Taft and Roosevelt: A Composite Study

PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT regretted deeply the resignation of Elihu Hoot as Secretary of War in 1903. ‘As an adviser,’said he, ‘ Root gives me just what I need — candid opposition when he thinks I am wrong. Shall I ever find any one to take his place?’ To a suggestion of Mr. Taft’s name he responded, ‘Of course, Taft is the only man possible. I am very fond of him, and he will make an idea! member of the Cabinet. The only trouble with him is,’—and he ended the sentence with his whimsical smile and in his semifalsetto, — ‘he is too much like me!

Mr. Taft came, and in due course was chosen by Mr. Roosevelt for his successor. The President pressed his candidacy on the ground of their sympathetic agreement on questions of policy, intimating that the Taft administration would be, in effect, only a more polished continuation of the Roosevelt administration. Mr. Taft’s popular majority therefore contained a mixture of voters who wished to see the Roosevelt administration carried through a few more chapters, and of voters whom nothing but the promised polish reconciled to the threatened prolongation.

The outcome astonished both groups. President Taft was not slow in letting it be known that the contrasts between himself and his predecessor were going to be emphasized quite as strongly as their likenesses. His reorganization of the Cabinet, his demand that Congress address itself immediately to a revision of the tariff, his preparations for indiscriminate prosecutions under the anti-trust law, were among the plainest evidences that a new day had dawned. What one element read in the change was a reversal and rebuke of Rooseveltism; what the opposing element read was the out-Roosevelting of Roosevelt. Unbiased observers saw in it merely the spectacle of two men aiming at the same ends, but differing radically in their manner of reaching these. A brief review of their dissimilarities, which are partly temperamental and partly the effect of training, may explain some phenomena that seem to have mystified the bulk of the newspaper-reading public.

We may set out with the assertion that both men are genuinely patriotic. Both are highly educated, the one on technical lines, the other in general scholarship. Neither began his public career with the Presidency in view. Taft’s ambitions pointed in the direction of the Federal Supreme Court; Roosevelt’s toward diplomacy, looking to the erection of the United States into a great World Power. Circumstances which could not have been foreseen deflected the currents of their lives. Each is a living force after his kind: Taft static, Roosevelt dynamic. Taft takes advantage of opportunity when it comes his way, and strives to shape it for the public good; Roosevelt goes hunting it, and consequently gets a larger choice. Inertia, for Taft, means rest; for Roosevelt, incessant activity.

To recognize visually the temperamental difference between the two men, we need only see them at their equestrian exercise. Mr. Taft’s horse must be one which can be depended on to carry him a given distance over a specified course, in a stated time and at a certain gait; Mr. Roosevelt’s must be one which will not balk at leaving the beaten trail and plunging into a thicket, a jumper which will refuse no bar, a mettlesome animal which taxes continually its rider’s vigilance. Both men are laughing philosophers; but Taft laughs at the world, Roosevelt with it. The Taft smile has passed into a proverb; it is always there, shining even through the mists of conventional sobriety. The Roosevelt smile comes and goes; it emerges from his near-sighted scowl and disappears again behind it, as the sun plays with an opaque cloud.

Both men have vigorous tempers. When Taft gives way to his, it is to inflict a merciless lashing upon its victim, for whom thereafter he has no use whatever. With Roosevelt it is a case of powder and spark: there is a vivid flash and a deafening roar, but when the smoke has blown away, that is the end, and the author of the explosion of January may become a boon companion by June, if accident have meanwhile invested him with new interest.

Both men have strong wills; Roosevelt’s is aggressive to the verge of tyranny, Taft’s obstinate to the point of perverseness. So marked are these characteristics that it is not difficult to fancy what either man would do in a fateful crisis. Had Taft been in Stoessel’s place at Port Arthur, for instance, he might have starved rather than surrender; Roosevelt would have headed a forlorn hope and tried to cut his way through the besiegers, taking as many lives as he could before giving up his own.

Their theories of administration are fundamentally diverse. Mr. Taft s is the more dignified, Mr. Roosevelt’s the more human. Mr. Taft’s conception of the government is of a gigantic machine, its many parts so articulated as to be moved from a single source of energy; and as engineer he confines his attention to this central distributing point. As Mr. Roosevelt sees it, the government is an organization of live men, each engaged in doing something which, if not well done, diminishes the efficiency of the rest; hence, when he was in command of this legion, he had his eye on the corporals not less than on the captains. Technically speaking, Mr. Taft follows the more orderly method when he communicates only with his Cabinet officers, and leaves to them the direction of their subordinates.

