Presidential Feuds, Part 3

The Feud That Left a Mark on Presidential History

One of the most fascinating presidential feuds involved two men who had been best of personal and political friends, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Teddy Roosevelt had been Vice President when President McKinley was assassinated in 1901. He had gone on to be an incredibly popular President. Unfortunately, on election night in 1904, Teddy had said he would not run for another term in 1908. In 1908, Teddy kept his word and retired. He virtually appointed his friend and Secretary of War William Howard Taft as his successor. With Teddy’s support, Taft won in a landslide. But shortly after Taft took office, the friendship, both political and personal, began to break apart until the two men became bitter enemies. Their feud changed not only our history, but also the history of the entire world.

William Howard Taft came from a distinguished family with a long history of public service. He had already served as a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals when President McKinley named him as the first civil governor of the Philippines. As the governor of the Philippines, his immediate superior was Secretary of War Elihu Root. Root both liked and respected Taft. He also worried about Taft in the hot, humid Philippine climate. Taft’s weight varied during his career from 300 to 360 pounds. Once, upon hearing rumors that Taft was having health problems, he cabled Taft asking about his health. Taft replied that his health was good, and that he had that very day gone for a horseback ride 25 miles into the mountains and back. Root called back, “How is the horse?”

When Root was elevated to Secretary of State by President Roosevelt, Taft became Secretary of War. Roosevelt quickly took a strong liking to Taft and gained a strong respect for his abilities. Taft soon became one of Roosevelt’s most trusted political lieutenants and a sort of trouble-shooter for the President. Roosevelt liked to quip that he never worried about things boiling over in the capital when he was away, because he left Taft sitting on the lid. In addition to the obvious joke about Taft’s weight, it also accurately described his reliance on Taft to keep a watch on things while Roosevelt was away.

On election night 1904, Teddy Roosevelt had promised not to run for a third term, a decision he later regretted. At the end of his second term, he wanted his faithful Secretary of War William Howard Taft to run for president. After a dinner party one evening, Teddy and the Tafts went into the library, and Teddy sat down in a big chair, closed his eyes and said, “I am the seventh son of a seventh daughter. I have clairvoyant powers. I see a man standing before me weighing about 350 pounds. There is something hanging over his head. I cannot make out what it is…At one time it looks like the Presidency—then again it looks like the Chief Justiceship.” Mrs. Taft cried, “Make it the Presidency!” William Howard Taft declared, “Make it the Chief Justiceship!” In the end, Teddy and Mrs. Taft talked William Howard Taft into running for the White House. With Teddy’s active support, Taft won by a landslide over William Jennings Bryan who was making his third and final try as the Democratic nominee.

Taft was no Roosevelt, and his administration did not go smoothly. The majority Republican Party was split into two main factions, the conservatives and the progressives. Roosevelt was a progressive, as was Taft. While Roosevelt was known as the great “Trust Buster,” Taft actually started four times as many anti-trust lawsuits in his one term as Roosevelt had in two terms, giving him a rate of anti-trust actions eight times that of Teddy. But Taft did not have the political instincts or ability of self-promotion that Teddy had, and so he did not get the credit from progressives that he deserved. Whereas Teddy had taken on the conservatives, using his great popularity and marketing ability, Taft was forced to compromise with them on a number of issues to gain their support on others he considered more important.

By the end of his term, Taft had compromised with the conservatives so often that Teddy felt that Taft had betrayed the progressive principles he was supposed to uphold. For that reason, or because he missed being the center of things, he decided to run against Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912. Taft did not want to be president again, but he had become alarmed at Teddy’s “radicalism” and did not want Teddy to get back in the White House.

Taft hoped to find a way to settle the feud before it split the party and cost Republicans control of the White House. Taft’s military aide was a widely respected officer, Major Archie Butt. Archie was more than Taft’s military aide; he had also become a close friend and advisor. Major Butt had also been Teddy’s military aide, and had become a close friend of his as well. Archie was on a much-needed vacation in Europe, and Taft called him back to duty at the White House convinced (possibly correctly) that only Archie could mediate the increasingly antagonistic conflict between the two men. Major Butt made plans to return to Washington as soon as possible, cutting his vacation short. He sailed on the first available ship, the R.M.S. Titanic. Many reports from survivors told of the heroism of Major Butt in saving a number of lives, including women and children, but not his own. With the death of Major Butt, Taft gave up any hopes of settling his differences with Roosevelt. Knowing he could not win, he was determined to at least prevent Roosevelt from gaining another term as President.

