Tag Archives: theodore roosevelt

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Please Speak Ill of the Dead

Image result for reagan grave

“Too soon!” That was a standard response to my criticisms of John McCain following his death.

My cartoon and social media posts reminded readers that McCain had volunteered to bomb innocent civilians in an illegal war of aggression to prop up a corrupt and reviled regime at the time of his capture. The real heroes of the Vietnam War were the tens of thousands of draft dodgers forced to give up their lives to flee to Canada and the many conscripted veterans who came home appalled by what they saw and did and spent the rest of their lives fighting for peace.

McCain, on the other hand, learned nothing from his experience. He never met a war — or a possible war — he didn’t like. McCain voted for war against Afghanistan and Iraq. He criticized Bill Clinton for limiting his war against Kosovo to airstrikes; he wanted ground troops too. He supported arming the Islamist jihadis in Syria and Libya, expanding the civil wars there. He threatened war against Iran. He sabre-rattled against Russia. North Korea and even China were in this deranged right winger’s sights.

These were not minor failings in an otherwise distinguished life. They were defining acts that erased the myths on which McCain built his career — his military service and his “maverick” persona. The war he fought in was disgusting and now widely considered a mistake. McCain was a run-of-the-mill right-wing Republican warmonger. His straight-talk shtick was fake as hell.

Media accounts sanitized the myriad of very bad things McCain did throughout his life. So I did my part to help counter the tsunami of BS.

“Do not speak ill of the dead.” This dictum, attributed to the 6th century BCE philosopher Chilon of Sparta, may be appropriate at your uncle’s funeral; who wants to hear that the dead man’s widow discovered foot-fetish websites in his browser history?

Public figures are different.

In cartoons and the written word I have attempted to counter the fulsome praise that followed the deaths of people like Ronald Reagan. I wasn’t trying to be mean to Nancy Reagan. Though I doubt she read my work.

Reagan hurt and killed a lot of people. As much as Reagan’s admirers didn’t enjoy my reminders that he (we believed at the time) murdered Moammar Gaddafi’s daughter or that he didn’t care about victims of HIV-AIDS, Americans who lost friends and relatives to the “gay plague” deserved to be acknowledged in assessments of Reagan’s life and legacy. The media pretended Reagan’s crimes never happened. I corrected the record.

The “too soon” and “can’t you wait until the body is cold?” arguments fall flat. What better time to point out and discuss a dead leader’s flaws than the time immediately following their death? That’s when obituaries appear, the eulogies are said and the nation is focused on the issues and policies they affected and effected. A few weeks later, no one cares.

Presumably referring to himself, former president Theodore Roosevelt argued in a 1910 speech that men of action — those “in the arena” — matter and their critics do not.

“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 them 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; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Soaring oratory! But self-serving and obsolete.

If effort and taking chances is all that matters when assessing a person’s life, the firefighter who enters a burning house to save a baby has no more worth than the serial killer who sneaks inside to kill it. Hitler and Stalin and Osama bin Laden all had grand visions they strove valiantly to turn into reality. They were daring. They achieved. They counted, but so what?

These days it’s the “timid souls” who stand aside, keeping mum while the mass media wallows in sordid orgies of mawkish praise for problematic figures like Reagan and McCain. Adding perspective and nuance to assessments of mass adulation requires courage. In this age of relentless propaganda and unmitigated BS, the critic is in the arena just as much as a dead senator.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Teddy Roosevelt Saw This Coming

The Decline and Fall of an American Icon

Why did our political system become so corrupt and unresponsive? How did we end up with such a rigid, Old European-style class system—in which you can’t get ahead unless you were born that way? America: What Went Wrong?, a 1992 paperback by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, went a long way toward answering those questions.

It may be, however, that America was doomed long before then.

The historian Edmund Morris recently published the final entry of a magisterial trilogy about the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Though frequently listed among the greatest American politicians today, TR was an “accidental president” who ascended to power thanks to the murder of William McKinley. His blustery and impolitic style—his supporters called it speaking truth to power—would never have allowed him to win a presidential election.

Roosevelt sussed out the perils of unregulated capitalism early on. “The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them wherever need of such control is shown but it is in duty bound to control them,” he said in 1901.

