Listening to Glenn Beck disparage Theodore Roosevelt is a little like listening to Ed Wood, auteur of the deathless classic, “Plan Nine From Outer Space,” condemning John Ford as an unimaginative hack.
At his uproariously received speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Beck, the libertarian talk-show host, flamboyant TV showman on Fox and current Tea Party hero effectively racked up cheap applause by pulling a quote out of Teddy’s “New Nationalism” speech and deriding it. Beck didn’t analyze and critique the speech, of course, because that would have required a discipline of scholarship and a rigor of intellect that he simply does not possess. He simply quoted this section…
“We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it’s honorably obtained and well spent. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it only to be gained so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.”
“Is this what the Republican Party stands for? Well you should ask members of the Republican Party, because this is not our founders’ idea of America. And this is the cancer that is eating at America. It is big government – it’s a socialist utopia. And we need to address it as if it is a cancer. It must be cut out of the system because they cannot co-exist. And you don’t cure cancer by – well, I’m just going to give you a little bit of cancer. You must eradicate it. It cannot co-exist. And we need big thinkers, and brave people with spines who can make the case – that can actually say to Americans: look it’s going to be hard – it’s going to be hard but it’s going to be okay. We’re going to make it.”
I don’t care about Glenn Beck’s politics; “Ethics Alarms” examines political issues and events, but it isn’t about politics. I do care about respect, honesty and fairness, however, and Beck’s Roosevelt-bashing violates all three. It especially violates all three because he was addressing a segment of the public, admittedly part of a large majority, who wouldn’t know what Teddy Roosevelt looked like if his face wasn’t on Mount Rushmore, and couldn’t tell you three accurate facts about his life if a million dollars were riding on the answer. Now, thanks to Beck, in addition to being ignorant about Teddy Roosevelt, they are misinformed about Teddy Roosevelt.
Why misinformed? Let me count the ways:
- Teddy Roosevelt is an iconic American figure, but his historical importance centers on his achievements while he was President of the United States from 1901-1908. Beck’s quote is from a hard-hitting speech he made in 1910, after Roosevelt had declined to run for another term. The ideas expressed in it built upon his policies in office, but also were far more radical. The speech, in the context of his political career, was made at a time in his political evolution that was after the period that put him on the mountain. There are also quotations from Abraham Lincoln, made before the achievements that placed him next to Teddy on that mountain, that are similarly jarring; indeed no political figure in history who spoke or wrote frequently was immune from controversial or ill-considered ideas.
- It was 1910. Roosevelt delivered his New Nationalism Speech as the increasingly violent conflict between organized labor and industry was intensifying. In 1908, the Supreme Court had declared Section 10 of The Erdman Act, making it illegal for employers to fire employees for union activities, unconstitutional. Late in 1909, police arrested many of the 20,000 female garment workers involved in the New York shirtwaist strike of 1909. Sentencing those who were charged, the judge told them: “You are on strike against God.” (The year after Roosevelt’s speech witnessed the horrific Triangle shirt factory fire, in which unconscionable working conditions led to the deaths of 146 women. This helped the public understand that God was, in fact, not running the men’s shirt industry.) In 1910, a bomb exploding in the non-union Los Angeles Times building leading to the deaths of twenty workers in the resulting fire. Another bomb destroyed an L.A. iron works factory that was in the midst of a bitter strike. In all these and many other incidents, the working conditions, hours, and salaries (there were no benefits) imposed on workers were inhumane by any civilized standards. In 1910, industry and big business had nearly complete freedom to do whatever they wanted, and were abusing it. Roosevelt’s comments cannot be understood out of this context. He was on the side of the good guys.
