Slightly more than a full century separates two presidential visits to the small town (population about 4,500) of Osawatomie in the middle of Kansas. The second instance, the arrival of President Barack Obama on December 6, 2011, is not only an event with a history behind it but a direct use of history in the interplay of today’s politics. The first instance, of course, was Theodore Roosevelt’s appearance on August 31, 1910. Both men had chosen this out-of-the way venue as the launching pad for important speeches.
Actually, when Teddy Roosevelt came to Osawatomie in 1910, he was no longer President.
His second term had ended with the election of 1908. Rather than run a third time (he could have done so legally then), he chose his Vice-President William Howard Taft to succeed him as the Republican standard bearer. With TR’s help, Taft won, but he proved to be a disappointing protégé for Roosevelt and his ideals. Taft showed his conservative streak by supporting the most reactionary factions within the GOP. As the presidential election of 1912 approached, TR found that in order to effect a progressive change in the U.S., he would not be able to run on a Republican ticket. Thus, in 1912, he launched the Progressive Party, nicknamed the Bull Moose Party, and ran independently. But early on, such as at Osawatomie in 1910, he was already putting forth a stunning platform to end the domination of American politics and economy by certain “business interests,” as he called them, dedicated to severe income inequality, benefiting what today we would deem the “1 percent”
Roosevelt doesn’t seem to have recorded why he selected this obscure Kansas community as the place to issue his plans for a wide range of Federally-initiated social and environmental programs. In those days, Kansas was seen as a progressive State – the first to institute workers’ compensation for on-the-job-incurred injuries and the first to regulate the sale of securities. Eight years before the 19th Amendment gave all American women the right to vote, Kansas had passed women’s suffrage. One of the most famous radical progressive women in the country was Mary Elizabeth Lease of Kansas, a leader of the Grange, who famously told her Jayhawker farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.”
So it no doubt seemed quite natural to Teddy Roosevelt to offer from Kansas not only workers’ compensation in his program for the entire United States but also an 8 hour workday, social insurance (later to be Social Security). an inheritance tax, National Health Service, direct election of U.S. Senators, and strict limits and disclosure requirements on campaign contributions, among other reforms.
Resolutely, he proclaimed that “a President can only succeed making his economic agenda successful if he makes the protection of human welfare his highest priority” and that “the Federal government should be used to protect the laboring men, women and children from exploitation.” TR also used the occasion in Kansas to push for an American conservation ethic and particularly more national parks.
The Kansas where President Obama chose to make his populist statement presents certainly a much different political atmosphere than it did in 1910. Present-day Wikipedia has declared the Sunflower State “over the past four decades more socially conservative than most of the United States.” No Democrat had been elected there to the U.S. Senate since 1932. Few Democratic Presidential nominees have won its electoral vote while two Kansans – Alf Landon and Bob Dole – have headed national Republican tickets. Yet Obama deliberately elected to address the nation in the manner of Theodore Roosevelt’s defiantly progressive eloquence of 100 years earlier.
To be sure, Obama did have Kansas roots, through his mother and maternal grandparents. But it was Teddy Roosevelt whom he purposefully sought to evoke. Most of the Bull Moose goals have long since been put into law in the U.S. Yet now, they are under siege. Willful conservatives are determined to roll back the Rooseveltian successes, many of which had been achieved by TR’s distant cousin FDR. Barack Obama stood in the Osawatomie High School gym and traced the trajectory of the ex-Republican President’s thinking and how its invocation here had moved the United States into unmatched prosperity and a powerful exceptionalism now being turned into a retreat from that exceptionalism into selfishness, stinginess and deliberate destruction of America’s middle class.
Obama took the occasion to use Teddy’s own words of occupying a bully pulpit to press forward his goal of reinvigorating the spirit of Americanism that had made us great from the 1940’s on. The hypocrisy of the Republicans in forcing a hurtful tax increase on the vast majority of working Americans and slamming the door shut on any painless tax increase for the richest among us was dramatically displayed.
Just as Teddy Roosevelt had in 1910, our President of today flung down a gauntlet against going back into the crippling inequalities of the past. What the GOP is proposing as a solution to our fiscal problems, he pointed out, are the very actions that have brought us to our spring, summer, fall and winter of discontent. More of the same old, same old, is certain to cause our complete collapse.
Several political pundits, as such wise guys love to do, have gleefully pointed out that Teddy Roosevelt did not win the presidency in 1912, despite his Kansas speech two years previously and the powerful program that he offered the American people.
What they all seem not to have expressed, either deliberately or out of ignorance, is that the presidential contest in 1912 was a three party race: Republicans headed by Taft; Democrats by Woodrow Wilson; and the Progressives by Roosevelt. Nowhere do they say that Roosevelt came in second ahead of the regular GOP’s Taft, and that Bull Moosers amassed the highest numbers of votes ever scored by a third party in the U.S. Had TR been given the Republican nomination, he surely would have beaten Woodrow Wilson.
Know your history, American voters. President Obama certainly appears to be immersed in the lessons of our past and how to apply them to the present crisis that he inherited. He is tracing, without any assistance from the disloyal opposition, a path that will lead us out of the downward cycle that the GOP and its moneyed minions have devised and toward the glory days that a staunch but compassionate Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, outlined for our country in that small town in Kansas with its complicated Native American name.