Doris Kearns Goodwin Tackles the “Irrepressible Conflict” of 1912

tags: Theodore Roosevelt, doris kearns goodwin, William Howard Taft



Sheldon M. Stern is the author of numerous articles and Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003), The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005), and The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths vs. Reality (2012), in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series. He was Historian at the Kennedy Library from 1977 to 2000.


Image via Wiki Commons.


There are few things that fascinate historical writers and readers more than moments at which events take a very clear and decisive turn in one direction versus another -- for example -- the stories of how Franklin Roosevelt chose Harry Truman (1944) and John Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson (1960) as vice-presidential running mates. If FDR and JFK had lived to complete their terms these choices would be little more than historical footnotes. But, of course, they didn’t. As a result, the dramatic appeal of these turning-point episodes is never-ending; and, as revealed in Robert Caro’s 2012 reexamination of the selection of LBJ, new evidence and insights continue to reshape assumptions that have often held sway for decades. (1)

However, no decisive moment in the history of the American presidency is more dramatic, indeed, almost redolent of a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy, than the collapse of the personal friendship and political partnership of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft between 1909 and 1912. This saga, which had profound implications for the decade of World War I and beyond, has been the focus of several major studies since 2002. Kathleen Dalton devoted nearly two hundred pages of her TR biography to his post-White House years; Patricia O’Toole’s examination of Roosevelt’s last decade covered more than four hundred pages; and Edmund Morris, in the final volume of his TR trilogy, devoted nearly six hundred pages to the same ten years. (2)

Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose intuitive grasp of the interstices between politics and personality has produced vivid insights into the public and private lives of Lyndon Johnson, the Kennedy family, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, has now added her perspective to the Roosevelt-Taft story. (3) The tale unfolds against the backdrop of an intensifying state and national progressive reform movement, supported by an exceptionally talented group of journalists assembled at McClure’s Magazine. Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and William Allen White were committed to exposing the corrupt, covert power amassed by corporate special interests and their political allies in the decades since the end of Reconstruction. Goodwin skillfully balances two concurrent stories: the personal and political intimacy that developed between Roosevelt and Taft (TR’s most reliable associate and trouble shooter) and the unprecedented and mutually advantageous relationship which Roosevelt shrewdly cultivated with this influential corps of journalists.

Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is at her best in setting the stage -- that is, in giving the reader a vivid sense of the social, economic, and family contexts that produced Roosevelt and Taft; they were both the sons of wealthy, public-spirited families which valued principled and honest public service, particularly in the wake of the industrial revolution which had created a vast and growing gap between the very rich and the working poor. The early TR story is, of course, very well-known, but Goodwin also gives equal attention to the far less familiar story of big Bill Taft, whose personality and temperament were virtually antithetical to that of his friend Roosevelt. Their personal and political relationship was, in many ways, an attraction of opposites.

TR was a man of action, who loved the spotlight and the chance to publicly take on those who differed with him on politics, science, history, literature or anything else -- a political animal to the core. He was devoted to his wife Edith and their six children, (4) but rarely allowed her objections to get in the way of his preferred course of action. Edith, whose early life is discussed in revealing detail, was an intensely private person; she did not want her husband to leave his family for nearly a year of hunting in Africa in 1909, opposed his decision to run for president again in 1912, and resisted his determination to lead a mapping expedition into the Brazilian wilderness (which nearly cost him his life) in 1913-1914. Nonetheless, he made and carried out these decisions, often leaving Edith lonely and depressed.

Taft, known for his genial personal warmth, preferred to work in the background; he was an excellent administrator with a judicial temperament who always tried to objectively weigh both sides of an argument. He carried out every presidential assignment with skill and even-handedness, became the most valued man in TR’s Cabinet, and virtually served as acting president during Roosevelt’s extended tour of the western states in 1905. Nellie Taft, unlike Edith Roosevelt, adored politics and had been committed to becoming a president’s wife ever since she first visited the White House as a young girl during the Hayes administration. Nellie’s character and ambition, deftly rendered by Goodwin, was clearly a central factor in Taft’s private and public life.