Setting aside the question of orderliness, however, and considering rather the accomplishment of results, there is good reason for thinking that a president who takes a personal hand in everything will loom larger in history than one who sticks closely to a prescribed task. His example vitalizes the whole working force. His meddling may occasionally make discipline difficult in the higher places, but it inspires the rank and file with a sense of individual responsibility and encourages them to think as well as work. Only a brain and body of uncommon endurance could stand such drafts, and not one president in a dozen is equipped for undertaking more than the laws demand of him. This is a beneficent provision of nature to avert chaos in our governmental affairs; but it should not blind us to the fact that the country’s debt to some of its master-spirits of the past has grown out of their idiosyncrasies rather than their conformity to rule.

Volunteer criticism brings into view another variance between the two men. Taft, shut in as he was for the first year of his presidency, knew virtually nothing of what the newspapers were saying about him and his official family. He never cared for such reading himself, and others decided for him how much, and what, he should see. Those adverse opinions which did get past them and reach his eye, excited only his contempt, as either founded on misinformation or instigated by the ‘conspirators’ whom he suspected of constantly plotting harm to his administration. He rarely noticed such things publicly; when he did, he dealt with his crit ics at arm’s length, and in terms which, though distinct, were fairly moderate.

Roosevelt, on the other hand, has always kept track of the newspapers, a practice in which he has had the aid of an enormous personal acquaintance. As the result of a particularly abusive screed there is apt to be a jarring of te elements till he has published to the world his Opinion of the writer, in which the neutral tints of rhetoric are conspicuous by their absence. Were not his store of vital energy inexhaustible, he would long ago have worn himself out with the explosive force he puts into his retorts. His best friends regret that he does not reserve his artillery fire for the big foes who are worthy of it, instead of wasting so much ammunition on ground-moles and jackrabbits. Besides, it loses a good deal of its potency by too frequent use. No public man can take up every quarrel thrust at him, save at the expense of other and larger warfare. Half the calumniators of a really fine fellow would go unheeded by the multitude but for the free advertising he gives them; and one deplorable effect of his condescension is to encourage them to bait him whenever they are short of legitimate excitement from other sources.

A certain kind of criticism, nevertheless, is accepted without resentment by the self-assertive Roosevelt. During his presidency he hardly ever put forth an important manifesto without first submitting it to a council in which the several elements likely to be affected by it were represented, with a request that every one speak his mind unreservedly. I have seen at such gatherings, clergymen, lawyers, editors, college presidents, mechanics, members of the administration, and subordinates in the civil service. All took their host at his word, and voiced their views when called upon. Often he made changes suggested by the least distinguished of his guests, but he was equally frank in holding to his first notions if unconvinced by argument. This was his means of getting into touch with public opinion on matters which he could not go out and discuss directly with his fellow citizens in mass. One can hardly imagine President Taft calling together such a miscellaneous company from the four corners of the country, and submitting his judgments for their approval or dissent. The reason is not far to seek.

Passing reference has been made to the education of the two men. In its broader sense the term includes, not only their academic studies, but their training in the everyday work of the world. Taft’s brief but admirable service on the bench proved his fitness for a career there. It also fixed upon him the judicial habit of thought and action, which is utterly unlike the executive habit. The former means equipoise, deliberation, and carefully revised conclusions; the latter means prompt decision and swift reinforcement, followed by the stroke that counts. Coming to the presidency, Mr. Taft, moved from a somewhat secluded domain in which he was at home, into an open one in which he was a stranger. The offices which had fallen to Roosevelt, from the day he entered public life, had, on the contrary, been legislative or executive, never judicial; they had kept him constantly leading somebody and hammering at something, instead of calmly analyzing evidence and formulating principles.

It is true that Taft had some experience nominally executive, for a few years as Governor of the Philippines, and later as Secretary of War; but his colonial work was chiefly in the way of determining rights and administering justice among a dependent people, and in the Cabinet his functions were more advisory than constructive. It is not wonderful, therefore, that as President he approached his problems by the judicial rather than the executive route. Indifference to criticism was a feature of his judicial training; so was the weighing of all the pros and cons of a proposition before acting on it. Contrasted with Roosevelt’s rapid despatch of business, this often aroused the impatience of non-official spectators, who set down Taft’s conservatism as mere stubbornness. For the best enterprise proposed to him, Taft must find an affirmative sanction in the statutes and digests, or he will have none of it; Roosevelt, in a like situation, used to say, ‘Is there any law against it? No? Then go ahead!'

In short, Taft, interprets the Constitution in the light of its tenth amendment, Roosevelt in the light of its preamble. Both are equally sincere in their desire to serve the people. Taft takes for his guide the written law, and the platform pledges on which he was elected, as the latest recorded expressions of the popular will; Roosevelt mingles with the people themselves, and, if in thought and feeling they have run ahead of the written record, he also runs ahead, trusting that the formal expression will in due season catch up with the sentiment. This leads, now and then, to unexpected results. For example, when he started for Africa last year the present ‘Insurgent ’ movement was unknown, and he was still figuring as a champion of Speaker Cannon; but no sooner does he return and take his bearings than he discerns in the revolt a real uprising of the people, and accordingly throws the weight of his influence rather toward its side than toward the other. The Old-Liners denounce his action as sheer demagogy; the Insurgents applaud it as true democracy.

