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Roosevelt and Wilson return to the limelight as present recalls past

WASHINGTON -- Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson don't bestride American history with the grandeur of George Washington. They aren't credited with giving new life to the American Dream, like Abraham Lincoln.

With their granny glasses and watch fobs, they seem the product of an era of affectation; and, indeed, few political leaders cultivated their images more vainly than did Roosevelt and Wilson.

But this year, with the coming of the Fourth of July, it is T.R. and Wilson -- not the Founding Fathers or the Great Emancipator -- who are being brought to mind in books, magazine covers, and essays.

``We're all Wilsonians now," announced columnist Jonah Goldberg last week.

Theodore Roosevelt ``still has many things to teach us," opined presidential adviser Karl Rove in this week's Time magazine, which has Roosevelt on the cover.

Meanwhile, Oxford Press this month issued the paperback edition of John B. Judis's book, ``The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson."

Roosevelt and Wilson are the men of the hour because the war in Iraq so perfectly combines Roosevelt's big-stick approach to forcing smaller countries into line and Wilson's idealistic dream of promoting democracy.

Roosevelt and Wilson truly hated each other, probably more than any other two former presidents, but the Iraq War is clearly their turbulent, angry child.

Though the amiable, walrus-like William Howard Taft served four years in the White House between Roosevelt and Wilson, the two self-styled Great Men dominated the first two decades of the 20th century.

It was an eventful two decades. The Industrial Revolution had created wealth, but also great tension and disparities. Neither Roosevelt nor Wilson put much faith in the businessmen of their era. Instead, each used the levers of government to rein in the excesses of capitalism -- and can each be considered the fathers of modern liberalism just as easily as the fathers of modern neoconservatism.

But each also advocated for a strong US presence in the world.

Roosevelt created the modern US Navy to assert American power overseas. A famous world-traveling big-game hunter, Roosevelt was fascinated by other cultures. But he also viewed other nations as inferior to the United States, in somewhat the same way that the statesmen of Edwardian Britain assumed a parent-child view of the world.

During his 7 1/2 years in power, Roosevelt was often accused of adventurism overseas; the US ran the governments of Cuba and the Philippines, and the Panama Canal was cut through Central America due to his boundless aggressiveness.

Wilson also believed in American greatness and exceptionalism, but was less interested in running roughshod over the world; instead, he believed that American ideas should do the job for him, building a world in America's image.

Wilson's administration covered World War I, during which the monarchies of Europe turned on each other in a conflict so bloody and senseless that few could argue against the idea that an American-style government might be preferable.

Wilson knew he couldn't establish democracy everywhere; rather, his goal was to make the world ``safe for democracy" by promoting a League of Nations to conduct diplomacy in an atmosphere of democratic idealism.

The president sailed triumphantly to Paris to help supervise the peace conference that would carve up the world; much of the carving centered on the Middle East and Africa, and the disputed boundaries of 1919 set the stage for many wars in the centuries that followed.

Iraq was cut out of the former Ottoman Empire and served up to Britain like a piece of meat. The reasons for this -- balancing power with France, and creating an open air route to India -- may have seemed vital at the time, but the folly of creating a country with warring ethnic groups remains evident today.

Now, Bush is committing himself to Wilsonian principles -- or at least to what history considers Wilsonian principles -- in endeavoring to build a democracy in Iraq. But there are other lessons to be taken from the Paris Peace Conference.

``There is danger, it seems to me, for great powers in looking outwards from their great capitals at the world and imagining all the things you might do," said Margaret MacMillan, a prominent historian of the 1919 conference, in a lecture in 2003, near the start of the Iraq War. ``The pieces out there in the rest of the world, however, are not as malleable as you might like and ordering them about may not be as easy as you think."

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.

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