When Teddy Roosevelt referred to the US presidency as “a bully pulpit”, he didn’t mean the word bully as we use it now. These past four years it’s been easy to forget that.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr took office as the 25th vice president of the United States on March 1901, having successfully campaigned as President McKinley’s running mate, and he quickly came to despise the job.
Roosevelt had previously served for a year as McKinley’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but resigned in May 1898 to lead the First US Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, better known as the Rough Riders, in the Spanish-American War. Returning a war hero, he was elected Governor of New York. When Vice President Garret Hobart died of heart failure in November 1899, Roosevelt was persuaded, reluctantly, to join the Republican Party ticket for the 1900 presidential election.
William McKinley’s re-election was never in doubt, with his Democratic opponent William Jennings Bryan suffering a particularly lacklustre campaign. The 57-year-old McKinley only made one speech during the entire election, to accept the Republican nomination. Roosevelt instead did the heavy lifting, making, in an astonishing whirlwind tour, 480 stops across 23 states.
McKinley won re-election by a landslide, but the vice presidency didn’t suit the vigorous man-of-action Roosevelt. The job was a powerless sinecure, its incumbent having little to do, and even less influence. Four decades later John Nance Garner, VP to Theodore Roosevelt’s fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would describe the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”. (The quote is often bowdlerized as “not worth a bucket of warm spit”.)
On September 2, 1901, Roosevelt, who had only presided over the Senate for four days before it adjourned, first used publicly the aphorism which would later summarise his foreign policy: “Speak softly and carry a big stick and you will go far”. Four days later, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-American anarchist, shot President McKinley in the stomach.
Roosevelt had been vacationing in Vermont, and he hurried to Buffalo to visit the president in hospital. With McKinley seemingly recovering, Roosevelt returned to his holiday. The president’s condition worsened, gangrene spreading through his stomach, and Roosevelt was summoned back. William McKinley died at 2.15am on September 14, 1901.
Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th president of the United States, at 42 the youngest man ever to assume the US presidency, a record he still holds.
As president, Roosevelt distinguished himself as a progressive reformer, championing income and inheritance tax for the wealthy, introducing anti-corruption measures and regulating monopolies, and supporting workers’ rights – “a fair deal for every man”.
Although Roosevelt despised the nickname “Teddy”, preferring to be addressed as “Theodore”, “T.R.” or “Colonel”, he gave the name he hated to every child’s most beloved toy. In November 1902, the president was invited on a bear hunt by Mississippi governor Andre H Longino, with an American black bear chased down by hounds, beaten with clubs by hunters, and then tied to a willow tree. Roosevelt was invited to shoot the bear, but he declined, deeming it “unsporting” to do so, but then ordered that the poor creature be put out of its misery.
A Washington Post political cartoon by Clifford Berryman on November 16, 1902 immortalised the moment, and the drawing inspired Russian-born Jewish businessman Morris Michtom and his wife Rose to create a stuffed toy they called “Teddy’s bear”. Receiving Roosevelt’s permission to use his name, they put the toy in the window of their Brooklyn business. The rest, as they say, is history.
Like many politicians, President Roosevelt courted the company of journalists, regularly inviting them to the White House library. (The first Oval Office would not be built until 1909.)
Lyman Abbott, editor of the magazine The Outlook, recalled one such meeting, in which President Roosevelt had coined a phrase which would remain in use to this day.
“Half a dozen of us were with the President in his library. He was sitting at his desk reading to us his forthcoming message. He had just finished reading a paragraph of a distinctly ethical character when he suddenly stopped, swung round in his swivel chair and said ‘I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!’”
Abbott interpreted Roosevelt’s use of the word pulpit as saying that a president could, through his public pronouncements and command of press attention, convey to the country high-minded ideals.
It is the adjective bully which is perhaps not so well understood today. Roosevelt was fond of the word, using it in its positive connotation to mean superb or wonderful, as in “bully for you”. This usage apparently comes from a Dutch term meaning plenty or sweetheart. Indeed, Roosevelt had used the word to describe the Spanish-American War, without a hint of irony, as “a bully time and a bully fight”.
When Theodore Roosevelt called the US presidency “a bully pulpit”, he meant that it is a tremendous platform which can offer a positive influence on political discourse and public policy. (In Ireland, our presidency is largely a ceremonial role, but it is very obvious that President Higgins clearly understands the soft power of our own bully pulpit, as did his two immediate predecessors.)
“Roosevelt is rightly honoured as one of our most exceptional presidents – indeed, one of the four famous faces carved into Mount Rushmore. He was a model of courage, forthrightness, personal honesty, scholarship, and public service, and he used the bully pulpit to advance the national interest.
“Now Donald Trump occupies the bully pulpit, and we have witnessed a degradation and corruption of the office that is unmatched in our history. His conflicts of interest, his lies, his crimes, his divisiveness, and, yes, his bullying and demagoguery, seem even more appalling when we compare this dark cesspool of a man with Theodore Roosevelt. His most notable accomplishments to date include a tax cut for the rich that has ballooned the federal budget deficit, along with a sustained assault on environmental regulations, consumer protections, access to health care services, public education, and, not least, the rule of law.”
Since Corning wrote that, Trump has, through his malevolent incompetence, presided over almost 250,000 deaths to Coronavirus in the United States. Last week, Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden. With 95% of the votes counted by Monday night, Biden had won the popular vote by 75,677,793 to Trump’s 71,264,360 and had a projected 279 electoral college votes to Trump’s 214.
One week on from the vote, Donald Trump had still not conceded defeat, instead spreading baseless lies about voter fraud, and promising to pursue groundless legal challenges all the way to the Supreme Court he has packed.
So completely has Trump remade the Grand Old Party in his malign image that, as of Monday night, only three Republican senators had acknowledged Biden’s victory. It’s hard to decide which is worse, that many Trump supporters believe his lies and think the election was stolen, or that many more – many of them elected representatives – know he is lying and still support him.
One regular, laughable, sight from Trump’s presidency has been that of a spray-tanned, morbidly obese, cotton-candy-haired septuagenarian wobbling precariously on three-inch heels and holding on for dear life to the White House podium.
Facing multiple criminal investigations, it seems entirely possible that, shorn of the protection of the presidency, Donald Trump will spend the rest of his days in jail, wearing an outfit as orange as his face.
There is a bully chance that, at least until the Secret Service escorts him out on January 20, the bully Trump has every intention to continue as long as he can to cling to the White House pulpit.