In times of intense polarization, it is especially important for us to reflect on the words and actions of great leaders from our common American story. President Theodore Roosevelt is one such leader — “The Man on Horseback” — “Teddy.” It’s worth noting that he hated this last nickname. And yet, it is the one most frequently reprinted in American history books. In truth, most of us likely know him as “Teddy” first and “Theodore” second. We can only guess why this name upset him so, but perhaps he felt it was a bit softer than the other two. After all, Roosevelt was a bold and proud American. His name was synonymous with vigor, American bravery, and duty in combat. He was a cowboy and a veteran. But he was also a writer, statesman, and conservationist. He was the early 20th century’s embodiment of both physical and intellectual bravery, making enemies when he felt he was right, and earning their respect when he finally proved them wrong.
History shows us that there was also a softer side to Teddy. He spent every free moment outdoors reconnecting with nature. He broke rank with the Republican leadership that preceded him to establish the National Parks that still serve as a refuge for America’s bemusing wildlife. It was his very real dream to see American families experiencing the endless bounties of our beautiful nation for themselves — out in the hills with tents and fire pits — stargazing at night to the distant sound of howls — “Telescope Teddy” was another nickname — feeling at home in the lands we’ve inherited.
Perhaps these conflicting Teddys — Teddy the fighter, and Teddy the protector — are not so inconsistent after all. Every day, brave women and men in uniform put themselves in harm’s way to protect our homeland. When I served, I had America in my heart, but I thought primarily of “America” as an idea. America is our people — our values of freedom, equality and of willing generosity for one’s neighbors — our appetite for spirited debate and democracy. But the simpler reality, which now increasingly stares us in the face, is that America is a place. America is land, streams, forests and air. America is elk, buffalo, eagles, and bees. Brave men and women, fighters and protectors like Teddy, putting country before self. They believe that this homeland is worth preserving. This begs the question — are we, as citizens, as co-owners of this great American story, doing our part to honor this place? Have we done all we can to ensure its continued majesty, sustainability, and survival?
These are trying times. Climate change is both an inconvenient truth and an existential threat. Sea levels continue to rise, threatening our shores. All the while, warming temperatures continue to exacerbate arid conditions and worsen fires here in California. The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), which once guided regulations to protect us from pollution, has had its course reversed in recent years, making it easier for companies and individuals to pollute our rivers and back country. In a nation of 330 million people, each of us largely confined to bravely waiting out COVID-19 from home, it’s easy to feel that we’re individuals occupying our own confined realities — but in truth, we’re living in shared space. The price of democracy and freedom is self-imposing those restrictions which benefit our home the most, sharing responsibility for our actions and supporting each other in our collective time of need. Just as Teddy recognized more than a century ago, this place will be fundamentally altered by our decisions here today, and every day. Is there more we can do? Should we hold ourselves to that higher standard?
I think the answer is yes.