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Spoiled Child Of American Politics
Henry Cabot Lodge was a public man in the old sense—one who was often wrong but never evil
August 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 5
When he wished to spend the summer in Europe during the depression year of 1895, and found himself short of ready cash, he “permitted” his mother to “rent” his summer home at Nahant, though he knew that she had no intention of using the place. In 1900 he decided he would like to be permanent chairman of the Republican National Convention. So he simply went to President McKinley and told him that he thought he deserved the honor and would like to have it. “When I came to the conclusion I would like to hold office,” he once explained, “I did not wait to be requested by friends, but I went out and told the men who had much to do with elections that I would like to run.”
All of these qualities made him particularly effective in opposing others. “He was one of those who care more for downing his adversary than for discovering some common ground for possible agreement,” one of his friends once admitted. They also made it particularly difficult for opponents to accept his criticisms with good nature.
There was yet another side to Lodge’s personality, less obvious to the public, which his friends prized highly and which ought to modify history’s judgment of him.
For one thing, despite his narrow political partisanship, he had the true inquiring mind of the scholar. It is fashionable nowadays to disparage Lodge’s historical works and to discount as political propaganda the sobriquet, “The Scholar in Politics,” which was applied to him in his own time. But his histories and biographies (while now outmoded) were the result of much hard work and compare favorably with most of the scholarship of that period, and his miscellaneous essays show real thought.
In addition he loved literature, knew it thoroughly in English, French, and Latin, and possessed a fine, discriminating taste. In 1905 he was a judge for a short story contest sponsored by Collier’s . Out of thousands of anonymous entries he selected as the best a story by Edith Wharton, while the other judges were shouting the praises of writers now ignored.
When he talked about literature, all his cynicism and acerbity vanished. He loved to gather with small groups of friends in his library after a good dinner to talk books. In such company he could be charming—arguing spiritedly but in good temper about some minor point, bounding to a shelf to untangle a debated issue with a telling reference, radiating his own enthusiasm.
Despite his selfishness and vanity, Lodge was capable of strong loyalties and deep friendships. His friendship with Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most famous in American politics. They made a strange pair: Roosevelt explosive, emotional, warm-hearted and aggressive; Lodge stiff, haughty and ironic. Yet their friendship, forged in the heat of the Blaine campaign, was unbreakable. It survived Roosevelt’s meteoric rise to the Presidency, which almost overnight transformed him from junior partner to senior partner in their alliance, and even his dramatic break with the Republican party in 1912.
For a man so proud and ambitious as Lodge the transformation could not have been easy, for one so wedded to party regularity the break a tremendous strain, but in each case his affection for TR never wavered. His lifelong admiration of Henry Adams was subject to similar pressures from time to time. Adams was a caustic critic of much of Lodge’s political career, and he seldom hesitated to speak his mind. Yet Lodge, who considered Adams the most brilliant man he had ever known, cheerfully accepted criticism from him that would have turned many friendships into bitter enmity. After Adams’ death Lodge supervised the publication of his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams , even respecting his wish that the preface (which Adams had himself written) appear over Lodge’s name.
Lodge also displayed many fine qualities in his public life. One was plain hard work. He took his duties seriously. He held strongly to the old-fashioned idea that the intelligent, educated citizen should participate actively in government. In office he never spared himself from routine labors. He attended sessions of Congress faithfully, seldom missing a day when not ill or out of town on public business. He was a good committeeman, putting in long hours of research on public issues. No contemporary legislator was more conscientious than he in attending to the requests of his constituents.
Another easily-ignored aspect of Lodge’s career was his scrupulous honesty. Too often has he been written off as a timeserver for big business. It is true that his generally conservative point of view frequently led him to support measures that business leaders also supported. But he had little sympathy for any selfish interest seeking special privileges from Congress. He was particularly scrupulous (his banker called him “hypersensitive”) about disposing of investments whose value might be increased because of his votes in the Senate.