Roosevelt the Politician
What started as a War of the Governors has developed into the most dramatic presidential campaign in recent history. The American people no longer regard it as a bit of opera bouffe, but recognize to the full its tragic aspects. Two friends who had been lover-like in their mutual devotion, and who were sharers of the highest honors their country could bestow, are facing each other in a battle which is bound to end the public career of the one or the public usefulness of the other, and may produce both results at once. The offensive hostilities, up to the present writing, have all been on the side of the combatant who has declared, 'When I fight a man, I want to crowd close up to his breast-bone!' His adversary is still standing, as if dazed by the shock of an unexpected onslaught, wholly on the defensive.
What brought about this situation need not concern us here. Suffice it that half the quarrels in this world have their origin not in the willful maltreatment of either party by the other, but in the machinations or the stupidities of third persons. There is the best of reasons for saying that the present breach can be traced to just such causes; and that any shrewd analyst of the situation, if unhampered by considerations of delicacy, could point his finger directly at the makers of the mischief and enumerate the incidents which, however petty when separately weighed, have by their cumulative force wrought a deplorable convulsion.
Roosevelt the Moralist, Roosevelt the Citizen, Roosevelt the Reformer, Roosevelt the Statesman, have at various times in the past filled a large space on the public horizon; and, like the ghostly procession which trooped through Richard's dream on Bosworth Field, they have been paraded through the press ever since Mr. Roosevelt's appearance as an avowed antagonist of President Taft, to fill the spectator with a more vivid sense of What Is, by contrast with What Has Been. It is of none of these familiar characters that the Atlantic Monthly has asked me to write. I am requested to group my impressions of Roosevelt the Politician, a task at once much narrower, and far more difficult.
Politicians are of several species. There is the pleasant politician, like McKinley; the political sage, like Horatio Seymour; the professional boss, like Quay; the business politician, like Hanna; the quiet politician, like Lamont; the politician with a tongue, like Reed; and there are a few others. Roosevelt represents a type numerically smaller than any of these, and a type of which he is perhaps the master specimen—the politician who could not help being one if he tried. That is what makes it so hard to dissect him for literary purposes. Almost any other figure in our public life could be studied in his character as a politician separately from his character as a man; with him that is impossible. The man is the politician, the politician is the man. You can no more separate the two than you can separate spring from cistern water in the same vessel. Whether he knows it or not, he entered politics in his swaddling-clothes; or it may be more accurate to say that he was born into politics much in the same way that, in certain religious bodies, every child is born into the church.
Thus I hope to clarify my fundamental proposition that when Mr. Roosevelt takes a step which the mass of his fellow citizens regard as carefully considered for its political effect, the chances are at least even that he is merely obeying a natural impulse, which may make for either strength or weakness.
His strong qualities as a politician, if I were to classify them, I should put in about this order: his picturesque personality; his indifference to precedent or consistency for its own sake; his audacity of method. His chief faults in the same domain, I should say, are three: impatience of the interval between desire and accomplishment; failure to appreciate the persistence of a moral ideal as distinguished from a wise or expedient purpose; and overconfidence in the disposition of the popular mind to consider fine distinctions in passing on a broad issue.
First, let us look at his personality. Everything in his physiognomy, his manner, his speech, his gestures, bears witness to the energy stored up in him, for which must be made some outlet or other. This will explain why he is always doing something out of the common. To glide along with the general human stream would call none of his inner forces into play. What they crave is the stimulus of opposition, the need of buffeting against adverse influences. For that reason we find him a conservative by descent, but a radical by choice; an aristocrat by birth, but a democrat by voluntary association; a puny lad in pinafores, but an athlete at maturity; a scholar by training, but a worker by impulse; a warrior at home, but a peacemaker abroad; a reformer among politicians, and a politician among reformers.
