William Roscoe Thayer > Theodore Roosevelt > XIX. Choosing his Successor
William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923). Theodore Roosevelt. 1919.
XIX. Choosing his Successor
CRITICS frequently remark that Roosevelt was the most masterful politician of his time, and what we have already seen of his career should justify this assertion. We need, however, to define what we mean by “politician.” Boss Platt, of New York, was a politician, but far removed from Roosevelt. Platt and all similar dishonest manipulators of voters—and the dishonesty took many forms—held their power, not by principles, but by exerting an unprincipled influence over the masses who supported them. Roosevelt, on the other hand, was a great politician because he saw earlier than most men certain fundamental principles which he resolved to carry through whether the Bosses or their supporters liked it or not. In a word he believed in principles rather than in men. He was a statesman, and like the statesman he understood that half a loaf is often better than no bread and that, though he must often compromise and conciliate, he must surrender nothing essential.   1
  As a result, his career as Assemblyman, as Civil Service Commissioner, as Police Commissioner of New York City, as Governor of New York State, and as President, seems a continuous rising scale of success. We see the achievement which swallows up the baffling difficulties and the stubborn opposition. These we must always remember if we would measure the extent of the victory. It was Roosevelt’s persistence and his refusal to be baffled or turned aside which really made him seem to triumph in all his work.   2
  He never doubted, as I have often said, the necessity of party organization in our political system, although he recognized the tendency to corruption in it, the unreasoning loyalty which it bred and its substitution of Party for Country in its teaching. He had known something of political machine methods at Albany. After he became President, he knew them through and through as they were practiced on national proportions at Washington. The Machine had hoped to shelve him by making him Vice President, and in spite of it he suddenly emerged as President. This confrontation would have been embarrassing on both sides if Roosevelt had not displayed unexpected tact. He avowed his purpose of carrying out McKinley’s policies and he kept it faithfully, thus relieving the Machine of much anxiety. By his straightforwardness he even won the approval of Boss Quay, the lifelong political bandit from Pennsylvania, who went to him and said in substance: ‘I believe that you are square and I will stand by you until you prove otherwise.’ Roosevelt made no bargain, but like a sensible man he did not forbid Quay from voting on his side. Personally, also, Quay’s lack of hypocrisy attracted him; for Quay never pretended that he was in politics to promote the Golden Rule and he had skirted so close to the Penal Code that he knew how it looked and how he could evade it. Senator Hanna, the Ohio political Boss, who had made McKinley President by ways which cannot all be documented except by persons who have examined the Recording Angel’s book (and research students of that original source never return), was another towering figure whom Roosevelt had to get along with. He found out how to do it, and to do it so amicably that it was reported that he breakfasted often with the Ohio Senator and that they even ate griddle-cakes and scrapple together. The Senator evidently no more understood the alert and fascinating young President than we under stand what is going on in the brain of a playful young tiger, but instinct warned him that this mysterious young creature, electrified by a thousand talents, was dangerous and must be held down. And so with the other members of the Republican Machine which ran both Houses of Congress and expected to run the undisciplined President too. Roosevelt studied them all and discovered how to deal with each.   3
  At the beginning of the year 1904, everybody began to discuss the next Presidential campaign. Who should be the Republican candidate? The President, naturally, wished to be elected and thereby to hold the office in his own right and not by the chance of assassination. Senator Hanna surprised many of the politicians by bagging a good many delegates for himself. He probably did not desire to be President; like Warwick he preferred the glory of king-maker to that of king; but he was a shrewd business man who knew the value of having goods which, although he did not care for them himself, he might exchange for others. I doubt whether he deluded himself into supposing that the American people would elect so conspicuous a representative of the Big Interests as he was, to be President, but he knew that the fortunes of candidates in political conventions are uncertain, and that if he had a considerable body of delegates to swing from one man to another, he might, if his choice won, become the power behind the new throne as he had been behind McKinley’s. And if we could suspect him of humor he may have enjoyed fun to a mild degree in keeping the irrepressible Roosevelt in a state of suspense.   4
  Senator Hanna’s death, however, in March, 1904, removed the only competitor whom Roosevelt could have regarded as dangerous. Thenceforth he held the field, and yet, farseeing politician though he was, he did not feel sure. The Convention at Chicago nominated him, virtually, by acclamation. In the following months of a rather slow campaign he had fits of depression, although all signs pointed to his success. Talking with Hay as late as October 30, he said: “It seems a cheap sort of thing to say, and I would not say it to other people, but laying aside my own great personal interests and hopes,—for of course I desire intensely to succeed,—I have the greatest pride that in this fight we are not only making it on clearly avowed principles, but we have the principles and the record to avow. How can I help being a little proud when I contrast the men and the considerations by which I am attacked, and those by which I am defended?” 1   5
