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Obama, Roosevelt and I couldn’t get a ticket

US Presidents don’t come to Kansas.

Okay . . . they come here but not very often. According to presidential historian Brendan Doherty, it’s one of the least visited states by any president over the past 35 years. The last “six presidents collectively held events in Kansas on 15 days, the ninth lowest total for any state,” Doherty said.

I suppose it makes sense. Kansas is about as red as it gets. Not since 1964, when we sided with Johnson has Kansas voted Democrat. (The irony? The last time before ’64 was 1936, when we voted for FDR over our own Kansas boy Alf Landon.) Incumbents don’t come here because, well . . . it doesn’t matter. If you’re GOP, the state is a lock. And if you’re not GOP, it’s a waste of your time.

So whether you’re red or blue, for President Obama to show up today in tiny Osawatomie, Kansas (population 4,500) is a big deal. The White House press office is tying today’s speech to one given by Teddy Roosevelt in the same town in 1910:

The ideas that President Roosevelt put forward about the need for Americans of all kinds to get a fair shot and a fair shake are very much at issue today. President Obama will lay out the choice we face between a country in which too few do well while too many struggle to get by, and one where we’re all in it together – where everyone engages in fair play, everyone does their fair share, and everyone gets a fair shot. Just over one hundred years ago, President Teddy Roosevelt came to Osawatomie, Kansas, and called for a New Nationalism, where everyone gets a fair chance, a square deal, and an equal opportunity to succeed.

And whether you’re red or blue, it makes for a great teaching opportunity. Perhaps one of the quickest and easiest ways is to compare the Teddy’s 1910 speech with what President Obama says today. Use the NARA and Library of Congress document analysis sheets to help kids work through the content. The 1910 speech has been called the New Nationalism speech or the Square Deal speech:
I stand for the square deal. But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service. One word of warning, which, I think, is hardly necessary in Kansas. When I say I want a square deal for the poor man, I do not mean that I want a square deal for the man who remains poor because he has not got the energy to work for himself. If a man who has had a chance will not make good, then he has got to quit.

Be sure to also have kids look at the context for each speech. Why would Roosevelt choose to give this speech in this place? What was going on in the US at the time? What are the similarities between the economies of the 1910 and the present? What about the political situation? Can populists of the period be compared to Occupy Wall Street? How should Roosevelt’s comments about controlling corporations who desire “the right of suffrage” be viewed in today’s political environment? He mentions “practical equality of opportunity for all citizens.” Is this possible or desirable in 2011?  What happened to Roosevelt after the speech?

The 1910 speech had something for everyone then and something for everyone today. Labor. Capital. Property. Mob rule. Power corporations. Political influence. Rich. Poor.

In other words, the perfect sort of document for great classroom discussions.

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