "a campaign of values, combined with our strong arms, speaking softly but carrying a strong stick, as Teddy Roosevelt said, that will help move the world to a safer place."

Later, Romney cited Roosevelt as a source of inspiration - along with his father, Ronald Reagan and the Declaration of Independence.

Bipartisan role model
Roosevelt, who lived from 1858 to 1919, would be a dream candidate by most standards: New York state legislator, New York City police commissioner, assistant Navy secretary, hero of the Spanish-American War, governor of New York, vice president.

When President William McKinley died from an assassin's bullet in September 1901, Roosevelt, only 42, became the youngest president ever. His 7-1/2 years in office were marked by efforts to break up business monopolies, help working men assert their rights, build the Panama Canal, improve the quality of food and drugs, expand U.S. power in the world and conserve natural resources.

"There's an awful lot for every presidential candidate to love in Theodore Roosevelt," said history professor John Robert Greene, who has researched how Roosevelt's words have been used by his successors. "You will not find the same appropriation of image with any other president."

Foreign policy and 'big stick'
Greene, who teaches at Cazenovia College in New York, said candidates often co-opt Roosevelt's image to show they understand what it takes to be president in times of crisis, particularly when it comes to foreign policy.

One of the most quoted lines - "Speak softly and carry a big stick" - was a West African proverb Roosevelt first tried out as vice president and later adopted as a personal mantra, according to Edmund Morris' 2001 biography "Theodore Rex." It also defined a foreign policy based on the threat of American power.

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, uses the quote to say the United States must stay on offense against terrorists while reaching out to the rest of the Muslim world. Romney borrows it to describe his plan to boost the size of the military by at least 100,000 troops.

Such references reflect a shallow study of Roosevelt's foreign policy, said Eric Rauchway, a history professor at the University of California, Davis. Roosevelt was a deft compromiser who avoided war, said Rauchway, author of "Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America."

"He was much less likely to wield a big stick than to try desperately to shake hands on almost any terms," he said. "It's more like, 'Speak loudly and carry a ready handshake.'"

Can-do vitality
For Romney, Roosevelt's "can-do attitude" remains his most appealing quality.

"What Teddy Roosevelt did for this country - his vision, enthusiasm, passion and character - are still inspiring to us today," he said.

Sen. John McCain, meanwhile, could be trying to associate himself with Roosevelt's youthful vigor, Greene said.

"Everything that's associated with the youth and vitality of Theodore Roosevelt, you want that to rub off on you when you are a 70-year-old candidate," Greene said of McCain.

"I quote him as often as I can," McCain acknowledged in a brief interview last month. "The main reason he's my hero is because he had a vision of the role of America in the world and he really brought America into the world scene in the 20th century."

McCain said he identifies with the so-called "Man in the Arena" speech Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in April 1910.

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better," Roosevelt said. "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood."

Reform and Roosevelt
On Saturday, McCain alluded to that speech in telling New Hampshire voters that he will continue to fight efforts by Democrats to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

"I will be there in the arena. ... I will be leading the fight against setting a date for surrender, which is what setting a date for withdrawal means," he said.

But Greene said McCain may be signaling the beginning of the end of his campaign.

"Politicians who have been brutalized in the media or who have hit rock bottom with public option use the 'Man in the Arena' speech to show that even when they're getting beat up, that happens to men who really want to change things, like Theodore Roosevelt," Greene said.

For Democrats, Roosevelt is useful to those who want to be seen as tough reformers, said Rauchway. Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden have praised Roosevelt for breaking up financial trusts and industrial monopolies. Yet, Rauchway said, his successor, William Howard Taft, actually broke up more trusts than Roosevelt.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama have been using the same Roosevelt quote - "The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us" - in laying out economic and ethics reforms.

"He favored the growth of government to fetter business and to aid the poor, but he didn't use a kind of what we might call a bleeding-heart rhetoric," Rauchway said. "He used a very manly, forthright rhetoric. He put a kind of macho face on American liberalism."