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  May/June 1996 Features:
For Love of a Swamp
What is a Wetland?
Holding the World at Bay
Immersed in the Everglades
Teddy Rides Again
 
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Last Words
 

Sierra Magazine
Teddy Rides Again: A Play in One Act

Two men, a bully pulpit, and the ghost of conservation past.

by B. J. Bergman

(Scene: Washington, D.C. The Senate Press Gallery. Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole are wrapping up a news conference.)

Gingrich: (Annoyed.) --an inane question, even for the Washington press corps. (Forces a smile.) We're done. Thank you. (Gingrich and Dole turn to make their exit, but are frozen by a commotion from the back of the room. TV lights dim, then brighten again as Teddy Roosevelt charges halfway up the center aisle on horseback.)

TR: Bully! Bully!

Gingrich: (Frightened, but flattered.) Th-thank you, Mr. President!

TR: No, no, you idiot--I'm trying to insult you. Bully!

Gingrich: (Chastened.) Oh. (Turning professorial.) But respectfully, Mr. President, isn't that a judgment best left to history? (Pause. Mustering his courage.) And speaking of history, aren't you--no disrespect--um, late? That is, shuffled off to Buffalo? Sir, haven't you expir--

TR: I'm a ghost, you ninny. (To press corps.) They told me he was bright.

Gingrich: (Feigning nonchalance.) So . . . what brings you back to Washington-- (Winking at Dole.) --unfinished business?

TR: You might say that. You're familiar with the adage, "Those who cannot remember the past . . ."? Unfortunately, some of us are doomed to repeat it with you.

Gingrich: Not remember? Mr. President, as a historian . . .

TR: Spare me. (Indicating Dole.) And this one--he's with you?

Dole: Bob Dole, sir. War veteran. Purple Heart. I've been tested.

TR: Yes, of course. Bully for you. And now you're . . .

Dole: Infantry, sir. Dubbya Dubbya Two. The Big One.

Gingrich: I saw Sands of Iwo Jima four times in one day . . .

TR: Yes, yes. Took part in a few campaigns myself. Water under the bridge. The question is: what have you learned from the past?

Dole: Lean right for the primaries, then tack to the center. Learned that from Nixon.

Gingrich: . . . better than Boys Town. The Duke. There was an actor.

TR: (Growing exasperated. To both.) You've heard of the Standpatters?

Dole: Can't stand Pat, sir. Bob Dole would send him back to Crossfire. Make him stop lying about my record.

TR: (To press corps.) And he's the charming one. (Dismounts. Hands reins to a reporter.) My mount.

Gingrich: A beauty, sir. I love anim--

TR: The Standpatters controlled the Hill in my day. You had a Republican President--me--and a Republican Congress . . .

Gingrich: (Waxing nostalgic.) A grand old party! "Uncle Joe" Cannon was Speaker of the House . . .

TR: Autocratic bastard. He got his in '11.

Gingrich: He found power . . . intoxicating.

TR: Him and his right-wing henchmen. Thought they owned the place. (Glaring.) And that their predatory friends owned all the water, minerals, and forests they could lay their paws on.

Gingrich: I love animals.

TR: Railed against "big government." Said we had no business managing the people's lands. Considered Gifford Pinchot an extremist. Pinchot! Who favored sheep grazing in forest reserves! Muir hated the sight of 'im.

So here we are in ought-seven. The Standpatters are feeling the heat from their land-grabbing pals, who can't abide the right of plain people to wide-open spaces. So what do they do? Pass a rider that lets only Congress--not the President--create national forests in the West. And what do they attach it to? An agricultural appropriations bill!

Gingrich: Just like we did with all the stuff that wouldn't fly on its own--salvage logging, EPA cuts, Arctic drilling . . .

TR: Thought they had me over a barrel. And I signed their bill, all right--right after I set aside 21 forests for protection! Just me and Pinchot! Flummoxed the lot of 'em . . . (Bursts into protracted laughter.)

Dole: Must be fun to be the president.

TR: (Turning reflective.) 'Course, ever since Taft tossed Giff overboard at the Forest Service, national forest protection hasn't meant that much.

Gingrich: Mr. President, a lot has changed since those days . . .

TR: Not so much.

Gingrich: . . . but your spirit of reform lives on.

