theodore rex

December 23, 2009

i’ve briefly touched before on my ideas of imperfect heros and striving towards something better. well, this morning i was reading an interesting post on TR over at EofAW and it brought my mind around to that again. The whole post is worth reading, but here’s the clinch, the final paragraph:

With such an established trinity, what need for a fourth figure? If we can see elements of the godly in each of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, what can we do with the rather thoroughly earthly Roosevelt? But perhaps that is the point. Alongside gods humanity also has a place, and a man who did so much to make daily life in America a little better, and to create the expectation that daily life in America must be better, belongs there.

although when i play the Favorite President game i usually choose Grover Cleveland, TR runs a close second. it’s fun to be glib about him and point out that he was basically the most bad ass president our country has ever seen (sorry, george), but that can also obscure his actual accomplishments. he wasn’t perfect–far from it–but he was a man who carved his own way through life, a progressive republican who broke up trusts and pushed for a variety of social improvements. a man who eventually split with the republicans and created his own Bull Moose Party (best name for a political party EVER, btw). TR was an aristocrat who fought for the common man, an avid hunter who created the National Park Service.


it’s part of the human condition to want to categorize people: us or them, black or white, good or bad. it’s how we make sense of the world. this tends to be how we see historical figures as well, as either gods among men or as sinister villains. the latter tends to extend from the former: when you’ve been raised on heroic tales of the founding fathers, finding out they were slave-owning elitists can provoke a reactionary, oppositional viewpoint of them.

the truth, of course, falls somewhere in between. no one is perfect – you, me, the founding fathers, everyone in between. we are all products of our time to some extent. this is not to excuse bad behavior, but merely to put it in context. we may not be able to hold historic figures to the same moral standards we hold our contemporaries, but we can hold them to certain broad moral standards. seeing this gray area also allows us to reconcile the good and bad in our ancestors–allows us to see that Jefferson’s slave-owning ways don’t cancel out the brilliant ideals of the Declaration, that TR’s rampant racism and misogyny don’t cancel out the progressive accomplishments of his administration.*

i’ve always resented the arguments that crop up now and again about how we teach American history, and whether we ought to teach our children about the “bad” parts of history or just present a triumphalist narrative. presenting a simple, black and white narrative really only sets people up for disillusionment. it doesn’t provide them with a historical context for contemporary arguments. it also sends the message that heros and leaders must be perfect, must not be judged or questioned. this idea is obviously problematic, for political reasons i don’t really feel like debating right now.

on an ideological, idealistic level, i think it’s far better to acknowledge that we are all human, and that to be a great leader (or a hero or whatever you want to call it) doesn’t require perfection; it requires an ability to rise above your own human failings, your own complications and contradictions. because if men as imperfect as jefferson and roosevelt went on to do great things, then there is hope for us all. 

*obviously, you can take this too far. there are boundaries to historical relativism.  


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