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Today's candidates rediscover TR's powerful words

August 27, 2007 |  2:12 am

His voice really wasn't all that impressive, a little bit high for the strong, determined, arm-waving, finger-pointing image we hold of him now, certainly not a deep and profound voice like, say, Winston Churchill's. But even now, more than a century after he became at 43 the youngest president ever when an assassin killed William McKinley in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt's words live on in American politics. Regardless of political party.

And even this relatively early stage of the current presidential campaign has produced a bumper crop of examples of TR's lasting influence on American public discourse.

Last month, answering a question in New Hampshire, Joe Biden cited Roosevelt's trust-busting as an example to possibly emulate approaching vast corporate ownership of U.S. media. Hillary Clinton quoted "the great progressive Teddy Roosevelt" as once saying, "the welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us."

Her closest Democratic competitor, Barack Obama, dusted off the same quote in a June speech to back up his belief that "It's time to get to work once more for our common country."

John McCain, like Roosevelt a military veteran, lists Theodore Roosevelt on his website as "my ultimate hero."

Speaking in Iowa this month, Mitt Romney talked of efforts to spread democracy abroad...

through "a campaign of values, combined with our strong arms, speaking softly but carrying a strong stick, as Teddy Roosevelt said, that help us move the world to a safer place."

Romney's chief rival, Rudy Giuliani, spoke of the same man's similar words in New Hampshire answering a question on foreign policy. "What we're going to have to do," Giuliani said, "is figure out how to be on offense against the Islamic terrorists and reach out to the rest of the Islamic world as friends. It is possible to do that. It is possible to speak softly and carry a big stick--it was a great Republican, I think, who had that saying."

Actually, it wasn't Roosevelt's own saying. It's a West African proverb he was fond of quoting. The proverb has an extra line at the end, usually ignored: "You will go far."

The 26th president from 1901-09, a former governor and a Nobel Peace Prize winner for mediating the Russo-Japanese War, Teddy Roosevelt was a decisive and well-spoken man of action whose senior college thesis said, "There can be no question that women should have equal rights with men...(and regarding marriage) I do not think the woman should assume the man's name." That was in 1880.

One of his most popular quotations, yet to get much play this campaign, is the famous man in the arena quote: "It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles...The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena..." He recycled that theme in other forms: "The man who really counts is the doer, not the mere critic," and "Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable. But it can never take the place of action."

Roosevelt also said: "This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in."

And: "Let us speak courteously, deal fairly, and keep ourselves armed and ready." You can almost hear Ronald Reagan's "Trust but verify" in there.

TR also said: "Don't hit a man if you can possibly avoid it; but if you do hit him, put him to sleep."

One of TR's longest-lasting legacies, however, was actually not a spoken word, but a deed. The pioneering conservationist was on a hunting foray in the Louisiana woods when an early-day presidential advance man, eager to ensure his boss's success, chained a bear to a tree. When the president came upon the animal, he refused to shoot and ordered the creature freed.

Someone wrote a newspaper story about Teddy's bear. And ever since, hundreds of millions of childhoods have been populated and enriched by the presence of a bedtime buddy by that name.

--Andrew Malcolm