I suppose, too, we should account his happy gift of phrase-making as a factor in his general picturesqueness. 'The strenuous life,' 'the square deal,' 'the larger good,' 'molly-coddles and weaklings,' 'the predatory rich,' 'undesirable citizens,' 'civic righteousness,' 'deliberate and infamous mendacity,' and 'beaten to a frazzle,' are only a few of his many contributions to the expansion, if not to the enrichment, of our mother tongue. Nine tenths of these have sprung spontaneously to his lips in the course of a speech or a dictation; the rest have been thought out with more or less care where he has wished to express a particular shade of meaning. The universality of their use has not obliterated from the minds of the public their association with their inventor; and his faculty for putting into terse terms so many ideas which lay inarticulate in the thought of other men, has added vastly to his power of touching their sympathies.
It is his indifference to precedent or consistency for its own sake which has given Mr. Roosevelt his claim to be called a progressive. His conception of leadership is to put himself well in advance of the main column, and trust to its catching up with him in due season. Sometimes he forges too far ahead, and has to halt, or even step back a little, to get into touch again with his following before the next pronounced forward movement. His interest in tariff reform, for example, carried him in his very early years practically into the camp of the Cobdenites; but, finding this too extreme a position for one who expected to make any headway inside of the Republican party, he became a protectionist of the moderate school.
In matters affecting the civil service, he was a radical in the beginning; but, as his public experience broadened, he settled down to the conclusion that reform measures should be adapted to conditions as they are, rather than to conditions as they ought to be; and out of this grew his plan of dividing appointive offices roughly into two classes—those for which an appointee must have had a peculiar training, and those whose duties are so largely formal that any man of respectable character and fair judgment can fill them well enough. As an appointing officer, he demanded proofs of fitness from applicants for places in the former class, and when they could furnish these paid little heed to the question of their partisan affiliations; in choosing men for the latter class, he consulted the politicians. Neither reformers nor bosses were satisfied with such a division; but this fact only confirmed him in the notion that he was steering a course equally safe from the mercenary rocks on the one side, and the doctrinaire shallows on the other.
To rehearse here even those examples of his audacity of method which are familiar to all newspaper readers, would require the rest of the space in this magazine. As characteristic as any was the open letter with which he closed his unwontedly quiet campaign of 1904, throwing back into Judge Parker's face the charge that the great corporations had been put under contribution to fill the Republican campaign chest. I speak from personal knowledge when I say that only four of the many advisers he consulted at that time agreed with him that the psychological moment had arrived for a brief reincarnation of 'the old Roosevelt.' I believe I am equally correct in saying that there is not one of the four who, for love of him, is not to-day deploring the manner of his latest return to the field of active candidature.
Another example was his reading of the riot act, literally, to the striking teamsters of Chicago when, in the midst of their reign of terror, they imagined they had him politically captive. Still another may be found in his triumph over an audience who had set about proving their hostility by a frigid unresponsiveness. After several fruitless efforts to stir them, he paused at the close of a certain passage in which he had elaborated with some particularity an indisputable moral maxim, and demanded that they either approve or disapprove it. Taken by surprise at this turn, a few gave him a grudging hand-clap; but he refused to go on till they had expressed themselves more forcibly one way or the other. This crude insistence had the effect of breaking the ice, as it were, and before he ceased speaking he had the whole crowd cheering him lustily.
While he was Civil Service Commissioner, a few members of Congress entered into a combination to cripple the Commission by cutting down the appropriation for the transportation expenses of its traveling examiners. This meant that the extent of the examiners' travels must be correspondingly reduced; so he reduced it at one sweep by chopping out of their itinerary the districts of all the congressmen in the combination, whose constituents would thus be left, for that year at least, unable to obtain at their homes an examination for government employment. Of course, such a menace quickly brought his enemies to terms, and put an end to the crippling programme.
His last audacious stroke as President was to force his conservation policy in contempt of Congress while it was preparing to tie his hands by law. Taking advantage of a short interval between his discovery of this plan and the enactment of the statute carrying it into effect, he withdrew from settlement an immense area of the public domain which might possibly contain valuable natural resources, taking the chances as to whether he or his successor would be compelled to put a large part of the withdrawn land back again. In all such cases he did, and confidently could, count on popular support.
