By private wire from Oyster Bay Roosevelt angled for the 1916 Progressive and Republican nominations, but his strategy backfired and killed the Progressive party
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.
Penrose: … That side of it is not the question with me. … I really do not think the question of patronage, while a factor with a percentage of the delegates, is the controlling factor at present. … There is a general desire to win. … Lodge is here. Think it would be a good thing for you to talk with him. …
Lodge: Hello, Theodore.
Roosevelt: Hello, Cabot Lodge.
Lodge: It is a very mixed up situation we have here. … The thing lies just this way: It looks like the nomination of Hughes [by the Republicans]. There is no enthusiasm for him at all but there is a wide-spread feeling that he can be more easily elected than any one else. Now to nominate you in that convention—I do not know if the votes are there or not. Of course if the Progressives nominate you before we act, that blows our plans all up and destroys them; you know there is a lunatic fringe to the Progressive party—I use your own words.
Roosevelt: Rightly said.
Lodge: … It is going to be either you or Hughes, in my judgment. … It is very hard to get at the convention. You know these delegates are all elected independently and are uninstructed and they cannot be handed around and delivered. … The question is how many votes they can show for you, and that I do not know. …
Roosevelt: As far as my personal interests are concerned, if they do not nominate me I shall breathe a sigh of relief. I have no ambition to go into a purely political campaign. … I can earnestly say I am not interested in my personal welfare at all; but in international matters and in the present situation I know I am worth two of Hughes.
Late that evening John T. King, Republican national committeeman from Connecticut, made the same point to Roosevelt.
King: … I am very much afraid of this Hughes situation tonight.
Roosevelt: I think myself that is the way the thing is drifting.
King: Yes, very fast, and if [Hughes’s opponents] do not get a program pretty quick it is going to be almost impossible to stop it. … Here is the stand I am taking, Colonel: No matter whether the two conventions can get together or not as far as politics is concerned it is the duty of us fellows to stop Hughes by all means. Even though the Progressives and the Republicans cannot get together there is no sense in nominating Hughes. So let us go down on that principle.
Between them, Lodge and King had outlined the course which Roosevelt’s supporters were to follow for the rest of the week: to stop Hughes and to seek to build support among the Republicans for Roosevelt or for a candidate he could support; and simultaneously to hold off the eager Progressives from immediately nominating Roosevelt, behind whom the Republicans, in their convention, were not yet ready to unite.
Roosevelt spoke again with Lodge regarding a speech Hughes had given at a girls’ school. Then he brought up the question of who should place his name in nomination at the Republican convention:
Lodge: How are you, all right?
Roosevelt: Right as a trivet. Very much amused by Hughes’s speech. It is exactly like a Wilson speech to the Colonial Dames. … Now I wish to ask whether it would not be a good thing to have [Senator Albert] Fall of New Mexico ∗ nominate me? This was the same Albert Fall who, as Secretary of the Interior in the Harding Administration, became involved in the Teapot Dome oil-lease scandals and was forced to resign from the Cabinet. He was later tried and convicted in criminal court and sent to prison.
Lodge: He would do it very well.
Roosevelt: … Suppose you talk it over with Perkins now. I think that perhaps to have Fall nominate me would emphasize what I would like to have emphasized, that if you want the antithesis of Wilson you want to take me.
Perkins then took the phone and gave Roosevelt a rundown on the results of his own canvassing among the Republican delegates.
Perkins: … Curiously enough we figure up 81 or 82 votes on the first ballot. … Now I have purposely tried to minimize the vote on the first ballot and have given out that we expect 70 or 75. … On the second ballot we know we will have more than 75 and then we will be in the running. … A good many are after me about your not being a Republican. I have made this suggestion to [Idaho’s Senator William E.] Borah, for him to think over. … I said, “You want the Colonel and his party. Now suppose that I could get our people [the Progressives] to authorize me to say to you, confidentially, that provided the Colonel, the right Vice President and the platform were put up, we would immediately pick up our banners, walk down to the Coliseum and surrender, body, boots and breeches.” Borah said, “That is some suggestion.”
Roosevelt: George, that is a master stroke. It must have made a great impression.