  Just at the end, the campaign was enlivened by the attack which the Democratic candidate, Judge Alton B. Parker, made upon his opponent. He charged that Mr. Cortelyou, the manager of the Republican campaign, had received great sums of money from the Big Interests, and that he had, indeed, been appointed manager because, from his previous experience as Secretary of the Department of Commerce, he had special information in regard to malefactors of great wealth which would enable him to coerce them to good purpose for the Republican Corruption Fund. President Roosevelt published a letter denying Judge Parker’s statements as “unqualifiedly and atrociously false.” If Judge Parker’s attack had any effect on the election it was to reduce his own votes. Later, Edward H. Harriman, the railroad magnate, tried to smirch Roosevelt by accusing him of seeking Harriman’s help in 1904, but this charge also was never sustained.   6
  At the election on November 8, Roosevelt had a majority of nearly two million and a half votes out of thirteen million and a half cast, thus securing by large odds the greatest popular majority any President has had. The Electoral College gave him 336 votes and Parker 140. That same evening, his victory being assured, he dictated the following statement to the press: “The wise custom which limits the President to two terms, regards the substance and not the form, and under no circumstances will I be a candidate for and accept the nomination for another.” Those who heard this statement, or who had talked the matter over with Roosevelt, under stood that he had in mind a renomination in 1908, but many persons regarded it as his final renunciation of ever being a candidate for the Presidency. And later, when circumstances quite altered the situation, this “promise” was revived to plague him.   7
  >From March 4, 1905, he was President “in his own right.” Behind him stood the American people, and he was justified in regarding himself, at that time, as the most popular President since Washington. The unprecedented majority of votes he had received at the election proved that, and proved also that the country believed in “his policies.” So he might go ahead to carry out and to extend the general reforms which he had embarked on against much opposition. No one could question that he had a mandate from the people, and during his second term he was still more aggressive.   8
  Now, however, came the little rift which widened and widened and at last opened a great chasm between Roosevelt and the people on one side and the Machine dominators of the Republican Party on the other. For although Roosevelt was the choice of the Republicans and of migratory voters from other parties, although he was, in fact, the idol of millions who supported him, the Republican Machine insisted on ruling. Before an election, the Machine consents to a candidate who can win, but after he has been elected the. Machine instinctively acts as his master. A strong man, like President Cleveland, may hold out against the Bosses of his party, but the penalty he has to pay is to find himself bereft of support and his party shattered. This might have happened in Roosevelt’s case also, if he had not been more tactful than Cleveland was in dealing with his enemies.   9
  He now had to learn the bitter knowledge of the trials which beset a President whose vision outsoars that of the practical rulers of his party. In the House of Representatives there was a little group led by the Speaker, Joseph G. Cannon, of Illinois, who controlled that part of Congress with despotic arrogance. In the Senate there was a similar group of political oligarchs, called the Steering Committee, which decided what questions should be discussed, what bills should be killed, and what others should be passed. Aldrich, of Rhode Island, headed this. A multi-millionaire himself, he was the particular advocate of the Big Interests. Next came Allison, of Iowa, an original Republican, who entered Congress in 1863 and remained there for the rest of his life, a hide-bound party man, personally honest and sufficiently prominent to be “talked of” for Vice President on several occasions. He was rather the peacemaker of the Steering Committee, having the art of reconciling antagonists and of smoothing annoying angles. A little older, was Orville H. Platt, the Senator from Connecticut who died in 1905, and was esteemed a model of virtue among the Senators of his time. As an offset to the men of threescore and ten and over was Albert J. Beveridge, the young Senator from Indiana, vigorous, eloquent, fearless, and radical, whose mind and heart were consecrated to Roosevelt. Beveridge, at least, had no ties, secret or open, with the Trusts, or the Interests, or Wall Street; on the contrary, he attacked them fiercely, and among other Anti-Trust legislation he drove through the Meat Inspection Bill. How he managed to get on with the gray wolves of the Committee it would be interesting to hear; but we must rid ourselves of the notion that those gray wolves sought personal profit in money by their steering. None of them was charged with using his position for the benefit of his purse. Power was what those politicians desired; Power, which gave them the opportunity to make the political tenets of their party prevail. Orville Platt, or Allison, regarded Republicanism with al most religious fanaticism; and we need not search far in history to find fanatics who were personally very good and tender-hearted men, but who would put heretics to death with a smile of pious satisfaction.   10