No president, certainly from Lincoln's time to his, had ever quarreled with Congress as a whole, or with either chamber, without being backed by the people. The great body of voters hate what they regard as an unequal fight, and may always be trusted to side with the one man as against the many; with the public servant whom they have jointly elected, as against any number of public servants chosen to represent fractional parts of the Union. And the bolder their protégé's defiance of his foes, the better they are pleased. This is a human trait which the ex-President appreciates to the full, and with which he reckoned astutely for the accomplishment of his ends while in office.
Leading the list of Mr. Roosevelt's faults as a politician, I have put his impatience of delay in reaching results. Having once set his heart on doing a particular thing, that purpose dominates his mind till he has carried it through. If he cannot arrive by one route, he can find others, and to his preternaturally active intelligence the short-cut always presents practical advantages over the long way around. It is hard for him to realize that others of less agile mentality may be unable to follow him closely in his leaps from one logical crag to another. Such impatience in a popular leader may be of good or bad import for the public welfare, according to circumstances. It usually means a more brilliant record of achievement in a given time than he could make by temperate processes, and its inspirational uses among his followers are unquestionably great; but what we are considering in the present paper is not the influence of any trait of Mr. Roosevelt's upon the public interests, but its effect on his own political interests—in other words, its tactical rather than its productive aspect.
For a most striking illustration, it is not necessary to go further back than his latest appearance as a candidate for office. I will venture to say that every friend of his whose degree of intimacy would warrant absolute candor of intercourse, and who had no personal end at stake, urged him not to let himself be drawn or badgered into writing his now historic letter to the Governors. It was made perfectly plain to him that these objections were based not on matter but on method; that none of his objectors would raise a point against his accepting a nomination which came to him without his giving any encouragement to its engineers; but that all stood against his putting himself in what most people would deem a false position. For a time it appeared as if this advice would be heeded. But a tide of impatience, whose rising could be measured almost from day to day, gradually overcame the counsels of common prudence. He refused to waste more time and thought on empty formalities. What he had said in private conversation and letters was already becoming public property by leakage into the press; and the prompt, direct, decisive course, of saying the same thing to all the world at once, appealed more to his taste than one which would reach the same destination by the circuitous route proposed. When he was reminded that, pressed and discomforted as he had been since the anti-third-term agitation began, he would have to undergo a still worse ordeal after his announcement came out, his response was the characteristic epigram: '"Worse?" My dear man, you can't compare a superlative!' It is for disinterested observers to judge whether, from a tactical point of view, his impatience of the natural order of procedure has been justified by the event.
Mr. Roosevelt's inability, as a politician, to realize how a moral ideal persists even if it conflicts with practical expediency, is most conspicuously shown in his attitude toward the treaties of arbitration lately negotiated with leading foreign governments. We need not consider the essential wisdom of those treaties at the present stage of human development, or their perfection of form, or anything else about them, except the central fact that they symbolize the peace of the world. Neither need we question the sincerity of Mr. Roosevelt's motives in attacking them, or the soundness of his objections. Even were we to grant him all he demands on these points, it must still be plain that in the light of politics his position is not a winning one. He may reduce his opponents' arguments to powder; but, as surely as the sun continues to rise and set, so surely will a Senate come into being, and before long, which will approve and adopt these treaties, or others drawn on substantially the same lines, under pressure from the moral public sentiment behind them; and if, meanwhile, they enter into any partisan campaign as a distinctive issue, the leader who tries to kill them will take his political life in his hand.
Closely akin to this error is the third and last on my list: Mr. Roosevelt's occasional misjudgment of the limitations of the popular mind where any elaborate reasoning is needed to overturn a commonly accepted faith. One incident in this line was brought to my recollection the other day in looking over some of my old memoranda. Early in 1903, when it devolved upon the President to name a Panama Canal commission, the hostile press grew suddenly very alert to the danger of his making political capital of the patronage thus placed at his disposal. His own purpose was to select for commissioners men of eminently practical type. Cornelius N. Bliss, Paul Morton, and others equally well-known for their success in carrying large business enterprises to a satisfactory completion, were among the number whose names came up in discussing the matter. It was with considerable difficulty that he was finally dissuaded from this plan, and induced to select a board of technical experts.