Wednesday and Thursday, June 8 and 9 As the conventions opened the professionals of each party managed to maintain control of the convention machinery and to pave the way for compromise. Progressive William Draper Lewis met with Senator Lodge and together they drafted the party platforms, which were nearly identical. Party leaders also managed to engineer the appointment of a conference committee consisting of five Progressives and five Republicans. On Thursday evening Medill McCormick of Illinois, a pro-Roosevelt Republican, explained to the Colonel the composition of the Republican committee.
McCormick: … The Republican convention has just appointed a conference committee consisting of [Murray] Crane [of Massachusetts], Nicholas Murray Butler, ex-Congressman Johnson of Ohio, Borah and Reed Smoot. … In my delegation the tide today turned very strong for Hughes. For instance, some fellows who have been close friends of mine personally, although I have opposed them politically, have given me a private tip to get out of the way. …
Roosevelt: Now tell me, when do you think the nominations will come?
McCormick: The nominations will be made some time tomorrow. The Bull Moose [Progressive] crowd are now over in the auditorium, appointing their conference committee. …
Roosevelt: Of course I have never believed that there was a chance of my nomination and I have been very anxious that the thing should work out right for the country’s best interest. Hughes has been a big disappointment thus far. I guess there is no need to tell you that I think Hughes a good deal of a skunk in the attitude he has taken.
While Roosevelt and McCormick were talking, the Progressives appointed their delegates to the conference committee. Perkins headed the group, which also consisted of Governor Hiram Johnson of California, Charles J. Bonaparte of Maryland, John M. Parker of Louisiana, and H. S. Wilkinson of New York.
Their first session with the Republicans, held at the Chicago Club, was orderly, congenial, frank—and fruitless. When the Progressives offered Roosevelt as a “compromise” candidate, Nicholas Murray Butler stated that “under no circumstances whatever would the Republican convention consent to his nomination.” Perkins asked the Republicans to suggest someone else. This they refused to do, saying that they could not commit the convention to any man so early in the game. At 3:30 A.M. on Friday, June 9, the conferees adjourned, having accomplished nothing.
Friday, June 9 After learning of the failure of the meeting, the Republican convention proceeded to the nomination of candidates, a complicated, windy process which consumed most of Friday. Many Progressive delegates reacted by demanding that Roosevelt be selected at once, without regard for the Republicans. At 3:30 on Friday afternoon William Allen White of Kansas was on the private wire to Oyster Bay, asking Roosevelt’s permission to go ahead with his nomination in the Progressive convention.
White: … We feel that we can go over a couple of ballots but that it would be a little dangerous to go further than that.
Roosevelt: I do not think we ought to nominate until they [the Republicans] have had a full chance. … You know I haven’t committed myself in any way about running on a third ticket, but as you know I am very reluctant to do so.
Roosevelt: I can see that only damage would come from it. I think it would hurt to nominate me until they have acted. …
White: If the Republican convention does not show a decided tendency to come our way they [the Progressives] will nominate you pretty soon.
Roosevelt: Try to keep our convention from acting today. Keep them from acting until tomorrow. Let us see the drift of this evening and then call me up tomorrow. …
White: I think it can be very easily handled for tonight provided the Republicans do not go into session tonight and stampede for Hughes. Our people do not like the Hughes proposition.
Roosevelt: I do not like the Hughes proposition myself; I loathe it. I think Hughes is a man of the Wilson type; I think he is little better than Wilson. …
White: He must get out from under that German proposition before our people will consider him.
Yet White was a self-confessed leader of a group of “conspirators” who worked day and night to undermine Perkins’ control of the convention and proceed at once to the nomination of Roosevelt. At 8 P.M. Perkins reported to Roosevelt.
Perkins: We have had an extraordinary day here. … I really feel hopeful tonight for the first time. …
Roosevelt: George, I should like to be where I could hold your hand. … Did White tell you what he came down to tell me? He came to tell me that he had consulted with … the conservative side of the Progressive party, and said that they had decided that they were willing to yield to my wishes to the extent of waiting for one ballot. They wanted to know if I wished to be nominated after the first, or whether they should wait until after the second.
Perkins: When I got back to the convention I found they had it all framed up to nominate you, and [Raymond] Robins [chairman of the convention] told me that they did not propose to listen to any more nonsense about postponing your nomination and were going to put you through.
Roosevelt: George, there is no doubt about it; the other fellows have all the crooks and we have all the cranks.
