Where Modern Politics Began

The Warrior and the Priest

by John Milton Cooper Jr.
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 442 pp., $20.00

Although John Milton Cooper’s comparative biography of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson recalls both men vividly, it is not easy today to look at them with equanimity, let alone uncritical admiration. They seem so out of proportion that they have become caricatures of themselves. Consider Theodore Roosevelt charging up a Cuban hill in pursuit of glory, or shooting some lumbering animal in the effort to prove his virility. Or Woodrow Wilson, piously asserting the virtues of being “too proud to fight,” and then sending Americans off to die for universal democracy and the balance of power.

Even at the time of their greatest influence, during the first two decades of this century, both presidents must have seemed a bit absurd. But they also inspired millions who cheered their rhetoric and exulted in their noble visions. The renegades who joined Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party saw nothing at all exaggerated in their leader’s declaration during the 1912 campaign that “we fight in honorable fashion for the good of mankind … we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” The Lord for his part seemed to prefer Wilson during that particular battle, and it was the former professor who carried out many of Roosevelt’s ambitions. But TR remained a dominant figure throughout Wilson’s two terms. Between them, these two men stamped their mark indelibly on the office of the presidency and the vocabulary of American politics.

As Cooper demonstrates, both were clever politicians, adept at manipulating power, no matter how frequently they invoked the deity and conceived of their electoral careers as crusades. Wilson, in spite of his reputation as a utopian and an idealist, was an ambitious professor who transformed Princeton from a genteel college to a great university, who deceived and defeated the New Jersey bosses, and who made the party system an instrument of his personal leadership. Similarly Roosevelt, with his vision of a commonwealth in which citizens would reject materialism in favor of transcendent goals, was no less utopian, or idealistic, than Wilson. But he was also a man who knew what leadership meant. He made self-dramatization into a political act, and embodied a yearning for heroic virtues among the public. It was Roosevelt, Cooper maintains, who first made “image,” in the current sense of the word, serve his political purposes. In a way that no president had ever done before, and many have emulated since, he manipulated the press and dramatized himself as a public figure. In so doing, he expanded the powers of the office. The presidency was never the same again after Theodore Roosevelt.

They are a natural pair, these two antagonists, as different as they could be in their personalities, yet consumed by similar visions and ambitions. Both were reformers who wanted to use the power of the state to achieve a greater measure of social and economic justice; both were internationalists who believed in an American mission to be carried out through an imperialist foreign policy; both were determined to expand…

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