T. R. On The Telephone

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On June 7, 1916, the national conventions of the Progressive and Republican parties were about to open simultaneously in Chicago. Of the many presidential candidates who would be suggested at the Republican convention only two, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, seemed to have a real chance of being nominated.

On June 7, 1916, the national conventions of the Progressive and Republican parties were about to open simultaneously in Chicago. Of the many presidential candidates who would be suggested at the Republican convention only two, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, seemed to have a real chance of being nominated. Almost to a man, the Progressive delegates were determined to name Roosevelt, who had fashioned the party in righteous indignation four years earlier, when William Howard Taft had “stolen” the Republican nomination that Roosevelt believed his.

Defeat had thinned the Progressive ranks, but the survivors were zealous and loyal. Roosevelt, whatever his personal wishes, felt a sense of obligation to them. Ideally he would have liked to be nominated by both parties, which would have been a tacit admission by the Republicans that they had mistreated him in 1912. Failing that, he wanted to see some other candidate chosen whom both groups could endorse. President Wilson, fortified by his New Freedom domestic reforms and by his obviously sincere dedication to keeping the United States out of the bloody European war, would be a formidable opponent even for the combined Republican and Progressive forces; if they were split, he would be well-nigh invincible. Most sensible politicians in both the Progressive and Republican parties were eager to unite.

Each side had one mighty asset the other lacked. The Republicans had a powerful political organization, but no candidate of national stature or appeal. The Progressives were woefully lacking in experienced workers at the precinct level, but they had in Roosevelt a proved and colorful national leader. While both parties were willing to work for union, neither was willing to surrender much of its independence, and on the eve of the conventions no real progress had been made. For this reason the confusion common to all national conventions was even greater than usual, for, with the fate of both parties at stake, the politicians worked frantically and often at cross-purposes. Understanding Roosevelt’s key role and knowing that important decisions would have to be made on short notice, his chief representative at Chicago, the retired Morgan banker George W. Perkins, had installed a private telephone line between his own rooms at the Blackstone Hotel and Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, Long Island. To allay Roosevelt’s fears that he would be misquoted, Perkins had his secretary, Miss Mary Kihm, monitor the conversations. Never before published, Miss Kihm’s transcript, from which the following excerpts are taken, reveals the mounting tension of that hectic week and lights up the events that went on behind the scenes.

Monday and Tuesday, June 5 and 6 With the formal opening of the conventions two days away, Republican and Progressive leaders began to assemble in Chicago. As they canvassed the delegates, it became increasingly clear that the leading Republican candidate was Hughes. Roosevelt did not want to support him, partly because of his own ambitions and partly because he felt that Hughes was, if not actually pro-German, at least insufficiently enthusiastic for preparedness and “Americanism” in the face of the European war. Hughes had taken the position that as a judge he ought not to seek the nomination—a stand that, however sincerely held, enabled him to be discreetly silent on the issues of the day. Roosevelt, therefore, argued that he could not support Hughes until he knew where the Justice stood on these issues.

Perkins worked assiduously among the delegates before the conventions opened. Among conservative Republicans he found Senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts willing to support Roosevelt. Lodge and Roosevelt had been friends for more than 30 years; not so Penrose, but his bluff remark, “I don’t want Hughes; I cannot do business with Hughes; I can do business with Roosevelt,” was very encouraging to Perkins.

At 12:30 A.M. on June 6, Perkins put Penrose and Lodge on the private wire to Oyster Bay.

Penrose: This Hughes proposition has assumed proportions none of us dreamed of before we came here. … I do not suppose more than a quarter of [the delegates] are here yet. Mr. Perkins is making a careful canvass and so am I, to see where we are at. … Have you any suggestions to make?

Roosevelt: No, Senator, except that I want to say one thing. Supposing that matters come about so that I am nominated; I want to say to you what I have said to Mr. Perkins … that you will be the leader in the Senate at that time.