(Note from Mary Kihm: I was called away at this point and did not get back to the telephone until the following remark by Colonel Roosevelt.)
Roosevelt: However, much as I despise Hughes I would prefer him to one of the burglars [i.e., those who had “stolen” the nomination from him in 1912—Ed.]. Even the members of our lunatic fringe take that view.
Twenty minutes later Roosevelt was getting a report on the Republican convention from John W. McGrath, Roosevelt’s private secretary, and Dr. Edward A. Rumely, owner of the New York Evening Mail.
McGrath: They have gone to ballot in the other convention but we haven’t heard anything from it as yet.
Roosevelt: Oh, Mac, go get your gun!
Rumely: I was at the Republican convention when you were nominated. The reporters said it was the first live demonstration. … Hughes was cheered for twenty minutes but it was a weak, thin thing. Joe Cannon and Harding looked down from one side of the platform and then down the other to see what was doing. Here’s the proposition: They are a very astute bunch of poker players. I watch the delegates. I talked with one Massachusetts delegate, Patch, who is known not to favor you. He stood up on a chair and I said, “What are you up for?” and he said, “I’m for Roosevelt but I haven’t been able to say it until now.” There are others like him, but here’s the situation: If they come to a vote and are only guessing whether or not there is a third party in the field they are very likely to follow their leaders; but if they know there is a third party in the field they will be afraid not to endorse you. …
Gifford Pinchot, pioneer conservationist and one of Roosevelt’s closest friends and staunchest Progressive supporters, was then put on the line.
Pinchot: Our weakness here from the start, as indicated in my letter to you, remains the same—the doubt on the part of your opponents as to what you will do in case of your nomination by the Progressives; in other words, the feeling has got around among them, from somewhere or other, that if you are nominated and they had anyone that is even approximately bearable, you would withdraw and their nomination would stand. That is what has made us weak in dealing with them. We have been playing poker with them substantially without chips in that direction. Now I realize, of course, the difficulty of that situation; at the same time, if you could send to some one here a telegram or a message over the telephone which could be circulated and which, without directly committing you finally to make the race, would indicate that that was your intention, and that could become known to the other side, it would very much strengthen our case.
Roosevelt: … I do not believe that good would come from such a communication as you suggest. …
White and the other “radicals” were unable to get control of the Progressive convention on Friday. Over at the Coliseum, the Republicans wound up their oratory and began to vote. The first ballot was a great disappointment to the friends of Roosevelt in both conventions. Hughes had an impressive lead over the field, whereas Roosevelt was far down the list of candidates with only 65 votes. The second ballot greatly increased Hughes’s lead and added only a handful of new supporters to Roosevelt’s candidacy. At this point the nomination of Hughes seemed inevitable unless a deal with the Progressives could be arranged. The Republican leaders therefore adjourned the session to allow for a final effort at compromise.
The results of the first two ballots had demonstrated clearly that Roosevelt could not win the Republican nomination. For Roosevelt, this practically settled the question of his own action. So long as he had hopes of a double nomination he was willing to consider the possibility of running independently, should the Republicans make an objectionable choice; without those hopes the possibility disappeared.
Fearing just this development, some of the Progressives attempted to force Roosevelt’s hand.
Pinchot: Have you heard the result of the first ballot?
Roosevelt: Yes, I got , did I not? The Republicans must [realize] that if they carry things too far they may make it absolutely necessary for me to run on a third ticket but I absolutely will not commit myself in advance. I wish you would look around and see who else would run; see Hiram Johnson.
Pinchot: He will not. As things stand tonight I do not see how it is possible for anything of that sort to happen, and your refusal to run would kill the Progressive party entirely. That seems to be self-evident. …
Roosevelt: I wish to say this—that there is a very wide difference between making a young colonel and a retired major general lead a forlorn hope. I have simply got to reserve judgment.
Pinchot: There is one thing I want to say. There is apparently throughout the convention a very strong fear that if we wait until after the Republicans have nominated, and if they nominate Hughes, an effort will be made at that time to force our convention to nominate Hughes.
Roosevelt: I do not see how. I can only say for myself: If the Republican convention now nominated Hughes I would have to say that even though the Progressives endorsed him I would not endorse him until he repudiated the German-American alliance.
