William Roscoe Thayer (18591923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
XIII. The two Roosevelts
I DO not wish to paint Roosevelt in one light only, and that the most favorable. Had no other been shed upon him, his Administration would have been too bland for human belief, and life for him would have palled. For his inexhaustible energy hungered for action. As soon as his judgment convinced him that a thing ought to be done he set about doing it. Recently, I asked one of the most perspicacious members of his Cabinet, What do you consider Theodores dominant trait He thought for a while, and then replied, Combativeness. No doubt the public also, at least while Roosevelt was in office, thought of him first as a fighter. The idea that he was truculent or pugnacious, that he went about with a chip on his shoulder, that he loved fighting for the sake of fighting, was, however, a mistake. During the eight years he was President he kept the United States out of war; not only that, he settled long-standing causes of irritation, such as the dispute over the Alaskan Boundary, which might, under provocation, have led to war. Even more than this, without striking a blow, he repelled the persistent attempts of the German Emperor to gain a foothold on this continent; he repelled those snakelike attacks and forced the Imperial Bully, not merely to retreat ignominiously but to arbitrate. And in foreign affairs, Roosevelt shone as a peacemaker. He succeeded in persuading the Russian Czar to come to terms with the Mikado of Japan. And soon after, when the German Emperor threatened to make war on France, a letter from Roosevelt to him caused William to reconsider his brutal plan, and to submit the Moroccan dispute to a conference of the Powers at Algeciras.
Instead of the braggart and brawler that his enemies mispainted him, I saw in Roosevelt, rather, a strong man who had taken early to heart Hamlets maxim and had steadfastly practiced it:
Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honours at the stake.
He himself summed up this part of his philosophy in a phrase which has become a proverb: Speak softly, but carry a big stick. More than once in his later years he quoted this to me, adding, that it was precisely because this or that Power knew that he carried a big stick, that he was enabled to speak softly with effect.
No man of our time better deserved the Nobel Peace Prize than did he. The fallacy that Roosevelt, like the proverbial Irishman at Donnybrook Fair, had rather fight than eat, spread through the country, and indeed throughout the world, and had its influence in determining whether men voted for him or not. His enemies used it as proof that he was not a safe President, but they took means much more malignant than this to discredit and destroy him. When the Big Interests discovered that they could not silence him, they circulated stories of all kinds that would have rendered even the archangel Gabriel suspect to some worthy dupes.
They threw doubts, for instance, on his sanity, and one heard that the Wall Street magnates employed the best alienists in the country to analyze everything the President did and said, in the hope of accumulating evidence to show that he was too unbalanced to be President. Not content with stealing away his reputation for mental competence, they shot into the dark the gravest charges against his honor. A single story, still believed, as I know, by persons of eminence in their professions, will illustrate this. When one of the great contests between the President and the Interests was on, he remembered that one of their representatives in New York had damaging, confidential letters from him. Hearing that these might be produced, Roosevelt telephoned one of his trusty agents to break open the desk of the Captain of Industry where they were kept, and to bring them to the White House, before ten oclock the following morning. This was done. To believe that the President of the United States would engage in a vulgar robbery of the jimmy and black-mask sort indicates a degree of credulity which even the alienists could hardly have expected to encounter outside of their asylums. It suggests also, that Baron Munchausen, like the Wandering Jew Ahasuerus, has never died. Does any one suppose that the person whose desk was rifled would have kept quiet? Or that, if the Interests had had even reasonably sure evidence of the Presidents guilt, they would not have published it? To set spies and detectives upon him with orders to trail him night and day was, according to rumor, an obvious expedient for his enemies to employ.
I repeat these stories, not because I believe them, but because many persons did, and such gossip, like the cruel slanders whispered against President Cleveland years before, gained some credence. Roosevelt was so natural, so unguarded, in his speech and ways, that he laid himself open to calumny. The delight he took in establishing the Ananias Club, and the rapidity with which he found new members for it, seemed to justify strong doubts as to his temper and taste, if not as to his judgment. The vehemence of his public speaking, which was caused in part by a physical difficulty of utterancethe sequel of his early asthmatic troubleand in part by his extraordinary vigor, created among some of the hearers who did not know him the impression that he must be a hard drinker, or that he drank to stimulate his eloquence. After he retired from office, his enemies, in order to undermine his further political influence, sowed the falsehood that he was a drunkard. I do not recall that they ever suggested that he used his office for his private profitthere are some things too absurd for even malice to suggestbut he had reason enough many times to calm himself by reflecting that his Uncle Jimmy Bulloch, the best of men, believed just such lies, and the most atrocious insinuations, against Mr. Gladstone.
