Was T. R. A Drunk?

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Three weeks before the election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt—ex-President and now the Bull Moose candidate against Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft—was having a quiet lunch in a Chicago hotel. The day’s mail was brought to the table, and one of T. R.’s aides handed him a newspaper clipping from the Ishpeming, Michigan, Iron Ore . Among a number of other uncomplimentary things, it said: “Roosevelt lies and curses in a most disgusting way; he gets drunk, too, and that not infrequently, and all his intimates know it.” The Colonel read the editorial, and then, speaking almost in a whisper because of a case of laryngitis, he said to the aide, “Let’s go at him.”

It was a chance Roosevelt had been waiting for. Virulent attacks on his character had been common during the campaign, many of them striking particularly at his drinking habits. He was tired of it, and he had only been waiting for a newspaper of sufficient standing to publish such a charge. Although the Ishpeming Iron Ore was a small-town paper, it had strong industrial backing, and its editor and publisher, George A. Newett, was a man of substance in the Middle West. The Colonel instructed his lawyers to file suit. A good deal of history was made before the case came to trial, including an unsuccessful attempt on Roosevelt’s life as he campaigned in Milwaukee. A .38 caliber bullet fired by one John Schrank was slowed by the folded manuscript of T. R.’s speech, which he was carrying in his breast pocket. Bloody but far from bowed, the old campaigner delivered the speech as scheduled, extemporizing to blame the shooting on the “awful mendacity and abuse … heaped upon me … by the papers.” Then, in November, came Roosevelt’s defeat at the polls by Wilson. Not until May 26, 1913, did the Colonel and Newett meet in a courtroom.

The town—Marquette, Michigan—was in a frenzy of excitement. The Colonel had arrived early that morning, bringing with him more than a score of distinguished men who were ready to take the witness stand on his behalf. The national press, keenly aware of the drama of the situation, was represented by a large crew of reporters; the present writer was there covering the story for the Detroit News. Never before had Judge Richard G. Flannigan presided over a gathering of such distinction.

T. R., to nobody’s great surprise, proved to be his own star witness. Although the statements from his eminent friends were impressive—from Jacob Riis, to the effect that he had never seen Roosevelt take a drink; from James R. Garfield (son of the former President and himself a former Secretary of the Interior), that “even after the hardest ride” T. R. drank nothing but tea; from Lyman Abbott, clergyman-editor of The Outlook , that “his ordinary beverage is milk,” etc., etc.—it was the old Rough Rider himself who provided most of the excitement. He took the stand first, and in the course of asserting his habitual sobriety, he managed to give the story of his life—so far as objections by opposition counsel on the ground of irrelevance would permit. I recall that he was in full cry up San Juan Hill when his chief counsel, J. H. Pound, co-operating nicely, asked: “Colonel, you were wounded?”

One of Newett’s attorneys leaped up to object, but not in time to stop Roosevelt from pulling back his cuff and showing the jurors a deep scar on his pudgy forearm.

A few minutes later the judge called a recess, and Roosevelt came down to the reporters’ table for a chat. There was further talk of the wound, and T. R. said, “You know, because of my high blood pressure I bleed more than most people.” He went on to describe humorously how callous his family had become to his bleeding. Recently, he said, he had climbed a windmill on his farm, cut his scalp, and returned to the house in a very bloody condition. “As I came in,” he reported, “Mrs. Roosevelt met me and said, ‘Theodore, I wish you’d do your bleeding in the bathroom; you’re ruining every rug in this house.’”

As for his drinking, Roosevelt did not claim to be a teetotaler; but he did claim, repeatedly and emphatically, to be an unusually judicious and moderate drinker. He did not like the taste of alcohol in general, he said, and added: “I have never drunk a highball or a cocktail in my life. I have never drunk whiskey or brandy except when the doctor prescribed it, or possibly on some occasion after great exertion when I was chilled through. At public dinners I sometimes drink a glass of champagne or perhaps two. On the average, I may drink one glass of champagne a month.”

George Newett knew when he was beaten. Not only were his own witnesses, as it turned out, of doubtful reliability, but Newett himself was thoroughly convinced by T. R.’s own testimony and by that of his squad of stellar witnesses that the stories of his tippling were unfounded. The publisher manfully read a statement to the court admitting his error. The jury, of course, found him guilty of libel. T. R. shook hands all around and went happily away with his reputation intact, and with the minimum damages: six cents.