In today's Independent, Johann Hari is less than impressed with John McCain's personal hero, Theodore Roosevelt. McCain has described this all-American hero - probably the first president who acted and thought like the leader of an international superpower - as the strongest influence on his political thought. Hari is appalled. Citing Roosevelt's view of war as "spiritually uplifting", he accuses the 26th president (1901-1908) of being a war criminal, responsible for the deaths of 3 million Filipinos and the author of a policy of naked colonial aggression.
He wanted to take over Panama and build a canal for US goods through it. The Colombian government refused to surrender its territory. So he spent a fortune trying to stir rebellion in Panama, and as soon as there was a hint of it, he sent in the US navy to grab the land. McCain calls this "energetic and forward-looking". The Attorney General called it "illegal". McCain says now that Roosevelt's foreign policy is his model. "He sought to preserve peace and order," he claims, "by confronting potential adversaries with America's resolve and readiness to fight, if necessary, to protect its interests."
Hari admits that Roosevelt fought against corruption. But this isn't to McCain's credit: "It is the aggression that he loves in his Teddy, not the reform."
This is mostly rot, of course. Roosevelt was a man of his time, and as such he used language and behaved in ways which we might find shocking or even reprehensible. In many respects he was the USA's Winston Churchill. Like Churchill he emerged from a sickly childhood to embrace a love of the outdoors, military life and manly pursuits such as hunting. Like Churchill again, he was a writer, producing books on history as well as natural history, a larger than life personality with a flair for a striking phrase that sometimes got him into trouble. Both were mistrusted and resented by more conventional colleagues. They even looked rather similar - although, interestingly, on the few occasions the two met they did not get on. Roosevelt accused the younger man of "levity, lack of sobriety, lack of permanent principle, and an inordinate thirst for that cheap form of admiration which is given to notoriety." Takes one to know one, I suppose.
Churchill's reputation is even safer than Teddy Roosevelt's, but that doesn't stop people dredging up embarrassing quotes about Gandhi or the desirability of using poison gas on Kurdish civilians. But as the quote from McCain shows, his enthusiasm for Roosevelt is based on more on the president's most famous dictum of "talking softly while carrying a big stick".
Nevertheless, McCain's evident enthusiasm for the older Roosevelt left me wondering if it didn't influence his surprising choice of running mate. There are a number of interesting similarites between Theodore - the most macho of US presidents - and the former beauty queen Sarah Palin. Both have a tough, outdoors, gun-toting image, for one thing, and a clear (possibly overbearing) sense of American exceptionalism. Both are enthusiastic supporters of the military, Roosevelt as a former colonel, Palin as the mother of a young soldier. Roosevelt was governor of New York at the early age of 40, while Palin became governor of Alaska at 42. Roosevelt had six children; Palin has five. For both, their striking taste in eyewear forms an integral part of their public image. And like Palin, Roosevelt had served less than two years as governor of his state before becoming the Republican vice-presidential candidate. In Roosevelt's case, he served less than a year as VP before the assassination of McKinley put him in the White House. Given McCain's age and uncertain health, that almost seems like an omen.
Of course, there are differences. Palin is far more of an outsider, for one thing. Roosevelt was a member of the New York aristocracy, attended Harvard, and was a war hero before entering politics. He was also a far more impressive figure intellectually, and in many ways ahead of his time. He was an early conservationist, for example: not quite our Sarah's style. The best remembered incident in his life came when he passed on the opportunity to shoot a bear cub. Palin, on the other hand, is better known for pulling the trigger. And I would be surprised if Sarah Palin action dolls, fun though they are, prove to be as enduring and well-loved as teddy bears.