Our Greatest 20th Century Republican President

Sorry, he was not Ronald Reagan. I will give you a hint.

President Theodore Roosevelt

If attitude were more important than actual accomplishments then perhaps Ronald Reagan’s effigy should be chiseled into Mount Rushmore. However, Reagan had many faults. Partisans tend to excuse his gross misjudgments, of which Reagan had plenty. These included:

  • The bombing of our Marines barracks in Lebanon and his subsequent decision to cut and run from Lebanon entirely
  • Support for terrorists (which we renamed freedom fighters) in places like El Salvador and Nicaragua that killed hundreds of thousands. His obsession led to the Iran Contra scandal, wherein we deliberately broke the law by selling arms to our avowed enemy Iran to fund terrorists in Central America.
  • An executive branch lead by so many people with no moral compass that the his administration was arguably the most corrupt presidency in modern history
  • A savings and loan fiasco that cost the treasury more than $120 billion
  • The largest peacetime deficits in American history

Nor was it the general who won the Second World War our greatest 20th Century Republican President. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also cut and ran, in this case from the Korean War. He “ended” the violence by threatening to use nuclear weapons on North Korea if they did not agree to a truce. If you are wondering why North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-il is so anxious to build a nuclear arsenal and lob missiles at the United States, now you know why. In fact, North and South Korea are still technically at war. Both sides essentially agreed to stop fighting but never agreed to a peace. To this day, fifty years later, we keep tens of thousands of troops in South Korea on a hair trigger alert.

Eisenhower had many noteworthy accomplishments as president. The one I give him the most credit for was the creation of the interstate highway system. In addition, he was very savvy about the consequences of the emerging military industrial complex. On the other hand, during his presidency, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and we did not lift a finger. In 1953, he sent the CIA into Iran to kill its elected prime minister, and then helped put a Shah in his place against the wishes of Iranians. This resentment set up the conditions for the Iranian Hostage Crisis some twenty-five years later. It is one of the main reasons the state of Iran still hates us today. If it is part of an “axis of evil” we were instrumental in its creation. Eisenhower was also the first American president to send our troops into Vietnam. It would take more than fifteen years before we would get them out. Tens of thousands of American soldiers would die in the fiasco along with millions of Vietnamese. Perhaps most shameful of all, while Senator Joseph McCarthy terrorized the nation with anticommunist hysteria, the same general that fought tyranny in Europe turned a blind eye. In addition, he oversaw three recessions while in office.

Most of the other Republican presidents I can dismiss for obvious reasons. William Howard Taft would not be seen as a true Republican today, since he introduced the first federal income tax. However his time in office was both short and undistinguished. Warren Harding’s name is synonymous with the Teapot Dome Scandal, not to mention his moral misgivings. Harding had at least two long-term affairs while in office, including a documented fifteen-year affair with a woman named Carrie Fulton Phillips. Calvin Coolidge was too boring to be noteworthy. Herbert Hoover oversaw the start of the Great Depression. Richard Nixon: nuff said. Gerald Ford: an aberration of a president who was never actually elected, nor was he in office long enough to accomplish much.

Which leaves George H. W. Bush and Teddy Roosevelt.

I was tempted to give the nod to our current president’s father. Granted, of all the Republican presidents in the 20th century, I do not think any of them reached the stature of a man like Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, George H. W. generally did what needed to be done, even though it was not popular. In response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, he showed the sort of leadership and wise judgment at which his son floundered. He organized an international coalition of forces to oust the Iraq army from Kuwait. He did it at minimal cost to the United States taxpayer and without pushing into Iraq itself. He even agreed to a modest tax increase, which was necessary, but which earned him the external scorn of the Republican Party.

However, his four years were not without other major controversies. Like Reagan, he was not amiss to a little gunboat diplomacy. He used our military to illegally invade Panama and put its dictator Manuel Noriega into a Florida prison. While he was instrumental in NAFTA, a treaty that became law under his successor, he failed to staunch a severe recession. Perhaps most troubling is that he left office by granting pardons to many who clearly broke the law, including his Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger along with five others implicated in the Iran Contra scandal.

Consequently, I give the nod to Teddy Roosevelt, who was also the first president of the 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt would be seen today as a Democrat. Indeed, he coined the word “progressive”, which is a label many liberals like me now prefer. He was the original trustbuster. His obsession with reigning in the power of corporate interests and the powerful in general would horrify most Republicans today. He coined the term “square deal” to describe a mutually beneficial relationship between business and labor. He passed the Pure Food and Drug Act along with its companion, the Meat Inspection Act to address problems in our food safety system that today would seem unfathomable. Perhaps most startlingly, he was our nation’s premier conservationist. He set aside more land for national parks than all other presidents before him did. In addition, with much arm-twisting he was able to create the Panama Canal. To do it though he had to break a few eggs. It took some gunboat diplomacy to convince Columbia to allow us to “create” the state of Panama.

He was a man that in retrospect did have some faults. He believed in active United States imperialism. In addition to the “state” of Panama, which was largely our invention, he also invaded the Philippines. His reasoning would seem familiar to our current president. He wanted to “uplift” these poor souls toward “Christianity” and “democracy”. Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam became U.S. protectorates, but it is hardly clear that the natives welcomed our protection. Teddy though was hardly atypical for his time. Manifest Destiny seemed hardwired into our national consciousness in the early 20th century. It would take more than fifty years before we would fully appreciate the downsides of imperialism.

Still, among all our 20th century presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, not Ronald Reagan, stands out as our best Republican president. Perhaps he blazed a trail for his distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was inarguably the best president of the 20th century, yet who has only belatedly gotten the recognition he deserves.

Not coincidentally, Teddy Roosevelt’s graven image is already on Mount Rushmore, as it should be. If anyone deserves to be added to that modern American pantheon though, it should be Teddy’s distant cousin Franklin, not our 40th president.

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