With Kansas speech, Obama to follow in Roosevelt’s footsteps

12/06/2011 5:00 AM

12/06/2011 6:42 AM

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recently appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” encouraging President Obama to be more like Teddy Roosevelt and initiate a re-election effort aimed at rekindling the “Square Deal.”

Perhaps the president and his White House staff took the historian’s advice to heart as the nation’s 44th president is scheduled to arrive in Osawatomie today calling attention to the 26th president’s 1910 stop in Osawatomie, where he delivered what some historians call “the greatest oration ever given on American soil.”

The White House issued a release on Saturday indicating President Obama’s trip to Osawatomie is to give an address on the economy — and how Obama “sees this as a make-or-break moment for the middle class.”

“He’ll lay out the choice we face between a country in which too few do well while too many struggle to get by, and one where we’re all in it together – where everyone engages in fair play, everyone does their fair share, and everyone gets a fair shot. Just over one hundred years ago, President Teddy Roosevelt came to Osawatomie, Kansas, and called for a New Nationalism, where everyone gets a fair chance, a square deal, and an equal opportunity to succeed," the statement said.

In 1910, Roosevelt, who had left office a year earlier, took jabs at corporate greed. His speech was radical for the times. He encouraged a federal government that would exert more control over businesses and corporations.

And, it split the Republican Party down the middle between conservatives and moderates and was the genesis for forming the Bull Moose Party, a third political party in which Roosevelt unsuccessfully sought a third term as president in 1912.

But Roosevelt’s New Nationalism program stuck with the nation’s consciousness as it promoted conservation of natural resources, control of corporations and protection for consumers.

“Our country … means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy, the triumph of popular government, and, in the long run, of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is him,” Roosevelt declared on Aug. 31, 1910. “O my fellow citizens, each one of you carries on your shoulders not only the burden of doing well for the sake of your country, but the burden of doing well and of seeing that this nation does well for the sake of mankind.”

About 30,000 people listened to Roosevelt’s hour-long speech.

Roosevelt had been invited to Kansas to help dedicate a memorial to abolitionist John Brown, of which he made little reference to in his speech.

In the crowd, there were hundreds of Union Civil War veterans who came to Kansas after the war searching for land, homes and a new beginning.

What they found in Kansas and elsewhere was that as they struggled to make a living, the rich kept getting richer .

Here’s what was happening in 1910:

John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil Co. was one of the richest men in the world and was seen by Roosevelt as “setting the pace in the race for wealth under illegal and improper conditions.”

There was a huge rift in Washington, D.C., particularly within the House of Representatives, which was controlled by one of the most powerful Speakers in history, Joe Cannon. A Republican from Illinois, Cannon controlled debates and held a firm grasp on the Conservatives. A revolt by the Progressives soon left him stripped of power.

And, the 1912 election was looming.

Contrast that to 2011, when some voters are uneasy about the bailouts of banks and big corporations and the nation is struggling with high unemployment rates.

University of Kansas political science professor Burdett Loomis said Monday of President Obama’s scheduled visit:

“He is framing the remarks, I think, in the tradition of Roosevelt and taking the position of the 99 percent against the 1 percent,” Loomis said. “It is symbolic. But the question is, will this talk resonate in any substantial way? One hundred years later, we are still talking about Roosevelt’s New Nationalism.”

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