TR: (Outraged.) My spirit of reform? In this Congress? Spirit of repeal is more like it.

Gingrich: We're reforming everything, sir. We're revolutionaries!

Dole: Well . . .

Gingrich: We're untying Adam Smith's invisible hands! We're dismantling the New Deal, the Great Society . . .

Dole: . . . that's a bit strong.

Gingrich: . . . the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the EPA, the National Park System . . .

TR: You're going backward, you blithering simpletons! You're leading America to the turn of the wrong bloody century!

Gingrich: All we need is a Republican president.

Dole: Works for me.

TR: You're worse than Standpatters, you're regressives! I was a progressive--didn't used to be a dirty word, in my day. Even a hundred years ago I could see our natural resources had to be protected for future generations.

Gingrich: (Obsequiously.) I'm a futurist, too, Mr. President. A historian and a futurist.

TR: A historian! A futurist! You've less vision than that Yalie Bush--he invaded Panama, at least. But you! Do you remember a thing I stood for as President? A word I said? (Stentorian tones.) "We are not building this country of ours for a day. It is to last through the ages." Ring any bells? (Disgustedly.) A futurist. What future? You'd destroy America's last ancient forests. You'd pave her swamps. If you have your way, there'll soon be no place left to hunt . . .

Gingrich: We were thinking of national parks, actually . . .

TR: But you won't have your way. The plain people know whose side you're on.

Gingrich: We're repositioning ourselves, environment-wise.

TR: The people know who's for them, and who's in the pockets of the trusts--what today you'd call the pollution lobby.

Dole: I wouldn't call it that.

Gingrich: We mishandled the environment. Turns out people like clean air and water. Our PR people are working on it.

TR: That's what the robber barons figured: what the people don't know won't hurt 'em. No sooner do I go on safari in Africa than the Wall Street boys are stealing the country back from the working stiffs. And on Taft's watch! But citizens can smell corruption. They expect a square deal. That's why I decided to run again.

Dole: (To aide.) Did he say "run again"? Could be trouble. He's not only bigger than Colin Powell, he's . . . um . . .

Aide: Like Christmas in Vermont, sir.

TR: I warned them in 1912: either the party stands up for the people, or the people will find someone who will. The Republicans nominated Taft anyway. So I ran as a Bull Moose.

Gingrich: And came in second. Democrats took the White House.

TR: Think about it.

Gingrich and Dole: We are.

TR: Gentlemen, the people will not be denied! Nor will the tides of history! You can no more reverse the gains we've made in conserving America's resources than you can turn back the hands of time! The EPA was the Republicans' idea! Forward progress, men! It's our only hope!

Dole: (Sotto voce.) Maybe he'd settle for second spot on the ticket.

TR: My mount. (Makes to leave.)

Gingrich: Mr. President, before you head back to--uh, wherever--I'm sure the press folks would love a shot of the three of us. Do you mind?

TR: Does it matter? (Grudgingly poses between Gingrich and Dole, then gets on his horse.)

Gingrich: (Excitedly, to Dole.) This is page one on every paper in America. Even Rather has to lead with it: "The Republican leaders of the House and Senate made history today by holding a high-level meeting on the environment with one of the nation's most illustrious and best-loved conservation advocates, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt."

Dole: I feel a spike in my polls already.

TR: Well, I'm off. I've said what I came to say. And I suppose you're going to do what you've come to do.

Gingrich: We will remember the past, sir.

Dole: Especially that part where the Democrats win.

Gingrich: We're softening our image. Changing our message. TR: In my day we said what we meant. (Resignedly.) I'm off.

Dole: You've served your country well, Mr. President. Two terms is plenty. Enjoy your retirement.

Gingrich: We won't stand pat, sir! It's a revolution, Mr. President! A sacred Contract With America!

Dole: Trees are good, Mr. President!

Gingrich: Animals, too!

Dole and Gingrich: We won't let you down, Mr. President!

TR: (Skeptically.) Won't let me down, eh? (Turns, his mount rearing up.) Buuuuuullmoooooose!

(Exeunt, TR charging down the aisle, Gingrich and Dole through a side door. Blackout as TV lights go dark.)

B. J. Bergman, Sierra's associate editor, is angling for a job with Oliver Stone.


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