The friends who urged the change of programme were not moved by any doubt of his real desire to have the great undertaking handled as a practical business proposition, wholly divorced from politics; but they reckoned better than he as to how the public would be affected by the one course or the other. He pleaded hard, and prophesied that any board of experts would be bound to have so many differences of opinion on details which laymen would not deem of the first importance, that great delays might be avoided by putting in command a group of men who would hire the expert talent they needed for advisory and executive purposes, and bend all their own energies to driving the work through.
When at last he yielded and selected a commission composed chiefly of engineers and representing every quarter of the United States, the wisdom of this plan was promptly proved. The whole country rose to applaud his choice. The critics who had been spreading broadcast the most dismal warnings about his intentions were first to respond with a retraction. Here, they admitted, was an almost ideal commission, which nobody could accuse of being a piece of political machinery.
Obstacles which were all ready to be thrown in the way of progress on Canal work failed to appear; and everything was going on swimmingly till—what Mr. Roosevelt had feared came to pass: dissensions arose in the Commission, in which every participant was doubtless taking conscientious ground, but out of which could come only one result. The Commission dropped to pieces. That did no serious damage, however, for the old opposition had been disarmed by the surrender to public sentiment, and general confidence had by that time so crystallized about the President that he was able to manage things with a nearly autocratic hand thenceforward.
An incident of less note, but equally characteristic, and worth mentioning here because it was one in which Mr. Roosevelt actually did carry out his own purpose and discover his mistake later, was his proposal to banish from the national coinage the motto, 'In God we trust.' His one thought was to protest against the too familiar use of the name of Deity, with the opening it afforded the comic paragraphers to parody the phrase or attach a ribald meaning to it. No one could have been more astounded than he at the storm of condemnation which greeted his order. He abandoned his position at once, because he did not regard the question as one edifying to quarrel over. What to him had seemed the reverent thing to do, to a large body of his fellow countrymen appeared to be a worse impiety than the one it was designed to correct; for they could see in it nothing but the fact that he was proposing to renounce a formal expression of the Nation's faith in God. They did not care to follow out his reasoning in detail.
The judiciary issue which he has lately raised promises to furnish an illustration of all Mr. Roosevelt's shortcomings as a politician, united in one. There is a pretty widespread impression that once more the leader has got too far ahead of his following for them to catch up with him. His plan for improving the condition of the courts touches a live topic on which the great mass of Americans are sensitive—just how sensitive we are likely to find out soon. Moreover, though persons with short memories may have forgotten it, this is not the first time that the judiciary has figured in a national political campaign.
William Jennings Bryan, another clever politician, credited with a gift for guessing what changes 'the people' wish made in the existing order, has often playfully taken Mr. Roosevelt to task for appropriating his best ideas and labeling them as Roosevelt policies. Bryan was in large measure responsible for the National Democratic platform of 1896. Passing over for the moment its call for the free and unlimited coinage of silver, let us see what were a few of its demands which Roosevelt afterward made his own: (1) the enactment of the laws needed to protect labor in all its rights; (2) greater powers for the Inter-State Commerce Commission; (3) the admission of New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma as states; (4) the assertion of the Monroe Doctrine, as originally declared and as interpreted by succeeding Presidents, as a permanent part of the foreign policy of the United States; (5) sympathy with the people of Cuba in their struggle for liberty; (6) recognition of 'the unwritten law of this republic, established by custom and usage of one hundred years, and sanctioned by the example of the greatest and wisest of those who founded and have maintained our government, that no man should be eligible for a third term of the presidential office.' Mr. Roosevelt's interpretation of the third-term objection differs somewhat from this, but his announcement of November 1904, referred to 'the wise custom which limits the President to two terms,' and declared his unalterable purpose to abide by it himself.