Bill Taft was acutely dependent on his wife’s love, support, and advice, often deferring to her on critical decisions. She, as well as his politically influential brothers, Horace and Charles, wanted him to be president; he wanted to be Chief Justice of the United States. His mother, Louise Torrey Taft, sympathized with her son’s reluctance to seek the highest political prize in the land: “A place on the Supreme Bench, where my boy would administer justice, is my ambition for him. His is a judicial mind, you know, and he loves the law.” She explicitly cautioned her son: “Roosevelt is a good fighter and enjoys it, but the malice of the politicians would make you miserable.” (5) The result: he listened to his wife and brothers, turned down three offers from TR to be appointed to the High Court, and ran for president instead -- with ultimately calamitous results for his personal and family happiness.

Goodwin skillfully highlights the stark contrast between the intimacy and trust once enjoyed by TR and Taft and the depths of personal and public bitterness that followed -- so much so that it’s almost like reading two entirely separate books. The first part, carrying the story to early 1909, allows her to demonstrate the best of her insight and interpretive originality. In the second part, the details of which are so much more familiar, the task is considerably more difficult since most of the primary sources on the 1912 rift have already been extensively mined by countless journalists and historians. It is impossible, of course, to try to isolate a single cause for such a complex human and political drama. Perhaps, as Goodwin suggests, the conflict was all but inevitable in light of Taft’s self-doubt about his ability to serve as an executive leader and TR’s yearning to hold on to power -- at least through his influence on (and over) the man he had selected to succeed him.

Early in 1912, as he was about to announce his candidacy, TR told an old college friend: “What do I owe to Taft? It was through me and my friends that he became President.” (6) In fact, Roosevelt had repeatedly (and successfully) delegated the most difficult political and diplomatic assignments to Taft. One newspaper commented humorously that it was too bad that Mr. Taft could not be cut in two. In 1906, Secretary of War Taft toured the country as the administration’s spokesman in the mid-term Congressional elections. Roosevelt was “overjoyed” by the results (small losses in the House and four seats gained in the Senate) and told his devoted ally, “I cannot sufficiently congratulate you upon the great part you have played in the contest.” (7)

The first signs of the impending debacle had appeared just after Taft won the 1908 Republican presidential nomination. The nominee announced publicly that he was planning to bring the final draft of his acceptance speech to TR’s Oyster Bay home for discussion and possible revision. The press blasted this “humiliating pilgrimage,” comparing Taft to “a schoolboy about to submit his composition to the teacher before he read it in school.” Some journalists even joked that T.A.F.T. meant “take advice from Theodore.” The nominee understood the need to demonstrate his independence but responded, rather guilelessly, that he also had “the highest regard for the president’s judgment and a keen appreciation of his wonderful ability for forceful expression.” (8)

Roosevelt’s officious response to Taft’s request for comments on the speech illustrates precisely what the candidate was up against: (9)

Both of the first two paragraphs should certainly be omitted. The rest of the speech is I think admirable, with two or three corrections. On pages thirty-seven and thirty-eight reference to bank deposits is weak and most of it should be omitted. It is apologetic and hesitating and would give advantage to opponents. The last two thirds of page forty-six should be omitted and supplanted by something else, or at least entirely changed. In present shape, there are phrases that would not please the negro and would displease the white. I do not like the stray pages about injunction and am doubtful about the page concerning the identity of interest of employer and employees. … The first two paragraphs should for different reasons certainly come out.


The president also included a personal admonition:

I think that the number of times my name is used should be cut down. You are now the leader, and there must be nothing that looks like self-depreciation or undue submission of yourself. My name should be used only enough thoroly [likely an example of TR’s quixotic campaign to reform spelling] to convince people of the identity and continuity of our policies.