  Roosevelt’s task was to persuade the Steering Committee to support him in as many of his Radical measures as he could. They had done this during his first Administration, partly because they did not see whither he was leading. Senator Hanna, then a member of the Steering Committee, attempted to steady all Republicans who seemed likely to be seduced by Roosevelt’s subversive novelties by telling them to “stand pat,” and, as we look back now, the Senator from Ohio with his stand-pattism broom reminds us of the portly Mrs. Partington trying to sweep back the inflowing Atlantic Ocean. During the second Administration, however, no one could plead ignorance or surprise when Roosevelt urged on new projects. He made no secret of his policies, and he could not have disguised, if he would, the fact that he was thorough. By a natural tendency the “Stand-Patters” drew closer together. Similarly the various elements which followed Roosevelt tended to combine. Already some of these were beginning to be called “Insurgents,” but this name did not frighten them nor did it shame them back into the fold of the orthodox Republicans. As Roosevelt continued his fight for reclamation, conservation, health, and pure foods, and governmental control of the great monopolies, the opposition to him, on the part of the capitalists affected, grew more intense. What wonder that these men, realizing at last that their unlimited privileges would be taken away from them, resented their deprivation. The privileged classes in England have not welcomed the suggestion that their great landed estates shall be cut up, nor can we expect that the American dukes and marquises of oil and steel and copper and transportation should look forward with meek acquiescence to their own extinction.   11
  Nevertheless, there is no politics in politics, and so the gray wolves who ran the Republican Party, knowing that Roosevelt, and not themselves, had the determining popular support of the country, were too wary to block him entirely as the Democrats had done under Cleveland. They let his bills go through, but with more evident reluctance, only after bitter fighting. And as they were nearly all church members in good standing, we can imagine that they prayed the Lord to hasten the day when this pestilent marplot in the White House should retire from office. Trusting Roosevelt so far as to believe that he would stand by his pledge not to be a candidate in 1908, they cast about for a person of their own stripe whom they could make the country accept.   12
  But Roosevelt himself felt too deeply involved in the cause of Reform, which he had been pushing for seven years, to allow his successor to be dictated by the Stand-Patters. So he sought among his associates in the Cabinet for the member who, judging by their work together, would most loyally carry on his policies, and at length he decided upon William H. Taft, his Secretary of War. “Root would make the better President, but Taft would be the better candidate,” Theodore wrote to an intimate, and that opinion was generally held in Washington and elsewhere. Mr. Root had so conducted the Department of State, since the death of John Hay, that many good judges regarded him as the ablest of all the Secretaries of that Department, and Roosevelt himself went even farther. “Root,” he said to me, “is the greatest intellectual force in American public life since Lincoln.” But in his career as lawyer, which brought him to the head of the American Bar, he had been attorney for powerful corporations, and that being the time when the Government was fighting the Corporations, it was not supposed that his candidacy would be popular. So Taft was preferred to him.   13
  The Republican Machine accepted Taft as a candidate with composure, if not with enthusiasm. Anyone would be better than Roosevelt in the eyes of the Machine and its supporters, and perhaps they perceived in Secretary Taft qualities not wholly unsympathetic. They were probably thankful, also, that Roosevelt had not demanded more. He allowed the “regulars” to choose the nominee for Vice-President, and he did not meddle with the make-up of the Republican National Committee. One of his critics, Dean Lewis, marks this as Roosevelt’s chief political blunder, because by leaving the Republican National Committee in command he virtually predetermined the policy of the next four years. Only a very strong President with equal zeal and fighting quality could win against the Committee. In 1908 he had them so docile that he might have changed their membership, and changed the rules by which elections were governed if he had so willed, but, just as before the election of 1904, Roosevelt had doubted his own popularity in the country, so now he missed his chance because he did not wish to seem to wrest from the unwilling Machine powers which it lost no time in using against him.   14
  The campaign never reached a dramatic crisis. Mr. Bryan, the Democratic candidate, who still posed as the Boy Orator of the Platte, although he had passed forty-eight years of age, made a spirited canvass, and when the votes were counted he gained more than a million and a third over the total for Judge Parker in 1904. But Mr. Taft won easily by a million and a quarter votes.   15
  Between election and inauguration an ominous disillusion set in. The Rooseveltians had taken it for granted that the new President would carry on the policies of the old; more than that, the impression prevailed among them that the high officials of the Roosevelt Administration, including some members of his Cabinet, would be retained, but when Inauguration Day came, it appeared that Mr. Taft had chosen a new set of advisers, and he denied that he had given any one reason to believe that he would do otherwise.   16
  March 4, 1909, was a wintry day in Washington. A snowstorm and high winds prevented holding the inaugural exercises out of doors as usual on the East Front of the Capitol. President Roosevelt and President-elect Taft drove in state down Pennsylvania Avenue, and Mr. Taft, having taken the oath of office, delivered his inaugural address in the Senate Chamber. The ceremonies being over, Mr. Roosevelt, instead of accompanying the new President to the White House, went to the railway station and took the train for New York. This innovation had been planned some time before, because Mr. Roosevelt had arranged to sail for Europe in a few days, and needed to reach Oyster Bay as soon as possible to complete his preparations.   17
  Many an eye-witness who watched him leave, as a simple civilian, the Hall of Congress, must have felt that with his going there closed one of the most memorable administrations this country had ever known. Roosevelt departed, but his invisible presence still filled the capital city and frequented every quarter of the Nation.   18

Note 1. W. R. Thayer: John Hay, II, 356, 357. [ back ]


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