Teddy’s Transformation

One of the most captivating political phenomena in this country to my mind is the radical transformation of Teddy Roosevelt from his early years to his run for the presidency in 1912. He began as a wealthy, landed Republican with strong convictions about the benefits of free-enterprise capitalism and became a radical proponent of the rights of the common man (and woman) in his run for reelection in 1912. Along the way he was known for his progressive programs, his growing sympathy for the disadvantaged, and his hatred of the predatory rich — those whose only goal in life is to accumulate wealth with no concern whatever for their duties as wealthy citizens (you know, like the Koch brothers). During this period he was close friends with William Taft who wore himself out stumping for his friend during Roosevelt’s first run at the presidency. Teddy, in turn, after serving as sitting president for seven years, worked hard to make sure Taft was elected as his successor to carry on with his progressive programs. It is interesting in this regard that, despite his bluster, Teddy was successful in pushing through fewer progressive programs than his successor, even though he later criticized Taft for being too conciliatory and too willing to compromise with the trusts.

In any event, when the split finally came between Taft and Roosevelt, it was deep and wide. After the Republican convention in 1912 selected Taft as the Republican candidate for president, Roosevelt accused Taft of stealing the nomination and split with the Republican party to form  an Independent Party that embraced his principles and promised him another term in the White House. He ran a vicious campaign, one of the first in which the man himself actually rolled up his sleeves and went on the campaign trail, something the old soldier loved to do. He continued to attack Taft, often personally, and the rift between the two men became wider and wider — though Taft refused to lower himself to the ad hominem level where Teddy was very comfortable, preferring to remain as much out of the public eye as possible and responding only to a list of Roosevelt’s charges against his presidency that were clearly based on untruths.

But what is most interesting during this period is the platform that Roosevelt pushed through the convention he called in Chicago that nominated him for president. It reflected Roosevelt’s growing populism, his conviction that the people, including women, should be more involved in the political process and entitled to government protection against the blind greed that was motivating the corporate giants. He even advocated a judicial override system that would allow citizens to overthrow the decisions of the courts through a referendum! As noted in Doris Goodman’s excellent study of the Bully Pulpit, his platform included, besides a call for the right of women to vote,

“a living wage . . .  the prohibition of child labor, federal regulations of interstate corporations, a graduated inheritance tax, an eight-hour workday for women, new standards for workmen’s compensation, and finally a system of social insurance designed to protect citizens against ‘the hazards of sickness . . . involuntary unemployment, and old age’ to which employers and employees would both contribute.”

As Roosevelt himself noted, “Whatever fate may at the moment overtake any of us, the movement itself will not stop.” He was right, but also aware that as an independent president he would have no allies in Congress and his chances of pushing through any of these items were slim at best.

Because of the radical nature of this platform, which resembled in many ways the platform Woodrow Wilson ran on as the Democratic candidate, Taft had to distance himself from Roosevelt and adopt a decidedly conservative platform — despite the fact that he was at least as passionate about the rights of the disadvantaged and the excesses of the trusts as was his former friend. Needless to say, they split the Republican vote and assured Wilson of a victory (sound familiar?). If Roosevelt had remained in the Republican fold, his party would have had the necessary electoral votes to reelect a Republican president, as he himself acknowledged later on.

As it happens,Taft, who was a gentle man not cut out for politics at all, and Roosevelt, who had supreme confidence in himself and a fierce love of political infighting, managed to mend their tattered relationship and once again became close friends in their declining years — due largely to Taft’s persistent determination to knock down the fences between them and repair the damage. But the fact that stands out above the rest is the strange fever that attaches itself to many in the political arena that inflames their emotions and blinds them to the obvious. I am put in mind of Socrates’ admonition that a person cannot become involved in politics and remain true to himself. Roosevelt’s ego was immense, doubtless a part of his charm, but it became so large — as a result of his love of power, perhaps — that he nearly lost a dear friend and caused a split in the party to which he had devoted his political life. Ironic and a lesson to be learned. The ancient Greek dramatists would have loved this story.

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9 thoughts on “Teddy’s Transformation

  1. Hugh, there are many lessons in the maturation of Teddy Roosevelt that continued well into his adulthood. The thing I remember most from the Ken Burns’ series on The Roosevelts was his wife and mother dying on the same day in the same house from different causes. It sent him into such a tailspin, he went west to live with common, hard working folks that fomented his “square deal” character. You hit it on the head about his ego being his Achilles Heel. Great post about a great, imperfect man, BTG

    • Much of his transformation apparently
      came from the time when he was governor of New York and visited the slums and saw the terrible working/living conditions of the very poor.

      • You reminded of a comment made by Doris Goodwin in an interview about Teddy. She said he sent reporters to speak openly with his bureau chiefs to uncover what was going well and what could be improved. He asked his chiefs to be open with the reporters and this communication helped all of them improve their work efforts and governance. That would be unheard of in today’s time and with the gotcha politics of seizing on poor process.

        The VA problems have been known for years and Congress and Presidents kicked the can down the road even last spring before Phoenix. If reporters had highlighted the issues earlier, processes could have been improved earlier along the way; but that would have been too logical.

  2. As you noted on my blog, we desperately need another Roosevelt personality to fight for the average American. I think many of us were fooled by Obama in this regard, and I don’t see anyone on the horizon who could or would fill these shoes, but we need to believe that someone will come forward.

    Great post, and a great example of the damage that a super ego, or as I like to call it, “believing your own PR,” can do to a person.

  3. Aside from Lincoln, TR was the first president to really master the use of personal engagement with the media and his own written and spoken words for maximum public relations value. (William Jennings Bryan did it as well, but never achieved the presidency). It should be remembered that among his many great attributes, Teddy was also a prolific and well-regarded author, especially on American and natural history topics. For quite a while, that’s how he gained additional income to support his big family and its big house at Oyster Bay. The writing also helped keep his name in the public eye in between campaigns and leading up to major campaigns — much like candidates do now with TV ads and appearances, and online methods.

    Yet, for all that sort of manipulative quality, TR was indeed both a master communicator — he was not communicating some pre-fab or made-by-committee version of himself, but the real thing, ego and all — and someone for whom the conversion to reformer was genuine.

    But the blasted ego: Once in the arena for Teddy, he could never stand to be outside it again. He got it in so young, too, very young first as New York’s police commissioner and governor, but even to the White House. It made his whole life go at such a fast and, ultimately, destructive pace. (He died at 60 — heck, he’d be a young pup in the 2016 campaign!). But the drive to always be at the center of attention, to push and push others to try to do the same proved harmful — to his relationship with Taft, to the progressive movement that had surged so much in the 1890s and 1900s, and even to his own family. Roosevelt was a war-monger, one of his worst qualities, and drove each of his sons to horrible consequences in World War I: death, severe injury, alcoholism as a way of self-medication for one. TR never really recovered from the trauma of what happened to his sons, and eventually realized at least partially that he was at fault. Unlike the decent-at-heart Taft who made the overtures to reconciliation, some of Teddy’s sons were not capable — because of wounds, or because son Quentin died in Europe when his plane crashed — of doing the same. A really tragic thing for a man who loved his family deeply.

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