Of course, nearly all public men have to undergo similar virulent defamation. I have heard a well-known publicist, a lawyer of ability, argue that both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not escape from what seems now incredible abuse, and that they were, nevertheless, the noblest of men and peerless patriots; and then he went on to argue that President Woodrow Wilson has been the target of similar malignity, and to leave you to conclude that consequently Wilson is in the same class with Washington and Lincoln. If he had put his thesis in a different form, the publicist might have seen himself, as his hearers did, the absurdity of it. Suppose he had said, for instance: In spite of the fact that Washington and Lincoln each kept a cow, they were both peerless patriots, therefore, as President Wilson keeps a cow, he must be a peerless patriot. One fears that logic is somewhat neglected even in the training of lawyers in our day.
The commonest charge against Roosevelt, and the one which seemed, on the surface at least, to be most plausible, was that he was devoured by insatiable ambition. The critical remarked that wherever he went he was always the central figure. The truth is, that he could no more help being the central figure than a lion could in any gathering of lesser creatures; the fact that he was Roosevelt decided that. He did use the personal pronoun I, and the possessive pronoun My, with such frequency as to irritate good persons who were quite as egotistical as heif that be egotismbut who used such modest circumlocutions as the present writer, or one, to camouflage their self-conceit. Roosevelt enjoyed almost all his experiences with equal zest, and he expressed his enjoyment without reserve. He was quite as well aware of his foibles as his critics were, and he made merry over them. Probably nobody laughed more heartily than he at the pleasantly humorous remark of one of his boys: Father never likes to go to a wedding or a funeral, because he cant be the bride at the wedding or the corpse at the funeral.
Ambition he had, the ambition which every healthy-minded man ought to have to deserve the good-will and approbation of his fellows. This he admitted over and over again, and he made no pretense of not taking satisfaction from the popularity his countrymen showered upon him. In writing to a friend that he wished to be a candidate in 1904, he distinguished between the case of Lincoln in 1864 and that of himself and other Presidential candidates for renomination. In 1864, the crisis was so tremendous that Lincoln must have considered that chiefly, irrespective of his own hopes: whereas Roosevelt in 1904, like Jackson, Grant, Cleveland, and the other two-term Presidents, might, without impropriety, look upon reelection as, in a measure, a personal tribute.
One of my purposes in writing this sketch will have failed, if I have not made clear the character of Roosevelts ambition. He could not be happy unless he were busily at work. If that work were in a public office he was all the happier. But the way in which he accepted one office after another, each unrelated to the preceding, was so desultory as to prove that he did not begin life with a deep-laid design on the Presidency. He got valuable political notoriety as an Assemblyman, but that was, as I have so often said, because he could not be inconspicuous anywhere. He took the office of Civil Service Commissioner, although everybody regarded that as a commonplace field bounded on three sides by political oblivion; and only a dreamer could have supposed that his service as Chief Police Commissioner of New York City could lead to the White House. Only when he became Assistant Secretary of the Navy can he be said to have come within striking distance of the great target. In enlisting in the Spanish War and organizing the Rough Riders, he may well have reflected that military prowess has often favored a Presidential candidacy; but even here, his sense of patriotic duty and his desire to experience the soldiers life were almost indisputably his chief motives. As Governor of New York, however, he could not disguise from himself the fact that that position might prove again, as it had proved in the case of Cleveland, the stepping-stone to the Presidency. On finding, however, that Platt and the Bosses, exasperated by him as Governor, wished to get rid of him by making him Vice-President, and knowing that in the normal course of events a Vice-President never became President, he tried to refuse nomination to the lower office. And only when he perceived that the masses of the people, the country over, and not merely the Bosses, insisted on nominating him, did he accept. This brief summary of his political progress assuredly does not bear out the charge that he was the victim of uncontrollable ambition.
Roosevelts Ananias Club caught the imagination of the country, but not always favorably. Those whom he elected into it, for instance, did not relish the notoriety. Others thought that it betokened irritation in him, and that a man in his high position ought not to punish persons who were presumably trustworthy by branding them so conspicuously. In fact, I suppose, he sometimes applied the brand too hastily, under the spur of sudden resentment. The most-open of men himself, he had no hesitation in commenting on anybody or any topic with the greatest indiscretion. For he took it for granted that even the strangers who heard him would hold his remarks as confidential. When, therefore, one of his hearers went outside and reported in public what the President had said, Roosevelt disavowed it, and put the babbler in the Ananias class. What a President wishes the public to know, he tells it himself. What he utters in private should, in honor, be held as confidential.
