Someone wrote an article last week about the best and worst performances of presidents after leaving office. Well, I suppose I can name the who and what — Justin S. Vaughn, in the May 23 issue of the Sunday Review. Usually Theodore Roosevelt hovers somewhere near the top of lists, but he tanked on this one.
As he wondered what Barack Obama’s legacy would be, Dr. Vaughn, assistant professor of political science at Boise State University, gave his criteria for the best ex-presidents as: “engaging in important work, sometimes at a level that exceeded White House accomplishments.” His four picks and his reasoning were John Quincy Adams (Congress), Jimmy Carter (Habitat for Humanity), William Howard Taft (Supreme Court), and Herbert Hoover (humanitarian aid to Europe following World War II).
His criteria for the worst ex-presidents were “taking strong positions against the national interest, and undermining their successors for personal and political reasons.” For these reasons, he named John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and “Teddy” Roosevelt to the bottom of the roll. Not having read extensively on Mssrs. Tyler, Fillmore, or Pierce, I reserve judgment. But on Theodore Roosevelt, I differ. I checked a bit further on what I already knew about this period of his life.
First, we should remember to beware of brief summaries which justify an opinion, very common in this day of electronic news. TR’s rating in this instance was backed up by less than 120 words. It cited the transgressions of killing animals in Africa, splitting the Republican Party, and lobbying against the League of Nations.
Maybe a big part of this evaluation was the comparison of achievement during his White House years with those afterwards. Theodore Roosevelt’s record in his almost-two terms was large: trust-busting, coal-strike settling, Nobel Peace Prize winning, nature-conserving, navy-building, food and drug-purifying. Out of office, he could not make the kind of indelible change he did with what he called his “bully pulpit,” the powers of chief executive. (Several presidents, of course, were eliminated from being chosen best or worst ex-presidents because they did not live past or much past their administrations).
Here are some details of what happened between 1909 and 1919:
Theodore Roosevelt collected specimens for the Smithsonian and American Museum of Natural History on trips to Africa and South America, almost dying on the second, and his “last chance to be a boy” led the party to discover the source of a major river.
The former president delivered the 1910 Romanes Lecture at Oxford University, “Biological Analogies in History.” He had taken the advice of a friend whose opinion he valued, who suggested he omit some of its controversial content. One listener gave the speech a “beta minus” but its deliverer an “alpha plus.” He wrote editorials for the Outlook magazine on many subjects, including anti-lyching and pro-suffrage; and completed his autobiography and more books on natural history.
TR ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1912 and was defeated by William Howard Taft, who was backed by the Old Guard. Before that vote, Roosevelt said, “Conservatives are taught to believe that change means destruction. They are wrong…life means change, and when there is no change, death comes.” Henry Pringle, in his Pullitzer Prize biography of the 30s, said that “Roosevelt, out of office, typified an ideal. Taft, in office, was imperfect reality.”
The ever “compulsive idealist” was quoted: “Our own party leaders did not realize that I was able to hold the Republican Party in power only because I insisted on a steady advance and dragged them along with me. Now the advance has stopped…Republicans needed to concede to the hypothesis that business should be subordinates to, rather than partner of, the government.” So Theodore Roosevelt accepted the nomination of the new Progressive Party, and though he knew he could not win, saw the campaign to its end, but not before being wounded by an a would-be assassin. Woodrow Wilson, the Democrat, won; Roosevelt placed second, and the incumbent Taft came in third.
Author Louis Auchincloss has been prompted to say, “What he may have done to his party may still affect it today. Has the Republican Party ever really recovered the liberal wing which abandoned it to follow TR in 1912?” It is up to the individual to decide whether this was bad or good. Many believe Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal came straight from his fifth cousin’s New Nationalism and Square Deal.
With New Nationalism, Theodore Roosevelt tried to show the public to look ahead. He thought without more reform there would be a major revolt of labor against management. In one of his last speeches, he also said, “I will do everything I can to aid, to bring about, to bring nearer, the day when justice, the square-deal, will be given us between black man and white.”
Preparedness continued to be his theme on the verge of the first world war. He hotly disagreed with the appeasement of Wilson (“that skunk in the White House”), and hated the idea of being too proud to fight. “I did not believe that a firm assertion of our rights means war, but it is well to remember there are worse things than war.” He backpedaled when the United States entered the conflict, and wanted to lead a division in France, but Wilson turned him down. The current chief of the armed forces described the former Rough Rider: “…a splendid man and a patriotic citizen, but he is not a military leader…he as well as others have shown intolerance of discipline.” TR had to settle for watching his four sons leave for battle, with only three to return.
From Kathleen Dalton’s research, we learn he believed in a modified League of Nations which touted national sovereignity and preparedness. But he thought Wilson would be the worst choice for its leader: “I shall be delighted to support the movement for a League to Enforce Peace, or for a League of Nations, if it is developed as a supplement to and not a substitute for the preparation of our own strength.” He had experienced very early in life that strength is respected and therefore discourages conflict.
Undermining Taft and Wilson? To some, it may seem. Looking at the reasons for, and the principles behind, his attacks, is revealing. In his mind he was not against the national interest. It was the national interest which motivated him to act.
Theodore Roosevelt was brash. He said what he thought, spoke with emotion, and shot from the hip. The consummate “stick to your guns” leader, he never gave up. After his death, Henry Cabot Lodge eulogized him as Valiant-for-Truth from Pilgrim’s Progress. Lodge and Elihu Root had disagreed with him over the Progressive Party, but he never lost their respect or friendship.
He also had dark moments of depression. Asthma and heart trouble had plagued him all his life; his health was made worse by malarial fever, abcesses from the Brazilian trip, and gout. The aerial combat death of his youngest child, Quentin, hit him very hard, but he was ready to take on the 1920 Republican nomination if offered, and it seems that if he’d lived, it would have been.
Accompanying the Sunday Review article about the ex-presidents was a cartoon portrait of TR. It showed a mustache, middle-parted hair, and pince-nez . In this case, I believe the illustrator represented him far better than the author.
With assistance from William Henry Harbaugh, Power and Responsibility; Nathan Miller, Theodore Roosevelt, a Life; Kathleen Dalton, Theodore Roosevelt, a Strenuous Life; Louis Auchincloss, Theodore Roosevelt; and Henry Pringle, Theodore Roosevelt.