No president since Nixon has followed TR’s advice. The result of unbridled corporate corruption is disparity of wealth worse than much of the Third World, and 20 percent unemployment.

Morris’ book Colonel Roosevelt addresses TR’s life after leaving the presidency in 1909: his 1912 run as on the independent Bull Moose ticket, his disastrous expedition through the Amazon, and finally the decline of this legendary dynamo after the start of World War I reordered the international landscape and doomed him to political irrelevance: a career bookended by assassins’ bullets.

Few presidents are as revered by both the left and the right. Liberals love TR for his record as an environmentalist and trust-buster. Conservatives like his unapologetic imperialism: the American empire as we know it began with Roosevelt.

Although it describes events that took place a century ago, this new biography shines light on many of the systemic ills that afflict the United States today.

On the domestic front it is brutally disheartening to read that even a figure as historically transcendent and contemporaneously popular as Theodore Roosevelt found it impossible to break the lock of the two major parties on the political process. As schoolchildren learn, the Bull Moose Party marks the apex of third party attempts in presidential politics. In 1912 it was an empty farce.

Along with their allied press barons, the Republican and Democratic Party machines blocked the charismatic (albeit longwinded) ex-Rough Rider every step of the way, rendering Roosevelt’s third-party defeat as much of a foregone conclusion as Nader’s.

During the Bull Moose run Roosevelt was shot at close range as he arrived for a campaign appearance in Milwaukee. The bullet, slowed by the printed text of the 50-page speech folded over in his jacket pocket, had nevertheless “pinked” the former president.

Morris’ description of TR’s grace under fire inspires awe: “Don’t hurt him. Bring him here,” Roosevelt shouted to men restraining his would-be assassin as he hoisted himself to his feet.

“Let’s go the hospital,” urged an aide.

“You get me to that speech,” Roosevelt replied, Morris says, “with a savage rasp to his voice.”

“[The bullet wound] was a ragged, dime-sized hole, bleeding slowly, about an inch below and to the right of his right nipple. The bullet was nowhere to be seen or palpated. The whole right side of his body had turned black,” Morris writes.

TR took the podium. “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose,” he said, going on to speak for an hour and fifteen minutes.

We have lost so much. Contrast TR’s courageous performance after being shot to our so-called “leaders.” On 9/11 George W. Bush abandoned Washington, fleeing into internal exile, hopscotching the nation like a coward before slinking back to the capital half a day later.

Roosevelt spent his last years hurling scathing critiques of Woodrow Wilson’s reluctance to enter World War I on the side of Britain and France. Nearly 100 years ago, however, the bellicose Roosevelt harbored no proto-neocon-like delusions about American exceptionalism—the nauseating combination of high-blown rhetoric and gutter-rat real-world actions that characterizes foreign policy of the United States and sparks outrage around the globe.

“He scoffed at the hypocrisy of Wilson’s grand-sounding phrase ‘self-determination for all peoples’ [in Wilson’s Fourteen Points], noting that the President was in no hurry to grant liberty to Haiti or Santo Domingo.” Both were under U.S. military occupation.

Were such self-awareness in greater supply in the U.S. today, we might not be fighting wars of aggression on three fronts at the same time we’re lecturing other countries about sovereignty and human rights.

Roosevelt’s martial spirit was his blind spot.

Unlike most Americans today, he had served valiantly. His bravery was unquestioned. One of his greatest disappointments was Wilson’s refusal to allow him to fight in the Great War.

Despite his experience in battle TR shared with today’s armchair “support our troops” “U-S-A” warriors an excess of willingness to send others to face shells and poison gas—without fully internalizing the consequences.

Despite being sidelined, Roosevelt pushed his sons to enlist and get to the fighting. Then his son Quentin, a pilot, got shot down. “Quentin’s mother and I are very glad that he got to the Front and had a chance to render some service to his country, and to show the stuff there was in him before his fate befell him,” he told the press.

But the cold reality of Quentin’s permanent absence marked the beginning of the end of a man known for his vigor. “The old side of him is gone, the old exuberance, the boy in him has died,” a friend noted the day after he learned of his son’s death. “I am not what I was,” TR confessed to his sister.

Two years later Roosevelt was dead, a victim of the American militarism he extolled and symbolized.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2011 TED RALL