Talk about mixed messages! TR does not merely make suggestions for changes in the speech, but essentially orders them in a peremptory tone much like that of the traditional nineteenth century rod-and-ruler school teacher. At the same time, he urges Taft to publicly affirm his independence! Perhaps Roosevelt really wanted Taft to merely make the public appearance of greater independence while remaining privately in thrall to his mentor’s personality and policies. The president, in any case, seemed genuinely incapable of understanding the bind in which he was placing his likely successor. Taft was understandably very ambivalent -- first announcing after his election that he would keep Roosevelt’s cabinet intact and then clumsily angering his former chief by making major changes to demonstrate that he was really in charge. He was damned in the eyes of TR and the progressives if he replaced key administration reformers and damned by the press and much of the GOP Old Guard if he didn’t. It was hardly an auspicious way to kick off a new administration.

By early 1912, once it became clear that TR would challenge him for the nomination, a despondent Taft looked back at two years of increasingly bitter conflict with his former chief and told his aide Archie Butt: “I could not ask his advice on all questions. I could not subordinate my administration to him and retain my self-respect, but it is hard, very hard, Archie, to see a devoted friendship going to pieces like a rope of sand.” (10)

Goodwin seems personally sympathetic to Taft, but politically sympathetic to the activism championed by Roosevelt -- hailed as “the trustbuster” by progressive reformers. Taft, with considerable justification, pointed to the fact that his Justice Department had brought ninety antitrust suits in four years as compared to only forty-four by Roosevelt in nearly eight years. TR, however, had insisted publicly on a “moral” definition of “good” vs. “bad” trusts; but Taft was committed to dispassionately carrying out the law -- a textbook definition of the difference between a politician and a judge.

The key factor that drove this personal and political disaster was almost certainly Theodore Roosevelt’s failure to face the fact that he desperately wanted to return to the White House -- a conclusion about which Goodwin seems somewhat ambivalent. TR, of course, frequently spoke and wrote about his contentment with private life at Sagamore Hill with his wife and children -- but, as Patricia O’Toole insists, he never grasped, “that most of the challenges to adjusting to life without power lay in his own character.” A man of action rather than reflection, he understood his own motives “no better than fish understand water,” regularly deceiving himself about his own ambition. (11)

Colonel Roosevelt had insisted that he would not lift a finger to win the nomination unless it became an irresistible public duty to accept a spontaneous and unsolicited call from the American people. That “call” came in February 1912, when a group of eight progressive Republican governors published a round-robin letter declaring that TR was the clear choice of the great majority of Republican voters. But, as Goodwin makes clear, Roosevelt had arranged in advance “to answer their demand with an announcement of his candidacy. … the Colonel was orchestrating every detail of how and when to respond publicly to the round-robin letter he himself had initiated.” Even Alice Roosevelt, thrilled by her father’s decision to throw his hat into the ring, admitted that the letter had been “somewhat ‘cooked.’” (12) The “Saturnalia” (as Goodwin aptly calls it) that followed was, by any definition, an irrepressible conflict.

* * * * *

1 Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, Knopf, 2012, pp. 109-156.

2 Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, Knopf, 2002; Patricia O’Toole, When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House, Simon &m Schuster, 2005; Edmund Morris , Colonel Roosevelt, Random House, 2010.

3 Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of American Journalism, Simon and Schuster, 2013.

4 Alice, the oldest, was the child of TR’s first wife, who died of Bright’s disease at age twenty-two in 1884.

5 Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, p. 521.

6 Ibid., 682.

7 Ibid., pp. 501, 510.

8 American President -- a Reference Resource: http://millercenter.org/president/taft/essays/biography/print; Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, p. 549.

9 Elting E. Morison, editor, The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt: The Big Stick, 1907-1909, Volume VI, Harvard University Press, 1952, pp. 1139-40.

10 Lawrence F. Abbott, ed., Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Volume 2, Doubleday, Doran, 1930, p. 803.

11 O’Toole, When Trumpets Call, pp. 123, 128.

12 Goodwin, Bully Pulpit, pp. 673, 677; Joseph L. Gardner, Departing Glory: Theodore Roosevelt as Ex-President, Scribner’s, 1973, p. 214.



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