Other than Abraham Lincoln, is there any American president since our nation’s founding as mythic as Teddy Roosevelt? I’ve always had a soft spot for ole’ TR and not just because he detested partisanship and managed to balance toughness with compassion in a way that is rarely seen in our modern era. I also have great admiration for who he was as a man, his commitment to self-perfection, his spirit of adventure and his love of knowledge. In my mind, he was what an American should be.

He was also what I think a president should be. And it’s unfortunate that we have to reach back 100 years to find an example of a president who was both progressive and conservative. Nowadays, “progressive conservative” sounds antithetical. But many of us in the “middle” could probably be defined that way. We simply lack a party or even a candidate to coalesce around.

The question is, with both Barack Obama and John McCain expressing admiration for Teddy Roosevelt, does either candidate actually represent the spirit of TR. John Avalon, author of Independent Nation, thinks they both possess key aspects of Roosevelt.

About McCain, Avalon says:

In many ways, McCain’s conflicts with Bush and Rove reflect the same fault-lines in the GOP that existed when TR warred with McKinley campaign manager Mark Hanna – the progressive reformer versus the play-to-the-base establishment.

But beyond politics, McCain identifies most with TR’s rugged individualism and his belief in American greatness, expressed with military might.

And about Obama:

No less than Edmund Morris, who started the modern TR-revival with his iconic 1979 biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, pointed out TR’s “lifelong obsession with balance…the rhythms of the ‘neither, nor’ sentence…making him seem all the more ‘above’ the fray, eminently desirable as a peacemaker.” Obama instinctively reaches for a similar framing device when analyzing problems and political conflicts, using an “on the one hand, on the other” structure to dispassionately describe the problems with predictable positions, then pointing out areas of common ground. He presents himself as an above the fray peacemaker, able to bridge old divides between left/right and black/white. Obama’s “no drama” dislike of conflict does not square with TR the boxer, but they share an aloof perspective on the self-interested and a desire for balance.

So, McCain has TR’s grit while Obama has his wisdom.

In an alternate universe, the Bull Moose party is running a McCain/Obama ticket and all is right with the world. But in our lesser, polarized political universe, both McCain and Obama carry the heavy baggage of their respective parties.

Would either, if elected, have the fortitude to turn against the self interests of their own base and pursue a Teddy Roosevelt-like presidency? That’s impossible to know. But I think TR is destined to forever be a one-of-a-kind leader. And that’s too bad.

Politics Looking for Teddy