Theodore Roosevelt, President

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Here again we see a pattern of presidential performance developing. The exaggerated concern for the rights of reporters, the carefully staged gestures (so easy to write up, such fun to read about!)—it was as if he sensed right away that a tame press, and an infatuated public, were his surest guarantees of political security. To win election in his own right in 1904—his overriding ambition for the next three years—he would have to awake these two sleeping giants and enlist their aid in moral warfare against his political opponents, notably Senator Mark Hanna. (Hanna was chairman of the Republican National Committee and the obvious choice to take over McKinley’s government after “that damned cowboy,” as he called TR, had filled in as interim caretaker.)

 

The new President accordingly took his case straight to the press and the public. Both instantly fell in love with him. Neither seemed to notice that administratively and legislatively he accomplished virtually nothing in his first year in office. As David S. Barry of the Sun wrote, “Roosevelt’s personality was so fascinating, so appealing to the popular fancy, so overpowering, so alive, and altogether so unique that … it overshadowed his public acts; that is, the public was more interested in him, and the way he did things … than they were about what he did.”

This does not mean that TR managed, or even tried, to please all the people all the time. He was quite ready to antagonize a large minority in order to win the approval of a small majority. The sods had hardly stopped rattling on the top of McKinley’s coffin when the following press release was issued: “Mr. Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee, Alabama, dined with the President last evening.” Now this release, arguably the shortest and most explosive ever put out by the White House, has always been assumed to be a reluctant confirmation of the discovery of a reporter combing TR’s guest book. Actually the President himself issued it, at two o’clock in the morning—that is, just in time for maximum exposure in the first edition of the newspapers. By breakfast time white supremacists all over the South were gagging over their grits at such headlines as ROOSEVELT DINES A NIGGER , and PRESIDENT PROPOSES TO CODDLE THE SONS OF HAM . This was the first time that a President had ever entertained a black man in the first house of the land. The public outcry was deafening—horror in the South, acclamation in the North—but overnight 9,000,000 Negroes, hitherto loyal to Senator Hanna, trooped into the Rooseveltian camp. TR never felt the need to dine a black man again.

Although we may have no doubt he had the redistribution of Southern patronage in mind when he sent his invitation to Washington, another motive was simply to stamp a bright, clear, first impression of himself upon the public imagination. “I,” he seemed to be saying, “am a man aggressive enough to challenge a hundred-year prejudice, righteous enough to do so for moral reasons, and proud enough to advertise the fact.”

Again and again during the next seven years, he reinforced these perceptions of his personality. He aggressively prosecuted J. P. Morgan, Edward H. Harriman, and John D. Rockefeller (the holy trinity of American capitalism) in the Northern Securities antitrust case, threw the Monroe Doctrine at Kaiser Wilhelm’s feet like a token of war in the Caribbean, rooted out corruption in his own administration, and crushed Hanna’s 1904 presidential challenge by publicly humiliating the Senator when he was running for re-election in 1903. He righteously took the side of the American worker and the American consumer against big business in the great anthracite strike, proclaimed the vanity of muckrake journalists, forced higher ethical standards upon the food and drug industry, ordered the dishonorable discharge of 160 Negro soldiers after the Brownsville Affair (on his own willful reading of the evidence, or lack thereof), and to quote Mark Twain, “dug so many tunnels under the Constitution that the transportation facilities enjoyed by that document are rivalled only by the City of New York. ”

For example, when the anthracite strike began to drag into the freezing fall of 1902, TR’s obvious sympathy for the miners, and for millions of Americans who could not afford the rise in fuel prices, began to worry conservative members of Congress. One day Representative James E. Watson was horrified to hear that the President had decided to send federal troops in to reopen the anthracite mines on grounds of general hardship. Watson rushed round to the White House. “What about the Constitution of the United States?” he pleaded. “What about seizing private property for public purposes without due processes of law?”

TR wheeled around, shook Watson by the shoulder, and roared, “ To hell with the Constitution when the people want coal! ’ Remarks like that caused old Joe Cannon to sigh, “Roosevelt’s got no more respect for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.”