When I say that Roosevelt was astonishingly open, I do not mean that he blurted out everything, for he always knew the company with whom he talked, and if there were any among them with whom it would be imprudent to risk an indiscretion, he took care to talk for safety. With him, a secret was a secret, and he could be as silent as an unopened Egyptian tomb. Certain diplomatic affairs he did not lisp, even to his Secretary of State. So far as appears, John Hay knew nothing about the Presidents interviews with the German Ambassador Holleben, which forced William II to arbitrate. And he sometimes prepared a bill for Congress with out consulting his Cabinet, for fear that the stock jobbers might get wind of it and bull or bear the market with the news.
Before passing on, I must remark that some cases of apparent mendacity or inaccuracy on the part of a Presidentespecially if he were as voluble and busy as Rooseveltmust be attributed to forgetfulness or misunderstanding and not to wilful lying. A person coming from an interview with him might construe as a promise the kindly remarks with which the President wished to soften a refusal. The promise, which was no promise, not being kept, the suppliant accused the President of faithlessness or falsehood. McKinley, it was said, could say no to three different seekers for the same office so balmily that each of them went away convinced that he was the successful applicant. Yet McKinley escaped the charge of mendacity and Roosevelt, who deserved it far less, did not.
In his writings and speeches, Roosevelt uttered his opinions so candidly that we need not fall back on breaches of confidence to explain why his opponents were maddened by them. Plutocrats and monopolists might well wince at being called malefactors of great wealth, the wealthy criminal class. Such expressions had the virtue, from the point of view of rhetoric, of being so descriptive that any body could visualize them. They stung; they shed indefinable odium on a whole class; and, no doubt, this was just what Roosevelt intended. To many critics they seemed cruel, because, instead of allowing for exceptions, they huddled all plutocrats together, the virtuous and the vicious alike. And so with the victims of his phrase, undesirable citizens. I marvel rather, however, that Roosevelt, given his extraordinary talent of flashing epithets and the rush of his indignation when he was doing battle for a good cause, displayed as much moderation as he did. Had he been a demagogue, he would have roused the masses against the capitalists and have goaded them to such a pitch of hatred that they would have looked to violence, bloodshed, and injustice, as the remedy they must apply.
But Roosevelt was farthest removed from the Revolutionists of the vulgar, red-handed class. He consecrated his life to prevent Revolution. All his action in the conflict between Labor and Capital aimed at conciliation. He told the plutocrats their defects with brutal frankness, and if he promoted laws to curb them, it was because he realized, as they did not, that, unless they mended their ways, they would bring down upon themselves a Socialist avalanche which they could not withstand. What set the seal of consecration on his work was his treatment of Labor with equal justice. Unlike the demagogue, he did not flatter the horny-handed sons of toil or obsequiously do the bidding of railroad brotherhoods, or pretend that the capitalist had no rights, and that all workingmen were good merely because they worked. On the contrary, he told them that no class was above the law; he warned them that if Labor attempted to get its demands by violence, he would put it down. He ridiculed the idea that honest citizenship depends on the more or less money a man has in his pocket. A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country, Roosevelt said in a Fourth-of-July speech at Springfield, Illinois, in 1903, is good enough to be given a square deal afterward. More than that no man is entitled to, and less than that no man shall have.
That phrase, a square deal, stuck in the hearts of the American people. It summed up what they regarded as Roosevelts most characteristic trait. He was the man of the square deal, who instinctively resented injustice done to those who could not protect themselves; the friend of the underdog, the companion of the self-reliant and the self-respecting. It is under this aspect that Roosevelt seems most likely to live in popular history.
So, from the time he became President, the public was divided into believing that there were two Roosevelts. His enemies made almost a monster of him, denouncing and fearing him as violent, rash, pugnacious, egotistical, ogreish in his mad, hatred of Capital, and Capitalists condemned him as hypocritical, cruel, lying, and vindictive. The other side, however, insisted on his courage; he was a fighter, but he always fought to defend the weak and to uphold the right; he was equally unmoved by Bosses and by demagogues; in his human relations he regarded only what a man was, not his class or condition; he had a great hearted, jovial simplicity; a far-seeing and steadfast patriotism; he preached the Square Deal and he practiced it; even more than Lincoln he was accessible to every one.