Teddy defeated Taft in nine out of ten primaries, including Taft’s own home state of Ohio. But the other states held conventions that nominated delegates favoring Taft. At the Republican national convention, Taft’s re-nomination was a sure thing. The chairman of the convention gaveled down so many Roosevelt motions that one delegate raised a point of order stating that the steamroller was exceeding the speed limit. After that, whenever the chairman spoke, the Roosevelt delegates would toot whistles and rub sandpaper together to imitate the sounds of a steamroller.

When Taft was finally nominated, Roosevelt and the progressive wing of the party walked out and met later to form the Progressive Party, which of course nominated Teddy for President. Teddy declared that his “hat was in the ring” and that he was stripped to the buff and feeling fit as a bull moose, and the party symbol was born (as well as the nickname for the entire campaign).

Teddy explained away his “no third term” pledge by explaining he had meant no consecutive third term. One of his supporters further explained that a man might say he does not want a second cup of coffee, but that does not mean he will never want another cup of coffee in the future. Vaudeville comedians had a lot of fun with “another cup of coffee?” jokes.

Taft had little chance of winning in 1912, but was determined that TR not win. He referred to himself as a “man of straw” saying he had been one for too long, and that “even a rat in a corner will fight.” Of course, describing himself as a cornered rat did not do much for his re-election chances.

The Democratic Party nominated Governor Woodrow Wilson of New Jersey. Wilson was also a progressive who agreed with TR and Taft on most issues. There were one or two issues on which Wilson and Roosevelt disagreed, and these became the basis of the campaign. Taft more or less dropped out of the campaign early, leaving it a mainly two-way fight between TR and Wilson.

All three candidates took to the stump in one of the most active campaigns yet. There was one lull in the campaign. On October 14, while getting into a car in Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot by a fanatic named John Shrank. Shrank yelled something about no third term, and fired at Roosevelt. The bullet struck Roosevelt, but he refused to go to the hospital. He said that he had a speech to make and stated “I will make this speech or die.” With great drama, he made his speech in almost a whisper to a silent audience. At the end of the speech, the audience stood and cheered, and Roosevelt finally went to the hospital. The bullet had struck the doubled over speech in Teddy’s coat pocket, and lodged in his ribs near the lung. The doctor said that it would have been much worse if Roosevelt were not in such great physical condition. Both Taft and Wilson sent him telegrams of sympathy and ceased campaigning until Roosevelt was better.

When the votes were counted, there were no surprises. Wilson won an electoral landslide taking 435 electoral votes to 88 for Roosevelt and 8 for Taft. Wilson did not, however, capture a majority of the popular vote. Roughly six million people voted for Wilson, compared to four million for Roosevelt and three and a half million for Taft. But since the Republican Party split between Teddy and Taft, Wilson took most of the states with a plurality (less than a majority, but more than anyone else) vote. Since all the electoral votes of a state go to whoever wins the most votes, Wilson won forty states, most with less than a majority of the popular votes.

With seven and a half million votes to Wilson’s six million votes, the Republicans would have easily won the election in 1912 if not for the feud between Roosevelt and Taft. Wilson went on to serve two terms and make great changes in our economic system. He strengthened the regulatory powers of the federal government and created the Federal Reserve System we still use today. He also led us through World War I, issued the Fourteen Points, and provided the leadership that formed the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations.

In addition to the great political changes this election brought about, it was interesting for another reason. It was the only election in which a “third” party finished ahead of one of the two major political parties of the day. Teddy’s Bull Moose, or Progressive, Party finished second, ahead of the Republican Party.

Taft often said he lost on the Dr. Fell Principle:

I do not like you, Dr. Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell,
But this I know and know full well,
I do not like you, Dr. Fell.

Taft retired, taught law, and was later appointed Chief Justice, which is what he always wanted. He was one of our most successful Chief Justices, and had a major impact on the re-organization of the Supreme Court and the entire judicial branch.

Teddy Roosevelt tried for the presidency again in the 1920 campaign. He was one of the leaders for the nomination when he suddenly died early in 1919. He had contracted a form of jungle fever while exploring the River of Doubt in Brazil in 1913 and 1914. This led to surgery and other medical problems. He died of a blood clot in January of 1919.

This personal feud between these two men changed the landscape of national politics. It also had a major impact on world history. Did it happen because Roosevelt truly felt Taft had abandoned the progressive principles he held so dear? Or did Teddy just miss being at the center of the action and attention. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy’s daughter, known for her own style and flair in much the same manner as her father, said that her father always “wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.” If so, his ego changed the world. He would have been proud.