When Theodore Roosevelt IV passed through Bozeman in the summer of 2017, he and his wife, Connie, were on the hunt. Their quest: hoping to buy a “getaway place” in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where he could stalk solitude away from Manhattan skyscrapers, pursue elk in the fall with a rifle or bow and maybe have access to a stream with good trout water.
Roosevelt, as one might expect, has an almost preternatural disposition for enjoying the outdoors. As the great-grandson of the most pioneering conservation president in U.S. history, TR IV goes simply by “Ted.”
In person, he is less imposing and more bashful than one might expect. At 76, he’s impressively agile of mind and body. A lifelong Northeast Republican and former Navy SEAL who earned an MBA from Harvard, he is, by profession, a New York City investment banker.
Roosevelt has never been an attention-grabbing kind though he’s never been afraid to speak out in defense of wild places.
TR IV, as a late teenager on a road trip to work a summer job with the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming, remembers feeling stupefied, in the most pleasant way possible, upon entering the open vistas that got bigger after crossing the 100th meridian.
“It didn’t take long for me to take notice and realize this is a different part of the country, different from anything I’ve experienced before,” he said. “Look at the size of the country, look at the views. And I liked the people out here. We talk about Southern hospitality, but Western hospitality is just as great.”
These days, he confesses, there are many moments when he feels unsettled, when as a self-avowed traditional political moderate he is out of place—“an endangered species,” he says, within the Grand Old Party.
Yes, it’s the same party once led by his legendary blood ancestor whom he affectionately references as “the old lion” and whose face is chiseled into the side of Mount Rushmore. The same person who helped ignite a pioneering movement to save bison from extinction; who created the U.S. Forest Service and the first national forest, the Shoshone; who founded the Boone and Crockett Club that laid the groundwork for the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation; and who has an arch named after him at the northern gate of Yellowstone.
Equally as important, as a maverick president, he innovated a novel classification of land protection—national monuments—some of which evolved into full-fledged crown jewel national parks such as Grand Canyon and Grand Teton.
Three-quarters of Republicans today—in some polls an even higher percentage—are said to approve of President Donald Trump’s job performance, but Ted Roosevelt isn’t among the cheerleaders. Odds are good you’ll never see him wearing a red MAGA trucker’s cap.
In fact, he isn’t alone. He often hears from friends, longtime influential GOP stalwarts, who backed Nixon and Reagan and have become intensely disenchanted with their party’s surge to the far right and painting even government itself as an enemy. They worry that the Republican tradition of tethering conservatism with conservation and supporting sensible, forward-minded environmental protection laws is being rapidly disassembled.
Roosevelt predicts it could prove costly, not only for the health of the environment, but contribute to a public backlash leaving the GOP electorally out of favor and power for years to come.
He says he was “astounded” when the GOP, during one of its planks unveiled at the 2016 national convention, included the disposal of federal public lands, either handing them over to states or selling them off. His great-granddad would have considered it heresy.
What has happened within the Republican Party? Roosevelt suggests moderates were utterly unprepared for the radical shifts wrought by insurgent Tea Partiers in response to Obama’s election. But the veering away from its core conservative values started two generations ago.
Roosevelt does not see himself as a mugwump, but some have suggested that he be drafted onto a political ticket, paired with someone like Ohio Gov. John Kasich—whom he endorsed in the 2016 GOP primary—or U.S. Russian Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., or U.S. Senate candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney of Utah to challenge Trump-Pence in the 2020 Republican primary. With a name like Ted Roosevelt, it would command significant symbolic cachet.
Others have mentioned TR IV in conceptual discussions about organizing a third “Unity Party” to rally Americans together around that ideological space known as “the radical middle.” Under this scenario, it could involve someone like Kasich, a Republican, running with his friend, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and, if elected, tapping Roosevelt and other moderates from both parties to serve in cabinet posts.
For now, this is only reverie happening in whispers at the edges.
Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.