This book is an unusual presidential biography in that it does not cover one president but it actually focused on the lives of two presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, the 26th and 27th presidents of the United States. Like most presidential biographies, this book spends limited time on the formative years but focuses upon the professional years of the presidents. If you are interested in a book that only covers the formative years of Theodore Roosevelt, I strongly encourage Mornings on Horseback by David McCullough.
In addition to covering two presidents, this book also covers the lives of several journalists who had a major impact on the progressive movement in the early 1900s. These journalists include S.S. (Samuel Sidney) McClure, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, John Phillips, and Ray Standard Baker.
Of all the books that I have read this year, this is one of my favorites. I find that it was one of my favorites because there are many great lessons that political activists like me can learn from the lives of these two presidents.
Roosevelt was born into a wealthy family. At that time New York, wealthy families did not get involved in local politics. However, Roosevelt was not your normal wealthy rich kid. Roosevelt was looking for something to do and he decided to get involved in local politics. When a seat to the New York assembly opened up, the republican central committee chair understood that he had an opportunity to win the seat if they ran Roosevelt. The chair realized that Roosevelt would be able to get the rich to vote in the race and to add that with the party machinery, it should be enough to steal a seat from the democrats.
Roosevelt was elected to the New York assembly at a very young age of 24. As an assemblyman, one of Roosevelt constituents asked him to look into some political corruption. Roosevelt discovered that the media loved to cover him when he went after political corruption.
In 1884, Roosevelt lost his mother and his wife within 11 hours of each other. Later that year, Roosevelt’s preferred republican candidate, George Edmunds, a reform candidate lost the republican nomination to president Chester Author. Roosevelt did not go home after the convention, instead, he went west to North Dakota where he played cowboy.
In 1888, Benjamin Harrison brought Roosevelt back into politics by naming him to the Civil Service Commission. Roosevelt used this position with his knowledge of how to use the press to win him national attention as a political reformer. Roosevelt was very aggressive in pursuing public corruption.
In 1894, Roosevelt went back to New York where he continued his public corruption crusade by becoming a New York Police Commissioner. Roosevelt again used the press to route out several corrupt practices that were found in the police department.
In 1897, William McKinley named Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. It was in this position that Roosevelt helped prepare the Navy for war against Spain. It was because of Roosevelt’s preparation, that when the president decided it was time to go to war, the United States found that they were ready. There was no need gear up for war, supplies were already purchased and were already where they needed to be.
In 1898, Roosevelt resigned from the Navy so that he could lead his volunteer regiment, the Rough Riders into battle in Cuba. Because of Roosevelt’s relations with the media, it is no surprise that the media traveled with his regiment thus bringing even more national attention to Roosevelt. Roosevelt made the media’s job of finding a story very easy.
Upon Roosevelt’s return from Cuba, it became clear that he was going to run for New York Governor. Roosevelt had a meeting with the New York republican party boss and the party boss immediately endorsed Roosevelt. The party boss endorsed Roosevelt because his party had just gone through a major scandal and the boss knew that Roosevelt was the only chance for the party to regain the governor’s office.
The endorsement of the party boss was bad for the reformer brand of Roosevelt. The democratic and independent controlled newspapers immediately started attacking Roosevelt for caving so quickly while the republican controlled papers made sure everyone knew that the party boss was still in control.
Anyone who thought the endorsement of the party boss was going to change Roosevelt was greatly disappointed. Roosevelt used the bully pulpit as the governor to lead many political reforms. In fact, Roosevelt was so aggressive with political reforms that the New York republican bosses decided that they needed to get rid of Roosevelt. They decided that Roosevelt would become McKinley’s Vice-President. The party bosses hoped by putting Roosevelt in the useless office of V.P. they could put his career on the back burner.
Little did the party bosses realizes that an assassin’s bullet would find McKinnly and the reformer that they were trying to keep out of office would hold the highest office in the land.
Meanwhile, William Howard Taft had a different path to the presidency. At age 29, Taft was appointed to a vacancy to the Cincinnati Superior Court. Taft quickly realized that he loved being a judge and it soon became his life-long desire to become a judge on the United States Supreme Court.
However, Taft’s wife had higher ambitions for her husband. She desired Taft to enter politics and hopefully someday he would be president. As such, when Taft received an appointment from Benjamin Harrison for the position of United States Solicitor General, Taft’s wife practically pushed him into the position.
Even though Taft was successful as Solicitor General, as soon as a vacancy arose in the 6th Circuit, Taft decided to take the position knowing that it would help him to one day become a Supreme Court judge. Taft’s wife was very disappointed, but Taft was happy to be back on track towards his desire to someday sit on the Supreme Court.
In 1900, McKinley appointed Taft to go to the Philippines in order to help them form a civil government. The United States had obtained control over the Philippines in the Spanish-American war. Taft agreed to take this position after it was implied by McKinley’s men that by doing so, it would set him up to be appointed to the Supreme Court once a position was made available.
During the Roosevelt presidency, there were three times that Roosevelt attempted to appoint his good friend Taft to the Supreme Court. Taft declined the position the first time because it was not the right time for him to leave the Philippines. Mrs. Taft had a lot to do with Taft declining the other two opportunities. Eventually, Roosevelt named Taft as Secretary of War. Taft’s wife loved the secretary position because it was more in line with her desires for him to be president. Upon Roosevelt retiring, Taft became the republican nominee and won the presidency.
