La Follette: The Promise Unfulfilled

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Yet withal, Robert La Follette was indeed the beau idéal of the reformer, and hence liberals are conscious of an element of sadness, even of resentment, as they contemplate his career. For they expect more of their leaders than of ordinary men, so that their “human” failings, more tolerable in lesser men, prove preternaturally disillusioning. In the first decades of the century, Progressive leaders asked much of the voters, who, responding, flocked by the millions to the standard of Reform. But Bryan ended by insulting their intelligence, Perkins by refusing to let them help run their own party, La Follette by insisting that his was the one way to Heaven. Theodore Roosevelt spent his last years assailing pacifists and internationalists instead of fighting for the Square Deal. Even Woodrow Wilson, the greatest idealist of them all, sacrificed principle to expediency at Versailles and then arrogantly dug in his heels and refused to compromise at all when it came to seeking Senate approval of the League of Nations. The Progressive movement collapsed suddenly, but little wonder: its failure, essentially, was the failure of its leaders to measure up to their own ideals.