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26 June, 2013
Theodore Roosevelt and His Times
Chapter VI. Roosevelt Becomes President
by Howland, Harold


There was chance in Theodore Roosevelt's coming into the Presidency as he did, but there was irony as well. An evil chance dropped William McKinley before an assassin's bullet; but there was a fitting irony in the fact that the man who must step into his place had been put where he was in large measure by the very men who would least like to see him become President.

The Republican convention of 1900 was a singularly unanimous body. President McKinley was renominated without a murmur of dissent. But there was no Vice-President to renominate, as Mr. Hobart had died in office. There was no logical candidate for the second place on the ticket. Senator Platt, however, had a man whom he wanted to get rid of, since Governor Roosevelt had made himself persona non grata alike to the machine politicians of his State and to the corporations allied with them. The Governor, however, did not propose to be disposed of so easily. His reasons were characteristic. He wrote thus to Senator Platt about the matter:

"I can't help feeling more and more that the VicePresidency is not an office in which I could do anything and not an office in which a man who is still vigorous and not past middle life has much chance of doing anything . . . . Now, I should like to be Governor for another term, especially if we are able to take hold of the canals in serious shape. But, as Vice-President, I don't see there is anything I can do. I would be simply a presiding officer, and that I should find a bore."

Now Mr. Platt knew that nothing but "sidetracking" could stop another nomination of Roosevelt for the Governorship, and this Rough Rider was a thorn in his flesh. So he went on his subterranean way to have him nominated for the most innocuous political berth in the gift of the American people. He secured the cooperation of Senator Quay of Pennsylvania and another boss or two of the same indelible stripe; but all their political strength would not have accomplished the desired result without assistance from quite a different source. Roosevelt had already achieved great popularity in the Middle and the Far West for the very reasons which made Mr. Platt want him out of the way. So, while the New York boss and his acquiescent delegates were stopped from presenting his name to the convention by Roosevelt's assurance that he would fight a l'outrance any movement from his own State to nominate him, other delegates took matters into their own hands and the nomination was finally made unanimously.

Roosevelt gave great strength to the Republican ticket in the campaign which followed. William Jennings Bryan was again the Democratic candidate, but the "paramount issue" of his campaign had changed since four years before from free silver to anti-imperialism. President McKinley, according to his custom, made no active campaign; but Bryan and Roosevelt competed with each other in whirlwind speaking tours from one end of the country to the other. The war-cry of the Republicans was the "full dinner pail"; the keynote of Bryan's bid for popular support was opposition to the Republican policy of expansion and criticism of Republican tendencies toward plutocratic control. The success of the Republican ticket was overwhelming; McKinley and Roosevelt received nearly twice as many electoral votes as Bryan and Stevenson.

When President McKinley was shot at Buffalo six months after his second term began, it looked for a time as though he would recover. So Roosevelt, after an immediate visit to Buffalo, went to join his family in the Adirondacks. The news of the President's impending death found him out in the wilderness on the top of Mount Tahawus, not far from the tiny Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, the source of the Hudson River. A ten-mile dash down the mountain trail, in the course of which he outstripped all his companions but one; a wild forty-mile drive through the night to the railroad, the new President and his single companion changing the horses two or three times with their own hands; a fast journey by special train across the State--and on the evening of September 14, 1901, Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office as the twenty-sixth President of the United States.

Before taking the oath, Roosevelt announced that it would be his aim "to continue absolutely unbroken the policy of President McKinley for the peace, prosperity, and honor of our beloved country." He immediately asked every member of the late President's Cabinet to continue in office. The Cabinet was an excellent one, and Mr. Roosevelt found it necessary to make no other changes than those that came in the ordinary course of events. The policies were not altered in broad general outline, for Roosevelt was as stalwart a Republican as McKinley himself, and was as firmly convinced of the soundness of the fundamentals of the Republican doctrine.

But the fears of some of his friends that Roosevelt would seem, if he carried out his purpose of continuity, "a pale copy of McKinley" were not justified in the event. They should have known better. A copy of any one Roosevelt could neither be nor seem, and "pale" was the last epithet to be applied to him with justice. It could not be long before the difference in the two Administrations would appear in unmistakable terms. The one which had just passed was first of all a party Administration and secondly a McKinley Administration. The one which followed was first, last, and all the time a Roosevelt Administration. "Where Macgregor sits, there is the head of the table." Not because Roosevelt consciously willed it so, but because the force and power and magnetism of his vigorous mind and personality inevitably made it so. McKinley had been a great harmonizer. "He oiled the machinery of government with loving and imperturbable patience," said an observer of his time, "and the wheels ran with an ease unknown since Washington's first term of office." It had been a constant reproach of the critics of the former President that "his ear was always to the ground." But he kept it there because it was his sincere conviction that it belonged there, ready to apprize him of the vibrations of the popular will. Roosevelt was the born leader with an innate instinct of command. He did not scorn or flout the popular will; he had too confirmed a conviction of the sovereign right of the people to rule for that. But he did not wait pusillanimously for the popular mind to make itself up; he had too high a conception of the duty of leadership for that. He esteemed it his peculiar function as the man entrusted by a great people with the headship of their common affairs--to lead the popular mind, to educate it, to inspire it, sometimes to run before it in action, serene in the confidence that tardy popular judgment would confirm the rightness of the deed.