- 1910 was a hundred years ago. There had been no World Wars. Women couldn’t vote. Blacks were being lynched and victimized by Jim Crow. There was no social security, welfare, workers compensation or private pension plans. Child labor was still legal. There was no treatment for cancer, no airplanes to fly. America’s class system that fatally divided passengers on board the Titanic—which hadn’t sailed yet—was thriving. Nobody had ever seen a talking movie or one in Technicolor; computers, rock music, television, even commercial radio didn’t exist. There had never been a Broadway musical. Babe Ruth hadn’t hit his first home run; Bill Wilson hadn’t launched Alcoholics Anonymous and developed the famous twelve steps. If recovering alcoholic Glenn Beck had been alive in 1910, it may well have been as a hopeless wino, drinking Sterno in the gutter. It is willfully ignorant and wildly unfair for Beck to take the statements of a man living in the world of 1910, and judge his wisdom and worth by the standards of today. 1910 America was as much like 2010 America as today’s world is like the fantasy world of Pandora. If Mozart was alive today, he’d be a rock star. If Edwin Booth were acting today, he’d be performing David Mamet, not Shakespeare. If Thomas Edison were alive, he’d be competing with Bill Gates, not inventing light bulbs, and Charles Lindbergh would be an astronaut. It is both easy and unfair for a pedestrian mind to demean a superior intellect from the past by using all the accumulated experience, wisdom, customs, traditions, ideas, and knowledge the earlier figure couldn’t possibly have encountered. Oh, what a fool Aristotle was: he actually believed in Zeus! And that William Shakespeare uses strange words! Why didn’t the Founding Fathers include a provision in the Constitution addressing abortion? How stupid of Robert E. Lee not to use guerrilla warfare at Gettysburg! Theodore Roosevelt, possessor of one of the most inquiring, versatile, creative, and efficient minds in American history, would have many fascinating opinions about what America should be and do in 2010, but to suggest that it would bear any resemblance to what he was thinking in 1910 is an insult.
- Theodore Roosevelt was a strange man, an eccentric and infuriating man, and one of the biggest egotists who ever lived. He was also, beyond all question, a great man. Of all Americans, only Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin challenge him for the title of America’s Most Versatile Genius. He was a superb writer and historian; he was a world-class explorer; he was a war hero, a naturalist, a scientist, a big game hunter, a political philosopher, a terrific public speaker, a cowboy, an athlete, and public servant. It is laughable that Glenn Beck dares to call for “big thinkers” after denigrating Roosevelt, for nobody thought bigger than Teddy. He spun off ideas so fast some didn’t hit the ground before another one made it obsolete. Using one Roosevelt quote to define him as a “socialist” is indefensible, and it is offensive for Beck to call for “brave people” in counterpoint to invoking Roosevel’s namet, for there has never been anyone braver. This was a man, after all,who once insisted on giving a political speech immediately after being shot in the chest by a would-be assassin. (I said he was strange…)
It is also instructive to read all of Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech. What a speech! There are parts of it that we can say with some confidence go too far, but it is rich with inspiration, thoughtfulness, passion, originality, and bold ideas. Nobody gives such speeches today, either because they don’t have the skills, the vision, or the political courage. Contrast it with Glenn Beck’s rambling sequence of clichés, snide barbs and slang. Which man has the more disciplined mind? Which man is more capable of defending his position? Which man’s words radiate reverence for human values and a sense of national greatness?
It’s no contest, is it? President Theodore Roosevelt started to break up entrenched financial power that was being used to crush workers and cheat consumers. He established the United States as a world power. He began the process of unraveling Jim Crow racism, by inviting the first black man ever to meet with a president at the White House. He saved the American wilderness by establishing the National Park system. And, perhaps most of all, he lived a remarkable life that taught the lesson that anyone can overcome great obstacles with courage, optimism, hard work, perseverance, a zest for life, and a little luck along the way. Every American is happier, healthier and safer because of what Theodore Roosevelt accomplished in his life and career of public service.
And Glenn Beck? He has never built anything or had an original thought. His books, dictated to be easily readable by those whose taste runs to Reader’s Digest and People Magazine, will be landfill in five years. He criticizes and harangues, calls people racists, fascists and other names, and gets in a good joke once in a while. He’s good at what he does, I suppose, and he has made a remarkable personal comeback from serious missteps in his life. But a Glenn Beck owes some things to the likes of Teddy Roosevelt: fairness to the career of a far more brilliant man, respect for the legacy of a great American, honesty in portraying him to those who are not well-educated, and the humility to know when he should defer to the memory of someone who was superior in every way.