This brings us to the judiciary feature. The Bryan platform assailed the Supreme Court of the United States for its decision against the constitutionality of the income tax, sustaining objections 'which had previously been overruled by the ablest judges who have ever sat on that bench,'—a strong suggestion of the theory of 'fossilization' since advanced in other quarters; it also denounced 'government by injunction as a new and highly dangerous form of oppression by which the federal judges, in contempt of the laws of states and the rights of citizens, become at once legislators, judges, and executioners.' Side by side with these deliverances we may now place an excerpt from Mr. Roosevelt's Columbus address: 'When a judge decides a constitutional question, when he decides what the people as a whole can or cannot do, the people should have a right to recall that decision if they think it is wrong. If the courts have the first say so as to all legislative acts, and if no appeal can lie from them to the people, then they are the irresponsible masters of the people.'
These propositions are neither coincident in phraseology nor parallel in application, but the same spirit animates both—the idea that the courts are now clothed with an excess of power which tempts to tyranny, and that they need restraint. But Roosevelt has taken a long stride beyond Bryan. The latter was content with an expression of dissatisfaction; to this Roosevelt has added the proposal of a definite remedy. The policy of applying the recall to the personnel of the bench, which has taken root in California, and bids fair to do the same in the pioneer West, has heretofore received at least a discreet countenance, if not a modified approval, from Roosevelt as a local experiment. In his Columbus address, which was everywhere heralded as the 'keynote speech' of his campaign, he did not proceed quite so far as that, though leaving it to be inferred that he might yet do so in case milder methods failed to accomplish the desired results.
Bryan's arraignment was confined to the federal courts in their interpretation of the constitutional powers of Congress, their technical invasion of domains sacred to the states, and their interference with the private rights of citizens through the medium of an extraordinary procedure. But the Roosevelt doctrine, though voiced at a convention called for the revision of a state constitution., was made so broad in terms as to be equally applicable in principle to state courts and to those of the United States; and it proposed, not a preventive, but an antidote.
In 1896, the live interest of our thoughtful middle class of citizens was caught and held by three planks in the Democratic platform—one which called for the free coinage of silver, and two which criticized the courts. An effort was made to inject the tariff question into the campaign, but the mass of the people kept their eyes riveted on the silver question and the courts. Moreover, the arguments about these which carried real weight were not statistical or historical, scientific or imaginative; the refinements of the sophists and the book-lore of past ages were thrown away on the plain 'man in the street'; all he could see in the two issues were the big, round, clearly-marked truths which stared at him out of the centre of each.
It mattered not to him whether the price of silver and the price of wheat had paralleled each other or run zigzag, or whether the rupee was estimated at this or that value in India; what did matter was the fact that it was proposed to legalize the discharge of a hundred-cent debt with a fifty-cent dollar. It was time thrown away to ratiocinate for his benefit about the limits of federal authority in judicial affairs, or about the technical disadvantages of applying an equitable preventive through a judge instead of waiting for a legal cure through a jury; the only question which to his mind seemed really pertinent was whether he should vote to put a halter round the necks of all the courts—the last independent champions of human liberty—because one here and there might have given too broad an interpretation to its powers. It was with this condensed thought in his mind that he was to go to the polls.
Not many of us are accustomed to think of the politician, and especially the politician with radical ideals, as a public benefactor; yet he certainly plays such a part at times. Bryan did, in 1896, not only in helping to bring the silver question to the front, but, in furtherance of his aims as a party leader, in carrying on in its behalf a three months campaign which, for ingenuity and tirelessness, stands forth in my memory as unique in a forty-years' observation of American politics. The people at large were so aroused by it for a while that they forgot pretty nearly all else; and across dinner-tables, in lobbies and on piazzas, on railroad trains, in trolley-cars and omnibuses, on the street-corners, everywhere, the topics of their day-by-day life were laid aside for the discussion of the ratio of sixteen to one in unlimited free coinage. Hardly excepting the greenback fight of 1878, it proved the greatest educational campaign we had had since the Civil War. It was also the most admirable in its results, for it laid to rest an issue which had recently been rising every two years and threatening to paralyze the normal progress of the country by the alarms it excited.
