Teddy Roosevelt vs. WorldCom

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President Theodore Roosevelt loathed the idea of placing the words "In God We Trust" on coins. He was irate at the cheapening of religious sentiment and the cynical attempt to elevate money to the level of the transcendent. But his arguments failed to convince Congress, which voted in 1907 to put the slogan on American coins.

TR's beef was not with God but with the accepted notion that the wealthy American businessman epitomized the God-fearing citizen. Roosevelt knew better, and spent 20 years fighting against the malefactors of great wealth.

His eyes narrowing, his teeth clacking, his face flushed with anger, over and over again, Roosevelt spewed out denunciations of the flagrantly dishonest businessmen who were "cynically and brutally indifferent to the interests of the people."

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What would this president, the greatest Republican president of the 20th century, have thought of the scandals rocking Wall Street today? Collusion between Enron and Arthur Andersen would not have surprised him. On the contrary, a major part of his energy was reserved for flaying the highly paid hired guns of the business elite, the lawyers, accountants, and corrupt politicians who fought reform.

"Every measure for honesty in business that has been passed during the last six years," Roosevelt railed in 1908, "has been opposed by these men."

Did TR have a remedy? Schoolchildren learn that he was a trustbuster, but in truth he didn't care about the size of corporations. "What I am interested in is getting the hand of government on all of them – this is what I want," he said. He called for the strict regulation of business, not its destruction.

But Roosevelt was interested in far more. It was not enough to establish rules and throw a few malefactors in jail. He knew there would have to be deeper reform, a radical reconceptualization of the ethics of business and the subordination of private wealth to the welfare of society.

"I stand for the square deal," he declared in 1910, explaining that he was not advocating mere fair play under the present rules, but rather the transformation of those very rules. Property itself would have to give way to a higher value, that of "human welfare," and would be "subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it."

"We cannot afford any longer to continue our present industrial and social system, or rather no-system of every-man-for-himself," Roosevelt proclaimed in 1918. It was impossible, he said, to combine "political democracy with industrial autocracy."

His remedies: federal regulation of the stock market, a steeply graduated tax on excess profits, active government control over industrial corporations, the right of workers to be "partners in enterprise" and share in profits and management. He also called for public housing, job security, pensions, universal health insurance, child care, and even mandated leisure time.

TR was struggling to reconceive morality – and create a new synthesis of private virtue, business ethics, and the great public values of equality and justice. It would be a new morality, not Band-Aids on the cheap.

Roosevelt's expansive view of democracy and economic justice was far ahead of his times.

Laissez-faire Republicans contemptuously rejected his proposals, but many of his ideas – a graduated tax on inherited wealth, a securities and exchange commission, the right of labor to organize, social security – ultimately found favor among Democrats Woodrow Wilson and especially Franklin Roosevelt.

Like TR, FDR demanded economic controls and regulation of corporations, but he also understood the deeper moral and democratic meaning of TR's crusade. "The underlying issue in every political crisis in our history," FDR said in 1936, "has been between those who have sought to exercise the power of the government for the many and those, on the other hand, who have sought to exercise the power of government for the few."

Almost a full century after Teddy Roosevelt called for sweeping regulation and reform of business and a new communitarian ethos, we are still waiting for results. What would both presidents Roosevelt say today?

• Susan Dunn is author, with James MacGregor Burns, of 'The Three Roosevelts: Patrician Leaders Who Transformed America' (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001). She is a visiting scholar at the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland.

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