NEW YORK--Why did our political system become so corrupt and unresponsive? How did we end up with such a rigid, Old European-style class system in which you can't get ahead unless you were born that way?
Historian Edmund Morris recently published the final entry of a magisterial trilogy about the life of Theodore Roosevelt. Though frequently listed among the greatest American politicians, TR was an "accidental president" who ascended to power thanks to the murder of William McKinley. His blustery and impolitic style would never have allowed him to win a presidential election.
Roosevelt sussed out the perils of unregulated capitalism early on.
"The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them wherever need of such control is shown but it is in duty bound to control them," he said in 1901.
Morris' book Roosevelt addresses TR's life after leaving the presidency in 1909: his 1912 run on the independent Bull Moose ticket, his disastrous expedition through the Amazon, and finally the decline of this legendary dynamo after the start of World War I.
Few presidents are as revered by both the left and the right. Liberals love TR for his record as an environmentalist and trust-buster. Conservatives like his unapologetic imperialism: The American empire as we know it began with Roosevelt.
This biography shines light on many of the systemic ills that afflict the United States today. Roosevelt found it impossible to break the lock of the two major parties.
Along with their allied press barons, the Republican and Democratic party machines blocked the ex-Rough Rider every step of the way, rendering Roosevelt's third-party defeat a foregone conclusion.
During the Bull Moose run, Roosevelt was shot at close range as he arrived for an appearance in Milwaukee. The bullet, slowed by the printed text of the 50-page speech in his jacket pocket, had nevertheless "pinked" TR.
He took the podium, going on to speak for an hour and 15 minutes. Contrast TR's courageous performance after being shot to our so-called "leaders." On 9/11, George W. Bush abandoned Washington, fleeing into internal exile before slinking back to the capital.
Roosevelt spent his last years hurling scathing critiques of Woodrow Wilson's reluctance to enter World War I. Nearly 100 years ago, however, the bellicose Roosevelt harbored no delusions about American exceptionalism.
Were such self-awareness in greater supply today, we might not be fighting wars on three fronts at the same time we're lecturing other countries about sovereignty and human rights.
Roosevelt's martial spirit was his blind spot. Unlike most Americans today, he had served valiantly. One of his greatest disappointments was Wilson's refusal to allow him to fight in the Great War.
Despite being sidelined, Roosevelt pushed his sons to enlist. His son Quentin was shot down. The cold reality marked the beginning of the end of a man known for his vigor. "I am not what I was," TR confessed to his sister.
Two years later, Roosevelt was dead, a victim of the American militarism he extolled and symbolized.