In the first Bryan campaign, however, the silver question so overshadowed the judicial question that no one can estimate to just what importance the latter would have attained if it had stood alone. We are now on the eve of getting some light on this subject; and, no matter what any of us may think of the application of the recall to either judges in person or their utterances from the bench, all observing men must realize that this question is coming up presently for final disposal. Had not Roosevelt made it the pivotal proposition of his canvass this year, somebody else would surely have put it forward later, either in the form it wears now or in a more dangerous one—conceding for argument's sake that degrees of comparison are possible in this domain.
What astonishes me is that so many persons of intelligence, having had Mr. Roosevelt constantly before their eyes for years, should point to his Columbus speech as evidence of a recent conversion, or perversion, on the subject of the bench. He has not changed his point of view at all; he has merely expanded his methods for meeting a premised situation, and has proposed to translate into statutory terms what has hitherto been a mere mental motive peculiar to himself. The Supreme Court of the United States, as now organized, contains two justices appointed by him, and in the case of neither did he make any secret of the considerations most potent in guiding his selection. In The Atlantic Monthly for November, 1910, I sketched thus his attitude toward the judiciary in contrast with that of his successor in office:—
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 criticized 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.
Is there anything here which conflicts with the Columbus speech in spirit, or differs from it in any way except, as I indicated above, as to the choice of a definite means of discipline?
As matters preliminary to the Republican National Convention are shaping themselves at the present writing, popular discussion seems to have shifted from the question whether Mr. Roosevelt can be nominated, to another: whether, if defeated in convention, he will refuse to support his successful competitor. Looking over his letter to the Governors, we find him using this language: 'I will accept the nomination for President if it is tendered to me, and I will adhere to this decision until the convention'—mark his words, 'the convention,' not 'the people'—'has expressed its preference.' To some minds, apparently, the final clause conveys a warning that its author is not going to bind himself to any particular course of action beyond the hour when the delegates cast their crucial vote, and hence warrants an expectation that, if defeated, he will head a new party.
How does this theory stand the historical test? A situation not unlike the present one grew out of the Republican convention of 1884. Mr. Roosevelt went there as a delegate to work and vote for George F. Edmunds of Vermont. He had for associates in the Edmunds movement a number of the most notable men in the convention. If President Arthur had been renominated, the result would probably have been accepted by most of them as a defeat which could be faced without humiliation; but Mr. Blaine, who carried off the nomination, was almost, if not quite, the least acceptable candidate under consideration. To their minds—whether justly or unjustly matters not now—he represented about everything that was objectionable in the politics of that era. George William Curtis at once announced himself free from further obligation to his party, and organized a secession movement which has gone into history as the Mugwump Bolt. Two-thirds of the element with whom young Roosevelt had been intimately affiliated up to that time quitted the Republican party and went over to the support of Mr. Cleveland. Roosevelt hurried off to his north-western ranch, and there, remote from the atmosphere of factional controversy, quietly thought out his problem, and returned to the East convinced that the thing for him to do was to stay in his party and conduct his reforming operations from within. As a sportsman, he has never concealed his opinion of the man who, having once entered a game, is unwilling to play it through because luck seems to be turning against him.
But precedent, for its own sake, counts for so little with Mr. Roosevelt, that the rule which was his guide as lately as 1908 may have lost its force for him by 1912. Everything will depend on whether his present counselors can convince him that the Republican party has outlived its usefulness. If so, he will no more hesitate to wreck it for the purpose of setting up another on its ruins, than the antislavery contingent hesitated to wreck the Whig party sixty years ago. By the time this paper is off the press, its readers will be able to judge fairly well whether so extreme a course is going to be necessary.