Pinchot: I want you to make it evident that our people will nominate you; then you decide afterwards what to do.
Roosevelt: Now see here; that is a big order.
Pinchot: I do not want you to make a public statement but I want you to make it evident to your managers here that you do not want anyone to take steps to have our convention nominate Hughes.
Roosevelt: I’ll take those steps.
Pinchot: There is a very strong fear among men whose judgment is to be respected that an effort of that kind will be made.
Roosevelt: Now I’ll tell you, Gifford, I have purposely arranged that I would tell everything to Hiram Johnson and George Perkins. … Now you consult Hiram Johnson.
Pinchot: Now will you tell George Perkins the same thing? You cannot expect our convention to wait until Hughes makes a statement. We have got to act before that happens. You cannot keep our people here a week.
Roosevelt: Now, Gifford, take that up with Hiram Johnson and Perkins and have them make some suggestions to me.
Pinchot: All you have to do, Theodore, is to let your will be known to your managers.
Roosevelt: My will known to the managers? I am not going to dictate to that convention as if I were a Tammany chieftain. That is just what I want to avoid doing.
Pinchot: There is no question of your dictating. The convention wants to do only one thing and is afraid that plans are being put in operation to prevent it from doing so, and I want you to make it plain that those plans have not your approval, if they exist.
Roosevelt: Very good; now you mean that plans are being put in existence to secure the endorsement of Hughes if he is nominated—the endorsement of Hughes before he has made any statement. Now then, I personally will not support Hughes until I know where he stands.
Pinchot: May I quote you as to that?
Roosevelt: Yes, but you must not quote me to the newspapers.
Pinchot: Well, then, whom can I quote you to?
Roosevelt: What do you mean? Do you mean to say that you think you can quote me to the newspapers? Of course you cannot. Quote me to Hiram Johnson, to William Allen White, to Henry Allen, to George Perkins.
Pinchot: Dr. Rumely wants to speak to you for one moment.
Roosevelt: O, for the Lord’s sake! All right.
Rumely: They are having difficulty in keeping the Progressive convention from nominating you. Johnson is holding the floor now. He is saying that for two days he has been part of a strategy he did not believe in; that it is only your will that has kept him from going through with the plan he thought should be put through. If you could realize the situation in Chicago you would feel you have a much stronger hand than I think you now feel you have.
Roosevelt: I have told Hiram Johnson and I have told George Perkins that they must be in consultation. Let Hiram Johnson and George Perkins get together, and if they differ then let them come to me.
At 10:30 P.M. George B. Cortelyou, Roosevelt’s former secretary, was on the wire, speaking to Roosevelt about the meeting—then just getting under way at the Chicago Club—of the Progressive-Republican conference committee.
Cortelyou: … G. W. [Perkins] asked what I thought they should do when they went into this conference committee tonight. Neither convention can push the thing to a conclusion until the conference committee reports back that their efforts have been unavailing; any other course would be a slap in the face of the convention. They cannot go on forever. I should think that tonight there ought to be a showdown. … I should imagine G. W. would have to be guided somewhat by the statement made to him by the Republican conferees as to the line he will take. Of course he feels now that he has about got to the point where he cannot hold that Progressive crowd much longer. They meet at 10:30 tomorrow—a half hour before the other one—so that they will get into action right away unless they are controlled and unless this conference committee has something to say.
Roosevelt: My judgment is that the conference committee cannot say anything. They will have to say that they disagreed.
Cortelyou: The next question comes up after the action of the Progressive convention tomorrow. If they nominate you at once, then comes the question of whether they should complete the ticket or hold over a while to see what effect the first nomination will have.
Roosevelt: Now, George, it’s hard to know what is best to do. If they nominate me shall I take a little time to decide? Should I take two or three hours to consider it? What is your judgment?
Cortelyou: I should think so, because if they nominate at once that would be before the other convention opened. You could accept it at once, but from our point of view that would look as though you wanted to take snap judgment.
Roosevelt: But, my dear boy, I do not intend to accept.
Cortelyou: I know, but in talking with the conference committee tonight I imagine G. W. cannot show his hand on that.
