Teddy Roosevelt vs. WorldCom
July 11, 2002
WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. – President Theodore Roosevelt loathed
the idea of placing the words "In God We Trust" on coins.
He was irate at the cheapening of religious sentiment and the cynical
attempt to elevate money to the level of the transcendent. But his
arguments failed to convince Congress, which voted in 1907 to put
the slogan on American coins.
TR's beef was not with God but with the accepted notion that the
wealthy American businessman epitomized the God-fearing citizen.
Roosevelt knew better, and spent 20 years fighting against the malefactors
of great wealth.
His eyes narrowing, his teeth clacking, his face flushed with anger,
over and over again, Roosevelt spewed out denunciations of the flagrantly
dishonest businessmen who were "cynically and brutally indifferent
to the interests of the people."
What would this president, the greatest Republican president of
the 20th century, have thought of the scandals rocking Wall Street
today? Collusion between Enron and Arthur Andersen would not have
surprised him. On the contrary, a major part of his energy was reserved
for flaying the highly paid hired guns of the business elite, the
lawyers, accountants, and corrupt politicians who fought reform.
"Every measure for honesty in business that has been passed
during the last six years," Roosevelt railed in 1908, "has
been opposed by these men."
Did TR have a remedy? Schoolchildren learn that he was a trustbuster,
but in truth he didn't care about the size of corporations. "What
I am interested in is getting the hand of government on all of them
– this is what I want," he said. He called for the strict
regulation of business, not its destruction.
But Roosevelt was interested in far more. It was not enough to
establish rules and throw a few malefactors in jail. He knew there
would have to be deeper reform, a radical reconceptualization of
the ethics of business and the subordination of private wealth to
the welfare of society.
"I stand for the square deal," he declared in 1910, explaining
that he was not advocating mere fair play under the present rules,
but rather the transformation of those very rules. Property itself
would have to give way to a higher value, that of "human welfare,"
and would be "subject to the general right of the community
to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require
"We cannot afford any longer to continue our present industrial
and social system, or rather no-system of every-man-for-himself,"
Roosevelt proclaimed in 1918. It was impossible, he said, to combine
"political democracy with industrial autocracy."
His remedies: federal regulation of the stock market, a steeply
graduated tax on excess profits, active government control over
industrial corporations, the right of workers to be "partners
in enterprise" and share in profits and management. He also
called for public housing, job security, pensions, universal health
insurance, child care, and even mandated leisure time.
TR was struggling to reconceive morality – and create a new
synthesis of private virtue, business ethics, and the great public
values of equality and justice. It would be a new morality, not
Band-Aids on the cheap.
Roosevelt's expansive view of democracy and economic justice was
far ahead of his times.
Laissez-faire Republicans contemptuously rejected his proposals,
but many of his ideas – a graduated tax on inherited wealth,
a securities and exchange commission, the right of labor to organize,
social security – ultimately found favor among Democrats Woodrow
Wilson and especially Franklin Roosevelt.
Like TR, FDR demanded economic controls and regulation of corporations,
but he also understood the deeper moral and democratic meaning of
TR's crusade. "The underlying issue in every political crisis
in our history," FDR said in 1936, "has been between those
who have sought to exercise the power of the government for the
many and those, on the other hand, who have sought to exercise the
power of government for the few."
Almost a full century after Teddy Roosevelt called for sweeping
regulation and reform of business and a new communitarian ethos,
we are still waiting for results. What would both presidents Roosevelt
• Susan Dunn is author, with James MacGregor Burns, of 'The
Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America' (Atlantic
Monthly Press, 2001). She is a visiting scholar at the Academy of
Leadership at the University of Maryland.