If there is any merit to Giambattista Vico’s claim in The New Science (1744) that human societies naturally pass through an age of gods, an age of heroes, and an age of men, then it’s safe to say that today we are in the third of those ages. One of the hallmarks of the human age is a persistent nostalgia for heroic times, when power was freer to exercise its agency on behalf of the right, if not of the good. This nostalgia often takes the form of adopting—at times naively, at times histrionically—the gestures and rhetoric of heroism. Ronald Reagan was a master of such postures, and many Americans loved him for acting as if the nation’s heroic age, far from being superseded, merely awaited revivification. Even if one believes that Reagan accomplished that feat (dato non concesso), a look at his would-be heirs today makes it clear that it was a short-lived restoration, confirming that Reagan too—indeed, Reagan especially—belonged to a human age that looks back wistfully, if not stubbornly, to a prior one.
In Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, our twenty-sixth president comes forth as the very paragon of presidential heroism. The biography focuses on Roosevelt’s booming persona, his sweeping political successes during his years in office (1901–1909), and the glory of his environmental legacy. Its profusely detailed pages convey a palpable sense that Roosevelt lived in titanic times, when the continent was still vast and relatively wild, when corporations, monopolies, and industry were cyclopean forces, when both national and local politics were for the lionhearted, and when the odds against a president achieving what Roosevelt achieved as a conservationist were overwhelming. Surrounded on all sides by giants, or what he called “short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things,” Roosevelt managed to dwarf them all.
Consider his accomplishments. As a conservationist Roosevelt protected over 230 million acres of land in the form of six national parks, eighteen national monuments, fifty-one federal bird reservations, and 150 national forests. As a naturalist, he was recognized as America’s premier authority on large mammals. He regularly contributed to the US Biological Survey, and he concentrated political might in the newly consolidated US Forest Service, helmed by his friend Gifford Pinchot. As commander in chief he oversaw US intervention in favor of Panamanian independence and negotiated the lease authorizing US completion and control of the Panama Canal. As a progressive reformer, he earned the moniker “trust-buster” by breaking the monopolies of over forty corporations (although, on the whole, trusts continued to grow during his administration). During the anthracite coal strikes, he was the first president to use his powers of office to arbitrate a dispute between labor and management. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for negotiating the settlement …
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