The difficulty Roosevelt now faced was this: If he were to oppose Hughes, whom could he suggest (other than himself) as an alternative? As the conference committee met again in another attempt to find a common candidate, everyone realized that this was the last chance for the “bosses” to exert the control they liked to think they possessed. If they could not agree, the separate nominations of Roosevelt and Hughes would surely follow in the morning.
But agree they could not. The Progressives still insisted they had no name to offer but Roosevelt’s; the Republicans rejected him, but would suggest no one else.
Shortly before 3 A.M. the committee adjourned. But as the weary conferees were leaving the club, Perkins asked Nicholas Murray Butler if he would be willing to talk to Roosevelt on the private wire. Butler asked for time to discuss this idea with some of his friends, and after they had agreed he hurried to Perkins’ room at the Blackstone. Perkins got Roosevelt on the phone at ten minutes to three.
Perkins: I must talk very quickly and then will put Nicholas Murray Butler on the telephone in a minute. All I want to be sure to do is to tell you that you must not say in any way that you are for this man, that man or the other. … He will try hard to see if you personally will stand for [Elihu] Root, [Charles W.] Fairbanks or some one of that sort. …
Roosevelt: What is the use of it?
Perkins: I don’t know. This is all along the line of trading out before morning. …
Roosevelt: Hello; this is Colonel Roosevelt.
Butler: Hello; this is Murray Butler.
Roosevelt: How do you do, President of Columbia College?
Butler: We have been having a very interesting time out here. … Now the situation in the Republican party is just this: The so-called [here Miss Kihm missed a phrase— probably “favorite sons”—Ed.] cannot hold their vote from Hughes much longer. The outlook now is that Hughes will be nominated on the first or second ballot in the morning. That is to me and a great many of us a desperate calamity. The fact of the matter, whether Mr. Hughes knows it or not, is that all the pussyfooters and pro-Germans in Chicago are for him, and that of itself has excited my suspicion.
Roosevelt: And he is not going to make any statement until after his nomination?
Butler: No, and then it will be futile. … Now I regard it as impossible to elect him, no matter who endorses him. I regard it as assuring four more years of this awful Wilson. I am most anxious—and I have a great many of our people in condition to talk sense—to find some way, if possible, to prevent Hughes’s nomination, and there is only one way to prevent it, and that is to say to them that someone has been found who is satisfactory to the Progressives and who has your support. …
Butler then made three suggestions: Elihu Root, Charles W. Fairbanks, who had been Roosevelt’s Vice President and a senator from Indiana, and Philander C. Knox, a veteran of the Senate and of Cabinet posts. Of these Root was clearly the largest figure both in intellect and in experience, having served in the Senate and as secretary of state and of war. But he was over 65, and he was particularly hated by the Progressives for his cynical smothering of the Roosevelt forces in the 1912 Republican convention. Both Butler and Roosevelt realized he was hopeless as a compromise candidate. The others, lesser men, received serious consideration.
Butler: There is some talk of Fairbanks, whose record I am not familiar with but whose record with you I do know about. And then there is Knox, who has been little mentioned here.
Roosevelt: Let me interrupt with a word about Knox. I am devoted to Knox personally, but unfortunately he is just as responsible for this Mexican situation as the present Administration. [Roosevelt felt that Knox, as Taft’s secretary of state, had been partially responsible for what Roosevelt considered the mishandling of the Mexican Revolution.—Ed.] … After peace the submarine episodes will be but a memory, but Mexico is our Balkan peninsula and we will have to handle it; and we will be met at every step in our condemnation of Wilson with what our candidate himself has done. Lodge will tell you that too.
Butler: What is there to be said in a general way about Fairbanks?
Roosevelt: … I really have a real liking for Fairbanks personally. He is to me a very much better man than Hughes, but I am horribly afraid that he will prove impossible to do anything with. … I need not tell you that I am in the same position you are. I have to get the Progressive convention to agree in the same way that you must get the Republican convention in agreement. Fairbanks I personally would like. … Would there be any chance of taking up an entirely new man?
Butler: I think it possible, although it might surprise them very much.
Roosevelt: … Now would there be a chance of taking up Leonard Wood?
Butler: I don’t think there would be, for this reason: There would not be any objection to him personally, but it would not meet with the approval of the western and southwestern states. … In view of our preparedness program they would not approve of a military man. …
Roosevelt: Of course he would understand very speedily that the tariff and such matters were entirely outside his realm and would get on the Army and Navy question and Americanism at once. He wouldn’t have to do as Brother Hughes will have to do—improvise. Would there be any possibility of putting Lodge across?
