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T. R. On The Telephone
By private wire from Oyster Bay Roosevelt angled for the 1916 Progressive and Republican nominations, but his strategy backfired and killed the Progressive party
December 1957 | Volume 9, Issue 1
Later Roosevelt talked with Hiram Johnson. The terrible-tempered fire-eater now seemed resigned to Roosevelt’s withdrawing in favor of Hughes.
Johnson: Hello, Colonel.
Roosevelt: How is the Honorable Hiram? … Are you in a pliable and compromising mood?
Johnson: … I feel this way, Colonel. I feel that the thing is coming to the point where you have to quit the nomination. I would really prefer to perform the operation today and not have you bothered and troubled. …
Roosevelt: My own feeling is just as you said a year ago —that I will go fishing; you said that you anticipated that in this campaign you and I would like to go fishing. I think my fishing trip has begun. If you will remember, you said then that it was not right to ask me to run and you did not regard it as right to ask you to run.
Johnson: I felt that way then and feel that way now. I think it would be a crime to ask you to run unless there is some great national thing that demands it.
The rest of the story is anticlimactic. Hughes’s statements proved satisfactory to a majority of the Progressive National Committee, and on June 26 they voted to support him. Roosevelt had already made up his own mind, and on June 28 he dined with the candidate, formally making his peace. Hughes, of course, was beaten by Wilson in a close race, featured by Hughes’s loss of California because of a misunderstanding with the influential Hiram Johnson.
The chief result of the dramatic developments of the two conventions was the utter destruction of the Progressive party. Its chief undertaker was Theodore Roosevelt. Had he so willed, it would have gone on, to defeat no doubt in 1916, but to no one knows what future developments. As it was, its members either returned with Roosevelt to the Republican camp or switched to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats.
No doubt some of Roosevelt’s supporters thought him a traitor. It is true that he and men like Perkins made cynical use of the Progressive convention, treating it, as Professor George Mowry has said, “as a stalking horse and a trading horse.” But Roosevelt was utterly convinced that Wilson, because of his neutralism in the European war, had to be defeated if the national honor were to be preserved. And, if Roosevelt wanted the nomination himself at the beginning of the conventions, no one can deny that at the end he made a serious and unselfish effort to find a satisfactory compromise between himself and Hughes. His judgment in pushing Lodge was faulty, but his motive was neither insincere, nor corrupt, nor selfish. Nor did he at any time try to deceive those of his supporters who wanted him to run as a Progressive.
History may judge his actions to have been misguided, foolish, even tragic, when one considers that the destruction of the Progressive party made the Republican party a stronghold of super-conservatism for at least a generation. But history has the benefit of hindsight. Things might well have worked out differently. Had Roosevelt not died in 1919 he would almost certainly have been the Republican candidate in 1920, for by supporting Hughes he had rehabilitated himself with the party regulars. He would have won in 1920, and at the very least, the nation would have been spared the sorry antics of the Harding Administration. In any case, this much is beyond argument: throughout the battle of 1916 Roosevelt did what he thought was in the best interests of the nation and of those principles in which he sincerely believed.