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Week of 13 February 1998

Vol. I, No. 20

Feature Article

CGS prof sees Teddy Roosevelt as more than a Rough Rider

by Cliff Bernard

Professor William N. Tilchin is at ease in the classroom. He leans back against the desk, facing the 30 students in his social science discussion group. The students are relaxed and alert, except for one young man who dozes in the back row. The subject is Voltaire's Candide, and the aim of the assistant professor of social science is to lead his College of General Studies students through the superficial layers of meaning into the philosophical substance of the work. He asks them to open their books and read a short passage.

The students open their paperback copies, still shiny and new from the bookstore, and pore over the passage. "Now, who wants to tell me what's going on in this dialogue?" Several students raise their hands tentatively. Tilchin calls on each of them by name, considering each contribution, approving the thought, putting it in context, but still fishing for the deeper insight. Finally one student refers to the key line, "Yes, God punished one man for his evil, but the devil drowned the rest."

"Exactly so!" says Tilchin.

William Tilchin

CGS Prof. William Tilchin, whose recent book focuses on President Theodore Roosvelt's mastery of foreign policy. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Now there is a flurry of comments and questions, and Tilchin directs the class like a conductor, never dictating the flow of conversation, but bringing out the nuances of thought in his young students. The 15 years he spent as a high school teacher show.

Former student Arvie Goldberg, now a CAS senior, remembers Tilchin's social science class fondly. "He is a fabulous teacher," Goldberg says, "Inspiring, confident, knowledgeable. I loved his class."

Tilchin's office is a tiny room with a small window overlooking a courtyard. A long low desk occupies one wall. Its surface is clean and uncluttered. On a notice board above the desk are pinned several dozen snapshots of Tilchin's wife, son, and daughter. A color sketch of John, Paul, George and Ringo is on the other wall. Tilchin has a full head of dark hair, a round face, and a ready smile. He looks younger than his 47 years and exudes the warmth of a man at peace with himself and his world. He likes teaching at CGS.

"CGS has a vibrant teaching atmosphere," he says. "We really get to know our students. And the standard is high. There's a lot of good work being done here."

Asked if research or teaching is more important to him, he answers, "About 50-50. Perhaps a leaning towards teaching. For CGS teachers, I think, the dominant factor is teaching."

Since completing his Ph.D., Tilchin has taught full-time at the college level, first at Brown University, then Rhode Island College, and since 1994, at the College of General Studies. He has become an acknowledged expert on the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. TR, Tilchin says, has been undervalued, characterized especially in the popular imagination as a stiff 19th-century conservative figure when in fact he was a man of diverse interests and a president with a wide vision. As well as his work in international politics, Roosevelt was way ahead of his party on social issues, Tilchin says. He was a knowledgeable amateur ornithologist with a consuming interest in the environment, and as president set aside large tracts of forest as wildlife sanctuaries. This outraged the conservative members of his own party in Congress, who attached a rider to the 1907 appropriations bill removing the president's power to create protected wildlife areas. Roosevelt and his aides worked around the clock to set aside thousands of acres of new federal parkland, which were signed into existence by presidential decree before the new law came into effect. It was, according to Tilchin, a masterful display of presidential power politics.

How does Clinton compare? Tilchin's wry smile provides the answer. "He's not really in the same league. Of course, he's done some good things, but he doesn't have the vision that TR had."

Tilchin's recent book Theodore Roosevelt and the British Empire -- A Study in Presidential Statecraft deals with Roosevelt's mastery of foreign policy, focusing on his role in establishing and cementing what is now known as "the special relationship" between Great Britain and the United States. In the epilogue Tilchin writes that the "close cooperation" Roosevelt's leadership engendered between the two "ultimately extricated the world from the clutches of the most unimaginable tyranny." Tilchin points out that Roosevelt displayed prophetic insight when he predicted that the 20th century would be "the century of the men who speak English." The book was discussed on C-Span's About Books last month.

Tilchin traces his interest in Theodore Roosevelt back to his undergraduate readings. As he immersed himself in the Roosevelt literature, Tilchin became aware that although there was a substantial body of scholarship surrounding Roosevelt, not much of it was recent. He felt that Roosevelt's contribution to statecraft had been undervalued, with many commentators placing the beginning of 20th-century American presidential politics in the Wilson era. In Tilchin's view, it was Roosevelt's presidency that laid the foundations for modern American presidential politics.

Tilchin's contribution to Roosevelt scholarship has been recognized by his acceptance to the highly selective Theodore Roosevelt Association, where he gave the keynote address at last year's annual dinner. He is scheduled to give the keynote speech at Siena College's Theodore Roosevelt and the Dawn of the "American Century" conference on April 18.

In a further mark of recognition, Tilchin recently won a $50,000 Smith Richardson Foundation Junior Faculty Grant for the 1999-2000 academic year to complete a new book. In his grant proposal Tilchin takes issue with the widely held conviction "that 1914 should be considered the real beginning of 20th-century international relations." The book, Exemplary Statecraft -- The Diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt, will argue that Theodore Roosevelt's foreign policy is "a prescriptive model for the successful conduct of U.S. diplomacy throughout the 20th century and for the foreseeable future as well."