Butler: … I don’t know what vote-getting qualities Lodge has.
Roosevelt: I don’t myself; but he has the political habit and these men would get on with him. …
Butler: Suppose I have a talk with Perkins along the lines we have been talking? … Will you just hold the wire and I’ll get Perkins? Sorry to have got you out of bed at this hour.
Roosevelt: Heavens and earth, man, don’t speak of it. Look what you must have been doing all these nights while I have been lolling around doing nothing.
Roosevelt then reported to Perkins the main points of his conversation with Butler. Perkins rang off to confer with Butler, to whom he proposed the following plan: The Progressive leaders (presumably in Roosevelt’s name) would draft a statement refusing to support Hughes. This statement could be pushed through the Progressive convention, however, only by coupling it with the nomination of Roosevelt, which the great mass of the delegates was hot to accomplish. After that the Progressives would adjourn, sending their anti-Hughes statement to the Republicans. Then the Republicans would have no choice but to accept Roosevelt if they wanted to win the election. “I want it distinctly understood,” Perkins told Butler in explaining his scheme, “that if we do that you are going to say to your friends that it was we who saved them [from Hughes] and that you are not going to hold it up against us for nominating our man first.” At 3:30 Butler left to confer with the other Republicans on the compromise committee, promising to let Perkins know before dawn if this course of action seemed feasible. Perkins called Roosevelt back and outlined the new plan.
Roosevelt: That is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever heard. I want to say right here, although you may not agree with me, that I am sure I was right in speaking of Wood and Lodge.
Perkins: I am sorry you mentioned Lodge. We are in the position, as it stands now, of not submitting any choice to those people except you. That is perfectly all right because they have never submitted anyone to us. … Still, I don’t like our record. Somebody might say that you should have suggested someone else. … [Yet Lodge] is the only man familiar with the international situation and one who could be agreed on by both conventions. Is there anything you can think of in Lodge’s record that would be against that proposition?
Roosevelt: I know Lodge’s record like a book. There has never been anything against it at any time, except, of course, George, that he does not have as advanced views as you and I.
Perkins: I think we could take care of that.
Roosevelt: We have, first of all, to deal with preparedness and Americanism, because they are questions of internal relations. Then foreign relations. [Lodge] is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He is just as straight as a string. Do you want me to talk to Hiram Johnson?
Perkins: Not on your life; not for an hour or two.
Roosevelt: Then I won’t say a word. I want to add this, if you will, George. Keep Hiram Johnson in touch with me so he won’t fly off the handle and think I am neglecting him.
Perkins: Of course I’ll do that, but at the right moment. … I think it was a very grave mistake to suggest Wood. He is not acceptable to anybody. He is a military man. It puts you in a bad light.
Roosevelt: It has been rejected and I will not follow it up at all. I am glad you have come to the conclusion to suggest Lodge. Fortunately, Lodge has voted for me on the second ballot, so that we can use that with our wild-eyed Progressive friends.
Perkins: I may want to call you up in the morning and get a statement from you giving your reasons why you support Lodge.
Roosevelt: From now on I will not go to bed.
Perkins: All right, I will call you pretty often.
Saturday, June 10 Butler evidently got an unfavorable response to Perkins’ suggestion from his Republican colleagues, for he makes no mention of it in his memoirs and there is no further record of it in the transcript of the telephone conversations. The Republican members of the conference committee decided finally that Hughes could not be stopped and, making the best of the situation, agreed to present his name to the joint committee as their “compromise” candidate.
In the meantime Roosevelt worked on a message to the two conventions suggesting Lodge’s name, while Perkins routed the Senator from his bed and got him to agree to accept if chosen. At a quarter to nine on Saturday morning Perkins was again on the phone with Roosevelt. The Colonel offered to come to Chicago to argue on behalf of Lodge if the nominations could be postponed until Monday, but that was clearly impossible.
When the compromise committee met again, the Republicans offered Hughes as their choice. The three Progressives (Hiram Johnson and John M. Parker had dropped out in disgust when they learned that Roosevelt wanted them to support the conservative Lodge) excused themselves to think this over. Ruefully, Perkins called Oyster Bay.
