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Presidents On Presidents
They’ve all had things to say about their fellow Executives. Once in a great while one was even flattering.
November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
But Taft’s concept of the Presidency turned out to be utterly opposed to Roosevelt’s. By January 1912 TR decided that Taft must go and he himself ran against him as the candidate of the impromptu Progressive party. In the course of the campaign TR called Taft a “puzzlewit” and a “fathead.” Taft called his erstwhile best friend an “egotist” and a “demagogue.” Roosevelt, convinced he had found his moment in history, seemed unvexed by these exchanges, but one reporter told of finding Taft, after a speech damning Roosevelt, slumped with his head in his hands, weeping.
TR succeeded only in electing the Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Here too there was a curious early fondness on the part of both men, but Wilson slowly soured on TR. In 1907 he remarked, “I am told he no sooner thinks than he talks, which is a miracle not wholly in accord with an educational theory of forming an opinion.” By 1912 he was calling TR a “very, very erratic comet.”
For his part Roosevelt admired some of Wilson’s early political speeches but found him personally unattractive and compared him with Charles Sumner, “a cold-blooded creature with a good deal of intellect but lacking the fighting virtues.” This distaste rapidly grew into vitriol when war broke out in Europe and Wilson tried to remain neutral. When the President reacted to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by declaring that Americans were “too proud to fight,” Roosevelt called the sinking “piracy pure and simple” and warned that America would earn “scorn and contempt if we follow the lead of those who exalt peace above righteousness.”
When war finally came, Roosevelt asked for permission to raise a volunteer division and lead it to Europe. Wilson stonily refused him, creating a permanent antagonist on the home front. “I am the only one he has kept out of the war,” Teddy roared.
Another Republican President revered Wilson. Herbert Hoover worked for Wilson as U.S. food administrator and afterward wrote The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson, a largely admiring tribute to Wilson’s “great clarity of thought” and “superior mind.” His only flaw, in Hoover’s view, was a tendency to mistake “honest and proper argument against his conclusions for personal criticism.”
On the other hand, Hoover did not love his fellow Republican Theodore Roosevelt. In the late twenties, when Hoover was becoming a candidate for President, his backers came across a story of how he had rescued a trapped Chinese child from a crossfire during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. They proposed to release the tale to the papers. Hoover refused. “You can’t make a Teddy Roosevelt out of me,” he said.
Wilson’s opinion of Warren Harding was terse and totally negative. He was “a fool of a president.” Calvin Coolidge resented the praise heaped on Herbert Hoover in the press even before he became President and called him “the wonduh boy.” Franklin D. Roosevelt belabored Hoover mercilessly on his own way to the Presidency in 1932, conveniently forgetting that he had offered to run as his Vice President if Hoover should decide to become a Democrat for the 1920 presidential election. “I wish we could make him president,” FDR wrote a friend. “There could not be a better one.”
From his youth FDR modeled himself on his cousin Theodore. But Woodrow Wilson also became a dominant figure in his political thinking, and he saw himself as a blend of both men—a Wilsonian idealist with TR’s pragmatic streak. He liked to quote Wilson’s remark: “It is only once in a generation that a people can be lifted above material things. That is why conservative government is in the saddle two-thirds of the time.”
Eisenhower was unimpressed with Kennedy, but his opinion of Johnson was even lower: “superficial and opportunistic.”
Theodore Roosevelt was much on FDR’s mind. One night, working late on a speech, he bared his teeth and thrust out his chin while reading one paragraph. “Now this I must say in the true TR manner,” he said.
“Oh, but Mr. President,” answered the speech writer, Tommy Corcoran, “the difference between you and TR is that you never fake.”
FDR gave him his chameleon’s smile. “Oh, but Tommy, at times I do, I do!”
When Dwight Eisenhower left office, in 1961, he was unimpressed with the man elected to succeed him, and he stayed that way for the next two years. He thought Kennedy’s show-business friends sullied the dignity of the White House, and he was appalled by JFK’s deficit spending. In 1963 he wrote a magazine article violently attacking the idea. Deficit finance, he warned, “through history has lured nations to … economic disaster.” Ike liked to repeat the old saw “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.”
Ike’s opinion of Lyndon Johnson was, if possible, lower. He considered him “superficial and opportunistic,” without “the depth of mind [or] the breadth of vision to handle great responsibility.” He totally disapproved of Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, condemning his “acting by ‘driblets’” and his constant interference with his military commanders.