By the end of Roosevelt's first Administration two of the three groups that had taken a hand in choosing him for the Vice-Presidency were thoroughly sick of their bargain. The machine politicians and the great corporations found that their cunning plan to stifle with the wet blanket of that depressing office the fires of his moral earnestness and pugnacious honesty had overreached itself. Fate had freed him and, once freed, he was neither to hold nor to bind. It was less than two years before Wall Street was convinced that he was "unsafe," and sadly shook its head over his "impetuosity." When Wall Street stamps a man "unsafe," the last word in condemnation has been said. It was an even shorter time before the politicians found him unsatisfactory. "The breach between Mr. Roosevelt and the politicians was, however, inevitable. His rigid insistence upon the maintenance and the extension of the merit system alone assured the discontent which precedes dislike," wrote another observer. "The era of patronage mongering in the petty offices ceased suddenly, and the spoilsmen had the right to say that in this respect the policy of McKinley had not been followed." It was true. When Roosevelt became President the civil service was thoroughly demoralized. Senators and Congressmen, by tacit agreement with the executive, used the appointing power for the payment of political debts, the reward of party services, the strengthening of their personal "fences." But within three months it was possible to say with absolute truth that "a marvelous change has already been wrought in the morale of the civil service." At the end of Roosevelt's first term an unusually acute and informed foreign journalist was moved to write, "No President has so persistently eliminated politics from his nominations, none has been more unbending in making efficiency his sole test."

There was the kernel of the whole matter: the President's insistence upon efficiency. Roosevelt, however, did not snatch rudely away from the Congressmen and Senators the appointing power which his predecessors had allowed them gradually to usurp. He continued to consult each member of the Congress upon appointments in that member's State or district and merely demanded that the men recommended for office should be honest, capable, and fitted for the places they were to fill.

President Roosevelt was not only ready and glad to consult with Senators but he sought and often took the advice of party leaders outside of Congress, and even took into consideration the opinions of bosses. In New York, for instance, the two Republican leaders, Governor Odell and Senator Platt, were sometimes in accord and sometimes in disagreement, but each was always desirous of being consulted. A letter written by Roosevelt in the middle of his first term to a friendly Congressman well illustrates his theory and practice in such cases:
"I want to work with Platt. I want to work with Odell. I want to support both and take the advice of both. But, of course, ultimately I must be the judge as to acting on the advice given. When, as in the case of the judgeship, I am convinced that the advice of both is wrong, I shall act as I did when I appointed Holt. When I can find a friend of Odell's like Cooley, who is thoroughly fit for the position I desire to fill, it gives me the greatest pleasure to appoint him. When Platt proposes to me a man like Hamilton Fish, it is equally a pleasure to appoint him."
This high-minded and common-sense course did not, however, seem to please the politicians, for dyed-in-the-wool politicians are curious persons to whom half a loaf is no consolation whatever, even when the other half of the loaf is to go to the people--without whom there would be no policies at all. Strangely enough, Roosevelt's policy was equally displeasing to those of the doctrinaire reformer type, to whom there is no word in the language more distasteful than "politician," unless it be the word "practical." But there was one class to whom the results of this common-sense brand of political action were eminently satisfactory, and this class made up the third group that had a part in the selection of Theodore Roosevelt for the Vice-Presidency. The plain people, especially in the more westerly portions of the country, were increasingly delighted with the honesty, the virility, and the effectiveness of the Roosevelt Administration. Just before the convention which was to nominate Roosevelt for the Presidency to succeed himself, an editorial writer expressed the fact thus: "The people at large are not oblivious of the fact that, while others are talking and carping, Mr. Roosevelt is carrying on in the White House a persistent and never-ending moral struggle with every powerful selfish and exploiting interest in the country."

Oblivious of it? They were acutely conscious of it. They approved of it with heartiness. They liked it so well that, when the time came to nominate and elect another President, they swept aside with a mighty rush not only the scruples and antagonisms of the Republican politicians and the "special interests" but party lines as well, and chose Roosevelt with a unanimous voice in the convention and a majority of two and a half million votes at the polls.

As President, Theodore Roosevelt achieved many concrete results. But his greatest contribution to the forward movement of the times was in the rousing of the public conscience, the strengthening of the nation's moral purpose, and the erecting of a new standard of public service in the management of the nation's affairs. It was no little thing that when Roosevelt was ready to hand over to another the responsibilities of his high office, James Bryce, America's best friend and keenest student from across the seas, was able to say that in a long life, during which he had studied intimately the government of many different countries, he had never in any country seen a more eager, high-minded, and efficient set of public servants, men more useful and more creditable to their country, than the men then doing the work of the American Government in Washington and in the field.

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