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Distant Thunder from TR

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A portrait of the 26th US President Theodore Roosevelt hangs in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 30, 2009, as President Barack Obama delivers remarks highlighting innovative non profits programs. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The great Theodore Roosevelt speech in Osawatomie, Kan. that President Obama will celebrate today is remembered mostly for TR's embrace of the phrase "The New Nationalism" and his full-throated insistence that the federal government needed to assume a larger role in offsetting the power of concentrated wealth.

It's easy to see why Obama wants to identify with those sentiments. But it may be another aspect of Roosevelt's message that day that is most relevant to America's challenges today.

Roosevelt's August 31, 1910 speech in Osawatomie (at a ceremony dedicating a monument to John Brown, the anti-slavery firebrand) was part of a series of speeches he delivered during that campaign year for "insurgent" or reform Republican candidates. It marked a decisive landmark in his break from his hand-picked successor in the White House, William Howard Taft, and arguably the first irrevocable step toward Roosevelt's independent "bull moose" presidential candidacy two years later in 1912.

Roosevelt's Kansas speech (and those around it on the tour) was infused with his fear of a society defined by widening class divisions - and a political system that did more to reinforce than to bridge them. Roosevelt believed that dynamic could ultimately combust into revolution - and he believed vigorous, systematic and national reform was the best way to defuse that threat.

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