Sunday, October 14, 2012

Looking For Teddy Roosevelt

Looking For Teddy Roosevelt

Outside the Central Park West entrance to the Museum of Natural History is an equestrian statue of Teddy Roosevelt.  The horse, and the man, appear, in your imagination to be straining to go forward, as TR invariably did. Inside, in the Rotunda, the walls have carved quotations, displaying both his largeness of spirit and his grandiosity.  My favorite is “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.”

We are at one of those moments right now. We have fewer than four weeks before the election; really just a handful of days to decide between two very different men and two very different outcomes for our future.  The polls have been trending Romney ever since he decimated Mr. Obama in the first debate.  But the most startling thing is how appallingly empty the entire exercise has been.  There’s something elemental at work here, a gnawing sense that the men are not equal to the job, that there is emptiness about them both.

The missing piece is nothing more, and nothing less, than character.  It’s not in the campaigns, where puffery and sometimes pure falsehoods seem to be the order of the day.  It’s not in the media, where objectivity has gone out the window in commentary.

No one seems to be focusing on character.  Romney has done one of the most fascinating tap dances in modern political history.  He’s taken advantage of the extreme and visceral nature of the GOP hatred of Obama, and the shrewdness of those party pros that don’t really care about anything other than winning, and begun herringboning his way through his previous positions.  He stonewalled on his taxes and won.  He’s refusing to give the details of his plans for tax reform or entitlement reform, and it seems to be working.  He throws out a vague, unenforceable comfort line that gets big headlines, and then quietly reassures his base that the treasure chest will be open for them after he’s in command.  The conservative commentators who previously were giving him criticism-cum-advice (and trashing Obama) have now fallen into line and merely trash Obama.

As for Obama, for the first time in four years, he seems unsuited for the job.  He was clearly astonished by the ferocious mendacity of Romney II (or III) and seems to have completely lost his voice.  The man who outfoxed and outfought Hillary Clinton and John McCain somehow has been turned into a funhouse mirror image of himself.  And he seems unable, or unwilling to grasp that he has an extremely good chance of being turned out of the White House.   He’s lost the essence of another TR quote, “aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords.”  If Obama wants this, if he truly belives that his way is better for the nation and the world than Mitt’s mid-life crisis style of muscle flexing and over-indulgence in the finer things, than he’s going to have to punch it out with Mitt. 

That’s why the Vice Presidential debate got as much attention as it did.  And for all the hand wringing over Joe Biden’s smirks (“let’s not be beastly to the kindly GOP?”) that’s exactly what the Vice President did to Paul Ryan.  He laid out a vision, liberal though it might be, and challenged Ryan to do better than unsupported assertions of a glorious paradise where everyone will get more, no one will pay more, deficits will disappear, and Romney will stride the world stage like a Colossus.  If only we would rid ourselves of the terrible scourge of Obama.

Joe Biden showed a little joyous passion the other night, and your taste or not, you knew in your gut that he had it, and felt it, in his gut.  TR would have liked the man.

Of course, character isn’t just about getting in someone else’s face.  It’s also about core decency, a willingness to take an unpopular position or tell an unpopular truth.  That’s very hard for a politician, who by instinct runs towards the safety of platitudes and his sideline.  Today, what passes for “truth-telling” is really a deft little trick of telling the other side what they don’t want to hear.  That’s the magic of Paul Ryan.  Conservatives call him brave for regurgitating right-wing wish lists, just as they nominate Scott Walker for beatification for having the “courage” to use the powers of his office to benefit his friends and take from his opponents.

So, what is character?  It’s not perfection.  We don’t really expect our leaders, even the great ones, to be perfect.  FDR had a mistress.  TR tended to rush, headlong, often rashly, into dangerous situations.  Lincoln effectively suspended key portions of the Constitution.  There is a fascinating article by Henry Wiencek in Smithsonian Magazine, “The Dark Side of Jefferson” about Jefferson the slaveholder.  In the popular mind, Jefferson fought for the abolition of slavery to be included in the Declaration of Independence.  That he did, but for all the agonizing he ostensibly went through, in practice, Jefferson turned out to be a man of dollars and cents, keeping on a particularly brutal overseer because the “gentleman’s” methods meant a good return on invested capital.  And, in a particularly ironic twist, he turned down a large bequest from Thaddeus Kosciusko which would have paid Jefferson to free some of his (Jefferson’s) slaves.  Jefferson thought that the slaves were a better investment than the cash.  In contrast, Washington’s will provided for complete manumission.

So, character is not moral purity.  Rather, the predicate for the greatness TR sought, as we all should, is a profound desire to do good, and to have the courage of your own convictions to keep fighting for them, even at the risk of losing. “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

Mr. Obama, Romney’s got you on the ropes.  If you believe in something, now is the time to dig down and show that fighting for a principle is more important than just fighting to win.

“A man's usefulness depends upon his living up to his ideals insofar as he can.”

TR had it right.  Character is the decisive factor.  Get on it, Sir.  Time’s wasting.