One of the most important lessons someone can learn from the presidency of Roosevelt and Taft is the power of the people. The people were upset at the corruption of party bosses and the abuses of big businesses. During the 11+ years of Roosevelt and Taft, many new regulatory authorities were created. It was the politician’s way of trying to curb the abuses that the people were complaining about.
Regulations upset the balance of power in the United States in that regulations eliminate the checks and balances established by our founding fathers. Because bureaucrats are able to pass rules that have the same force of law but no citizen votes for bureaucrats, the balance of power created by the Constitution was eliminated.
When Congress passes a law, the president can veto that law. Now the president could have bureaucrats pass a rule and Congress had no ability to stop the president’s agenda. One of the major reasons our nation had the Revolutionary War was because parliament was passing laws to which the people were unable to give their consent to. Our republic was established to ensure the consent of the govern.
Roosevelt and Taft’s regulations brought into American politics the very act that angered our forefathers and caused them to declare war on Great Britton. However, these men’s destructive behavior did not stop with the massive expansion of regulatory authority. It is because of these men that we saw the Progressive Amendments. The Progressive Amendments were the introduction of the income tax, direct election of senators, prohibition, and woman’s suffrage.
Personally, I hope that some day we can see the elimination of the income tax and return some power back to the states by returning to the principle that U.S. Senators are accountable to the states.
Another area that Roosevelt and Taft ended up hurting this country occurred in the election of 1912 when Roosevelt decided he was going to run against Taft. It was in this election that the nation saw for the first time, presidential candidates showing up at the presidential nomination conventions. It also was the first time that presidential candidates actually took an active role in traveling around the country making speeches promoting their candidacy. Prior to the 1912 race, presidents sat at home and allowed surrogates to promote their presidency.
After the crazy 2016 presidential primary elections, Americans would also be interested to find out that it was Roosevelt in 1912 who was actively promoting the direct primary election of presidential delegates to the conventions. Roosevelt understood that there was no way he could beat Taft as president because Taft held the presidency and had the ability to award federal jobs to party bosses. As such, in order to attempt to beat Taft, Roosevelt was able to persuade many state legislatures to vote for direct primary election of delegates.
About 13 states followed Roosevelt’s progressive agenda and voted to have direct primary elections. Roosevelt won a majority of these states, but Taft who was the president won a majority of the delegates from the caucus system. Roosevelt pretty much knew he was going to lose the race for the republican nomination because, by the time he jumped into the race, most of the southern states had already had their caucuses and had given their delegates to Taft. Nonetheless, Roosevelt and Taft found themselves traveling around the country giving speeches trying to win as many delegates as possible.
If anyone thought that the republican party’s handling of the rules was controversial in 2016, you really should read what happened during the 1912 convention. Roosevelt’s team came up with as many excuses as possible to challenge Taft delegates. In fact, there were so many challenges that the republican party showed up in Chicago about a week and a half early to run several mini-trials to determine which delegates would be seated. Of course, these votes went down presidential preference lines and some Taft delegates probably should not have been seated.
Roosevelt may have won some of these delegate fights but because he had been so aggressive in creating so many challenges, many of which his own supporters knew had no valid basis, and because he tried to start a public relations campaign in the media, the Taft people circled the wagon and made sure that Roosevelt won none of his challenges.
As a result of Roosevelt losing all of his challenges, Roosevelt became bitter and decided to run third party, claiming that the party bosses were destroying this country. The third party run of Roosevelt split the republican party breaking its control on the White House. New Jersey governor, Woodrow Wilson became president in an electoral landslide even though he did not win anywhere near a majority of the vote.
After the two terms of Wilson, William Harding was elected president and when chief justice Edward White retired, William Howard Taft finally realized his lifelong goal of being on the United States Supreme Court. As such, he not only fulfilled his wife’s desire for him to be President but his desire to serve on the Supreme Court.
What is really interesting about this book is that it does not just focus upon the two presidents. As mentioned earlier, it also spends a lot of time talking about the media and their role in awaking the America’s mind to the corruption of party bosses and the abuses of big business.
The media’s story begins with S.S. McClure. McClure was a successful journalist and had started his own magazine. McClure decided that he was not going to insist that his writers go for quantity, like all of his competitors, but instead, the magazine’s focus would be on quality. McClure let his writers know that he did not care if a story took them 2 years, he wanted them to come into the story with an open mind and a desire to do enough research that their articles were truthful.
Because McClure’s writers were not worrying about generating articles in order to receive their next paycheck, the quality of work produced by McClure’s magazine was revolutionary. McClure’s writers were able to awaken the American people to the public corruption on a scale that the people were not aware. This public outcry was tapped into by Roosevelt and Taft and they fundamentally changed this country.
While the public corruption and abuses by big businesses needed to be taken care of, I personally do not think the solution was to fundamentally change the United States from a constitutional republic to mob rule.
Those who are concerned with the direction of the country and desire to see it return to its foundation can learn a lot from this book. First, even though the media seems to be business as usual, it only takes a handful of writers who desire to see a change to awaken the American people to abuses.
Second, big business is never too big. All it takes is a couple of politicians and a determined press and the biggest abuses can be brought to light.
Third, just because something has been done one way for a hundred of years, it does not mean that with an eloquent spokesman can help direct the people in a new direction.
While I strongly disagree with many of the changes to America made by Roosevelt and Taft, it does not mean that I have not learned from their presidencies. America was severely weakened by these two men, not because they desired to harm America but because they tried to solve a problem. However, their solutions harmed this country.