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CAMPAIGN '08: REPUBLICANS

McCain's self-comparison to T.R. makes for good PR

August 03, 2008|James Hohmann | Special to The Times

WASHINGTON — John McCain acts like he wants you to think he's the second coming of Theodore Roosevelt.

The presumptive Republican nominee channels the 26th president -- his "ultimate hero" -- on the campaign trail, in his platform, even in an online ad in which images of the two are juxtaposed. "I am," he has said, "a Teddy Roosevelt Republican."

Why does he make this analogy? Roosevelt biographers say McCain is wedded as much to the Rough Rider image (youthful vitality and maverick independence) as to Roosevelt's stances on conserving parkland and asserting American military might.

"The main thing about Roosevelt's appeal is he's remembered by most people as an image and a style," said biographer H. W. Brands ("T.R.: The Last Romantic"), a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

According to Rasmussen Reports polling last year, 84% of Americans hold favorable impressions of Roosevelt -- an approval rating surpassed only by those for George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, the three presidents with whom T.R. shares Mount Rushmore.

McCain often mentions the old Rough Rider as part of a sort of GOP "holy trinity" of Roosevelt, Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani also invoked Roosevelt during the primary season.

"Sooner or later, just about every Republican who runs for president will invoke T.R.," said John Milton Cooper Jr., a history professor at the University of Wisconsin. "Usually, though, they don't know what they're talking about. McCain is more serious about it. I think he's got more justification."

For McCain, who turns 72 on Aug. 29, co-opting the bravado of the youngest man to become president (only 42 when he succeeded the assassinated William McKinley) can't hurt. After all, Roosevelt became famous for charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and once gave a speech with a bullet lodged in his chest. McCain has cited both as examples of courage.

Like McCain, Roosevelt feuded with corporate interests at times and struggled to win the adulation of his party's base. He was so much of a maverick that he even mounted a third-party candidacy for the White House in 1912 when he was unable to wrest the Republican nomination from William Howard Taft, who succeeded him as president in 1909.

McCain hasn't gone quite that far, although his name was mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate for the Democrats in 2004, and the Democrats have, on occasion, urged him to caucus with them in the Senate.

But analysts say he will need to distance himself from President Bush if he wants to win in November. Hyping Roosevelt's legendary independence could be an effective way for McCain, who also fashions himself as a maverick, to appeal to moderates now captivated by his presumed opponent, Sen. Barack Obama.

McCain also compares himself to Roosevelt on environmental policy; his website even says: "A McCain White House will reflect the guiding principles of Theodore Roosevelt, America's foremost conservation president." Roosevelt set aside about 230 million acres of land for conservation and laid the framework for the modern national park system.

Theodore Roosevelt IV, great-grandson of the former president and a McCain supporter, said he admires the Arizona senator for bucking his party in opposing oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and federal subsidies for ethanol.

"John has shown immense amounts of courage that are certainly in the tradition of the Old Lion," said Roosevelt, a former chairman of the League of Conservation Voters.

Comparisons are also drawn on the foreign policies of the two. McCain, a former Navy officer, sees Roosevelt as a key player in the creation of the modern armed forces.

Contemporaries decried Roosevelt for what they saw as imperialistic and militaristic tendencies. McCain has taken offense to that characterization of his hero.

"Some critics, in his day and ours, saw in Roosevelt's patriotism only flag-waving chauvinism, not all that dissimilar to Old World allegiances that incited one people to subjugate another and plunged whole continents into war," McCain said in 2006. "But they did not see the universality of the ideals that formed his creed."

Observers say McCain needs to be careful about comparing himself to Roosevelt, who drifted leftward over his 40 years in the spotlight. (Today it's called flip-flopping.)

"Contemporary Republicans are well to the right of where Roosevelt was in 1912 in terms of their view of the power of government," said presidential historian Lewis L. Gould. "If Sen. McCain were to get beneath the surface, he'd have to say, 'There are some parts of Roosevelt I like and some parts I don't like.' "

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