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Think of a time of incredible tension between the rich and the poor, where media outlets throw out so many conflicting stories that it's impossible to tell which, if any, are telling the truth. A large part of the population thinks that the government is hopelessly corrupt and in the pocket of big business and that the system needs to be revamped in order to function for its citizens.
Welcome to the year two thousand and—nah, just kidding, welcome to 1906!
Yeah, wow. History sure does have a way of repeating itself. Teddy Roosevelt's unexpected presidency (by way of an assassin's bullet hitting POTUS McKinley) came during an era of American history known as the Gilded Age. The various Captains of Industry, or "Robber Barons," were carving themselves monopolies while keeping workers' living conditions poor. Labor organizers rallied themselves a throng of the dispossessed, while more radical elements left a string of bombings and assassinations in their wake.
Things were pretty hectic, to say the least.
Teddy Roosevelt, with his history of roughing up corruption (as well as bears), stepped in as president to bust any misuse of power. However, as his 1906 speech "The Man with the Muckrake" demonstrated, he wasn't necessarily out to bust corporations.
While his speech stressed that the evils of America (he kind of had a black-and-white view of things) needed to be fought tooth and claw, he also pointed out that anyone who attacked businesses with lies and slander was no better than the corrupt businesses they were fighting—businesses and workers alike deserved fair and even treatment from the government. The set of policies that would be known as his Square Deal plan encapsulated that idea of evening the playing field so everyone had fair treatment under the law.
The speech, entitled "Man with the Muckrake," linked journalists to a character from the then-mega-popular book Pilgrim's Progress who was stuck raking animal poop (muck) and wasn't able to notice the celestial crown above his head.
In the novel it's a metaphor for people too concerned with earthly problems to notice heaven beyond it, but Teddy put his own twist on it. Teddy's muckraker was a journalist who was unable to report on anything beyond the depths of corporate depravity and never wrote anything hopeful. Despite Teddy basically dishing out the insults here, these journalists took it in stride and proudly referred to themselves as muckrakers from then on.
Talk about journalistic spin, right? Now when people refer to a hard-hitting journalist, it's not uncommon to hear the term "muckraker" used in a thumbs-up, way-to-go kind of way.
Take that, Teddy.
Because, to borrow a phrase from a UC Berkeley prof named Mark Brilliant (so you know he's a smart guy), we're living in a "New Guided Age."
And that's not a good thing. "Gilded" is a very different thing from "golden," folks: the latter is the kind of thing you want your wedding band to be…and the former is a cheap-o wedding band that you probably got from a Claire's Boutique.
So TR's advice, simplistic as it is, seems to reflect our own moment as much as it does his (Teddy was living in the OG Gilded Age). Ultimately, he's saying that both journalists and citizens alike need to understand that, while America's conditions seem bleak, they're by no means unfixable or permanent.
Sound like something that still resonates today? Yeah, we thought so, too. (And so does Mark Brilliant.)
Today we're bombarded left, right, and center with contrasting news stories from various sources. Rumors and lies about political figures spread just as fast as the truth does, and it's hard to tell the two apart sometimes.
It's also waaay too easy to feel jaded about politics. Things seem sort of inevitable right now; there are a lot of really troubled parts of America that seem almost impossible to fix. We shake our heads at Washington, D.C., and say they're all corrupt, without trying to separate the bad apples from the healthy, crisp Gala ones.
Because our political climate is so similar to Teddy Roosevelt's own, this speech really seems to cut across time. We should care about what he has to say—not only because it sounds like he's talking directly to us, in a spooky, not-sure-if-time-travel-is-at-play kinda way, but also because the Gilded Age eventually did end and ushered in something much nicer called the Progressive Era.
So this is actually one of those times when history makes you feel a wee bit optimistic. And it's twofold: not only is Teddy R. telling us to keep our hopes up, but we also know that eventually the corruption of the Gilded Age led to some real-deal social reforms.
The Theodore Roosevelt Association
There's a public service group out there that seeks to emulate the best of Teddy Roosevelt's policies in the modern day and keep interest in the man alive.
Here's a collection of articles written by the best of those considered muckrakers in their heyday.
Night at the Museum
It doesn't really have anything about his politics in here, but hey: Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt is probably the best casting anyone could ask for.
Jeremyjw's "The History of Theodore Roosevelt: A Short Story"
A brief history of the man himself, Teddy Roosevelt. With stick figures!
CrashCourse: Progressive Presidents
Author and internet personality John Green breaks down the Progressive Era, kicking things off with—who else—Teddy Roosevelt.
Sound Recordings of Theodore Roosevelt's Voice
As part of his campaign in 1912, he released a series of campaign speeches on the hip new Edison Wax Cylinder. If you've ever wondered what he actually sounded like, look no further.
Harold Copper, Man with the Muck Rake
If you wanted to know what people thought of when they heard Muckraker before they thought of a guy with a typewriter, check out this illustration based on Pilgrim's Progress.