The highlight was a rededication ceremony held on the capitol steps, where Governor Ed Rendell, Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll, Presidential Historian Michael Beschloss and a Theodore Roosevelt impersonator joined a crowd of current and former legislators, staff, and historically minded citizens, led by Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed, to commemorate this day.
The Roosevelt impersonator was there because Theodore Roosevelt himself had been the keynote speaker 100 years ago. Listening to him speak was an opportunity to think of how the Washington Republican Party has evolved from people who took on the major problems of their times to people who are clearly incapable of running the tiny Congressional page program, let alone our nearly $2 trillion a year federal government.
Roosevelt acted in meaningful ways that produced lasting results. As a state legislator in his twenties, he was so full of ideas that party leaders decided to make him the Republican floor leader, so he would have to face the limitations of their appeal.
As a New York police commissioner, he made changes in law enforcement practices that are still studied today. I recently heard him praised at my former synagogue Keneseth Israel for his creative way of handling one of the leading anti-Semitic agitators of his time. He guaranteed the agitator's right to speak, and assigned an all-Jewish team of policemen to protect him. The agitator quickly concluded his speech and left New York City.
He famously led the charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War, and wound up as the Republican nominee for Governor. He so offended established interests in Albany upon taking office, that they conspired to kick him upstairs to the Vice-Presidency, thinking he would never be heard from again.
Taking over the Presidency upon the assassination of William McKinley, Roosevelt actively promoted the Progressive movement and pushed the Republicans hard for pro-worker, pro-environment legislation, pro-consumer and pro-investor legislation. He carried out an aggressive foreign policy, but also won the Noble Prize for Peace for helping bring a peaceful end to the Russo-Japanese War.
He surmounted personal tragedy and physical weakness to be the epitome of resilience and physical courage, even to the point of insisting on completing a speech as the Progressive Party Presidential nominee in 1912 after a bullet was lodged into his body.
Theodore Roosevelt stood for big things. He was willing to lose battles in the fight for big things. He encouraged others to continue his work. One of Pennsylvania's best Governors was his legendary Chief Forester Gifford Pinchot, ultimately a key adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt in the setting up of the Rural Electrification Administration and other projects affecting rural areas.
To compare Theodore Roosevelt with the likes of George W. Bush and J. Dennis Hastert is to capsulize the decline of the Republican Party as not only a progressive force, but as a meaningful force. Theodore Roosevelt knew how to use power for worthwhile ends. He knew how to capture the imagination of the public. He made the public proud of government, and proud to be an American. None of this can be said of Bush and Hastert.
It was a pleasure listening to an impersonator play one of America's two great Republican Presidents. I saw a Bush impersonator entertain the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry at a dinner shortly before the 2004 Presidential election. The Bush impersonator gave the gift of laughter. Today, the Teddy Roosevelt impersonator gave the gift of pride in our national greatness.
None of this is to say that Roosevelt was a perfect man or a perfect leader. In no area of American life can it be said that he did enough to solve problems for all time. But he did enough, as Mayor Reed pointed out today, to change the direction of American government, to clearly establish its responsibility for the welfare of the American people, that his place in American history will never be among the forgettable or the disgraced.