Roosevelt: Now, did you read my letter [recommending Lodge] to them?
Perkins: In view of this I do not think we should deliver that. …
Roosevelt: Well, George, I am awfully sorry about that. … Of course I am not going to accept Mr. Hughes, and I am going to ask you to put my letter before that committee.
Perkins: … You understand, of course, that Johnson and Parker will not stand for the counter-proposition, so we will just turn it in as the major report of our committee, submitted to you. Perhaps we might just as well put it in as coming from you and not as coming from the committee.
Roosevelt: Put it right in as from me, that’s right.
Several Progressives urged Roosevelt to reconsider his decision about the Lodge letter. One of these was Walter Brown, a conservative member of the Progressive National Committee.
Brown: Mr. Perkins wanted me to ask you if you had considered the fact that that letter would probably eliminate you from any further chance in that convention.
Roosevelt: … I have passed that stage. I have considered everything in connection with it. I wish that letter presented at once. …
Perkins himself made one last effort to bend the strong Roosevelt will.
Perkins: There are five or six of us here, discussing this situation. [We] feel that … it would be better not to turn in the Lodge letter now.
Roosevelt: I disagree with you. I considered that whole thing when I wrote that letter. I must request you definitely and at once to put that letter before the conferees.
Against such a positive command no one could argue. Wearily, and with profound misgivings, Perkins arranged for the statement to be read to the two conventions. While he was doing so Roosevelt talked again with some of his more radical supporters. To former Governor Robert Bass of New Hampshire he explained his position with special clearness.
Roosevelt: I do not ask our people to accept one of the burglars. I do not ask them to accept any man who isn’t of the highest character and who does not stand absolutely square on the issues of today. I think Hughes has shown himself in the most contemptible possible light, and so I am not now asking any of our people to support him; that must be determined by events; but I do feel that if the Republicans are willing to do what I have asked, the Progressives should join with them. …
Bass: I believe the Republicans will nominate Hughes. We cannot accept a man whose position is totally unknown to us, and the only thing we can do is to place our nomination in your hands, to be held in trust and to do with as you see fit and in accordance with the things we have stood for.
Roosevelt: Well, Bob … you are proposing to put a very, very heavy burden on me. … We have got to see what the Progressive and Republican conventions do with my communication. …
The conventions acted as everyone but Roosevelt had expected they would act. When Perkins addressed the Progressives, his speech was continually interrupted by hoots and catcalls, and at his presentation of the names of Hughes and Lodge, “loud agonizing No’s echoed through the hall.” The Republicans listened phlegmatically to the reading of Roosevelt’s suggestion and then proceeded to give Hughes the nomination at once, and unanimously at that. As soon as word of this reached the Progressives, they simply swept the protesting Perkins out of the way and nominated Roosevelt by acclamation.
This nomination was completed at 12:37 on Saturday afternoon. Less than ten minutes later the leaders were talking to Roosevelt again on the private wire. Different points of view were presented to him as to what he should do about the nomination, but it was Roosevelt himself, speaking to Perkins, who made the decision.
Roosevelt: George, we have got to have our skirts absolutely clear. … And here is my thought: that I should answer them [the Progressive delegates] that if they wish a definite answer now I must refuse to accept and must ask them to nominate someone else; however, if they wish, and only if they wish, I am content to act as follows: that is, to turn over to the National Committee my conditional refusal to accept the nomination and run on a third ticket until the committee has had an opportunity to find out where Hughes stands. … Then, if the National Committee thinks Hughes’s attitude is entirely satisfactory, they can so announce and no further action on my declination will be taken.
Perkins agreed and Roosevelt rang off to prepare a statement along these lines. While various drafts of his statement were being formulated and revised, he continued to talk with important Progressive delegates throughout the afternoon. Among them was his son.
Theodore, Jr.: Hello, father.
Roosevelt: Hello, my son.
Theodore, Jr.: In the first place, in connection with that statement of yours, I think we want to be particularly careful, if we are going to support Hughes as we probably will, that we say nothing that will reflect on him in our statements here. … The statement reads as if you did not approve of Hughes. You don’t, of course.
Roosevelt: Of course I will support him, but I will not be responsible for him.
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.