As for President Taft, he seems to have reasoned like a magistrate up to the time of Mr. Roosevelt’s return, and since then like an executive. Not many months elapsed between his exculpation of the Payne-Aldrich tariff because its accusers had not proved their case beyond a reasonable doubt, and his appearance as the sponsor for an entirely dissimilar scheme. This is not cowardice, or mere wanton tergiversation, but a sign of an awakening sense that the President sits, not on a bench, but in a chair of state.

Or, take the Pinchot-Ballinger controversy as an illustration of the difference between judicial and executive methods. The new administration was like an army just put into the field to attain certain ends for the common welfare. The effectiveness of its campaign depended on the concentration, not the diffusion, of its energies; yet two of the officers, having a disagreement, halted and undertook to settle it by a duel.

How would Commander Roosevelt have handled such a situation? He would have notified the disputants that they were there to destroy the enemy, not each other; that it was his business to lead the column, not to compose personal quarrels; and that, no matter what theirs was about, they must ‘drop it’ — his familiar phrase — or one of them must go outside of the public service to do his further fighting. Had his order been disregarded, he would summarily have cut off the official head of the combatant he deemed most at fault, and moved along.

Commander Taft’s course, equally characteristic, was the very reverse of this. He patiently listened to both parties, said as pleasant things as he could to both, and urged an investigation by Congress, very much as the trial judge turns over to a jury the issues of fact as a preliminary to applying the law. Even Mr. Pinchot’s dismissal came not as a decision of the controversy, but as an incident, the Forester having committed what the judge was pleased to regard as contempt of court. But for that, affairs might have remained till to-day where they stood last December.

The contrast here indicated is borne out in the attitudes of the two Presidents toward the bench itself. When President Taft looks for a new judge, he aims to find one whose past activities convey little assurance as to his individual trend of thought on the questions of the day. President Roosevelt, believing that a policy is essential to all progress in government, and that the courts are part of the machinery of government, preferred men whose personal views on certain important subjects were well known. This was not with the purpose of influencing the courts unduly in the direction in which he thought civic welfare lay, but of preventing their being influenced in the opposite direction. No other President has so freely criticised the judiciary, and thereby provoked censure for himself from those who regard the courts as sacred because they hold the seals of ultimate authority; but to Mr. Roosevelt’s mind they are human institutions, subject to human shortcomings, and to be kept pure only by exposure to the candid comment of the people to whom they owe their existence.

Though not strictly within the purview of this article, it might have been interesting to compare the respective ideals of the President and the exPresident as to party politics and management; but space limitations warn me that I must pass to the last phase of my topic, the mutual relations of the two men. This may be condensed into the simple statement that there is not now, and has not been, any misapprehension in the mind of either as to the other. In spite of the gossips, Mr. Taft has wasted no time in wondering ‘where Roosevelt stands,’ nor has Mr. Roosevelt agonized over the alternative of ‘going to Taft’s rescue or leaving him in the mire.’ Mr. Taft has done many things which Mr. Roosevelt would not have done, and left undone many more which Mr. Roosevelt would have done; but this is Mr. Taft’s administration, and no one realizes the fact better than Mr. Roosevelt. The ‘Return from Elba’ fol-de-rol has already dissolved into the thin air from which it was conjured, and the ‘ Roosevelt for 1912’ hurrah still belongs in the same category with the familiar abridgment of Hamlet. No American publicist believes more implicitly in party solidarity than the ex-President; and when the test of the ballot-box shall have demonstrated the relative strength of the Progressive and the Old-Style Republicans, he expects to see the minority fall in, with true sportsmanlike spirit, behind the majority, and vote the same ticket at the next national election.

Without pretending to be a prophet or the son of a prophet, I will stake my all as a political weather-observer on the proposition that, however serious may be their factional differences, the Republicans will renominate President Taft in 1912 if he wishes it. This is not a guess, but a sober thesis in the psychology of practical politics. The party that has elected its candidate President by vouching for him unconditionally to the American people would be ashamed to confess, at the end of his term, that it had misled the voters. Look back over the last fifty years. No power under heaven, except his own disinclination, could have prevented Lincoln’s second nomination, or Grant’s, or Garfield’s, if he had lived; or Cleveland’s, or Harrison’s, or McKinley’s. As neither Johnson nor Arthur had reached the presidency by election, and Hayes had publicly declared that he would not stand for a second term, their cases are not precedents.

But albeit Mr. Taft will be the arbiter of his own fortunes as regards a renomination, a reëlection is of course quite another matter. That depends, not on the pride of a party, but on the satisfaction of the people; and no prediction of the result at the polls, two years before the event, would be worth the paper it was written on.