(Divisions not only between political parties, but within political parties are nothing new in US Presidential history. It seems as if there have always been divisions between progressives and centrists, conservatives and moderates, protectionists and free traders, and on other issues. Today's rerun looks at one of the most famous of these, as we repost an entry originally posted on September 23, 2018, describing the famous fractured friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and his protégé and friend William Howard Taft.)
Much has been written about the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, including the 2013 best-seller The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism
by Doris Kearns Goodwin (reviewed here
). The two men forged a close friendship, then had a falling out, and then had a reconciliation of sorts in later life. What is especially unique about this relationship is that it is probably the most obvious time in history that a president selected his successor, a decision that Roosevelt later came to regret.
On September 6, 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley at a reception at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley died a few days later and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt returned to Washington from a camping trip to be sworn in as President. Roosevelt became the youngest person ever to hold the office of President. He had previously served as a member of the New York State Assembly, Commissioner of the New York City Police Department, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a Colonel of the "Rough Riders" in the Spanish‐American War, and Governor of New York.
Roosevelt had earned a reputation as a “trustbuster.” During his time as president, 44 antitrust actions were filed against the nation's largest corporations, including the Northern Securities Company (a railway holding company). He was also a fervent environmentalist. Under his administration, millions of acres were set aside as national forest lands. Coal and oil reserves as well as hydroelectric power sites were placed under government control and the national park system was enlarged. His strongest ally in the fight for environmental protection was the head of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot.
After the 1904 election, Roosevelt publicly announced that he would not run for president again, another decision he likely came to regret. William Howard Taft had served as Secretary of War in Roosevelt's cabinet, and had earned Roosevelt's confidence for his handling of a number of issues, and Roosevelt groomed Taft to be his successor. Roosevelt called Taft a "genuine progressive" in 1908, when Roosevelt orchestrated Taft's nomination for the Presidency. Taft easily defeated three-time candidate William Jennings Bryan. But Taft's progressivism differed from Roosevelt's. Taft stressed the rule of law and preferred that judges rather than administrators or politicians make decisions about fairness. Taft was not as good a politician as Roosevelt had been, and he lacked a lot of the skills that made Roosevelt so formidable. When Roosevelt realized that lowering the tariff would risk severe tensions inside the Republican Party, he stopped pursuing the issue. Taft ignored the risks and tackled the tariff boldly. Congress didn't give Taft the tariff deal he had hoped for. Instead, it passed the Payne-Aldrich tariff of 1909, which set tariffs too high for most reformers. Instead of blaming this on the senate or on big business, Taft took credit, calling it the best tariff ever. In doing so, he managed to alienate all sides. While the crisis was building inside the Party, Roosevelt was touring Africa and Europe, to allow Taft to be his own man.
Unlike Roosevelt, Taft never attacked business or businessmen in his rhetoric. Instead he used the law, bringing 90 antitrust suits, including one against the largest corporation, U.S. Steel, for an acquisition that Roosevelt had personally approved. Taft lost the support of antitrust reformers, of big business and of Roosevelt. The left wing of the Republican Party began agitating against Taft. Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin created the National Progressive Republican League, and planned to replace Taft as President. More trouble came when Taft fired Gifford Pinchot, a leading conservationist and close ally of Roosevelt. Pinchot alleged that Taft's Secretary of Interior Richard Ballinger was in league with big timber interests. Conservationists sided with Pinchot, and Taft alienated yet another vocal constituency.
When Roosevelt returned from Europe, he gave a famous speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, in August 1910, which publicly marked his break with the Taft administration and the conservative Republicans. Taft was upset because Roosevelt attacked the judiciary, an institution that Taft fundamentally believed in. In the 1910 mid-term Congressional elections, Democrats swept to power, and Taft's reelection in 1912 was increasingly in doubt. In 1911, Taft responded with a vigorous stumping tour that allowed him to gain the support of most of the party leaders before Roosevelt could begin his challenge of Taft.
On October 27, 1911, however, Taft's administration filed an antitrust suit against US Steel, which Roosevelt had called a "good trust". Roosevelt saw himself as the only person who could save the Republican party from defeat in the upcoming Presidential election and announced himself as a candidate for the GOP nomination. But Roosevelt had waited too long, and Taft had already won the support of most party leaders in the country. Robert LaFollette's had suffered a nervous breakdown on the campaign trail before Roosevelt's entry, and now most of LaFollette's supporters went over to Roosevelt. Roosevelt stepped up his attack on judges. He carried nine of the states that held preferential primaries, LaFollette took two, and Taft only one. The 1912 primaries represented the first extensive use of the presidential primary, but while the primary elections demonstrated Roosevelt's popularity with the electorate, they were not nearly as important as primaries would become later in the century. Most states still selected convention delegates at state party conventions, or in caucuses. While Roosevelt was popular with the public, most GOP politicians and party leaders supported Taft, and their support proved difficult to counter in states without primaries.
At the Republican Convention in Chicago, Roosevelt, realized he would not win the nomination. He asked his followers to leave the convention hall. They moved to the Auditorium Theatre, and then Roosevelt, along with key allies such as Pinchot and Albert Beveridge created the Progressive Party. It was popularly known as the "Bull Moose Party", which got its name after Roosevelt told reporters, "I'm as fit as a bull moose." At the convention Roosevelt cried out, "We stand at Armageddon and we battle for the Lord."
While Roosevelt was campaigning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on October 14, 1912, a saloonkeeper named John Flammang Schrank shot him, but the bullet lodged in his chest after passing through his steel eyeglass case and through a thick (50 page) single-folded copy of the speech he had in his jacket. Roosevelt concluded that since he was not coughing blood, the bullet had not completely penetrated the chest wall to his lung, and so decided to deliver his scheduled speech before going to the hospital. He spoke for 90 minutes. His opening comments to the gathered crowd were, "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose." Afterwards, probes and x-ray showed that the bullet had passed through three inches of tissue and lodged in Roosevelt's chest muscle but did not penetrate the wall of the lung. Doctors decided that it would be more dangerous to attempt to remove the bullet than to leave it in place. Roosevelt carried it with him for the rest of his life.
Because of the bullet wound, Roosevelt was taken off the campaign trail in the final weeks of the race. Taft and Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson stopped their own campaigns in the week Roosevelt was in the hospital, but they resumed them once he was released. Roosevelt failed to attract enough Republicans in his direction. He did win 4.1 million votes (27%), compared to Taft's 3.5 million (23%). However, Wilson's 6.3 million votes (42%) were enough to garner 435 electoral votes. Roosevelt had 88 electoral votes to Taft's 8 electoral votes. Taft became the only incumbent president to place third in a re-election bid. Wilson was elected President. The split between conservatives and progressives made Wilson's victory inevitable.
According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the two men reconciled when they happened to meet in a Chicago hotel years later. Roosevelt died in January of 1919 from a blood clot in his lung. Author David Pietrusza, in his excellent 2018 book TR's Last War: Theodore Roosevelt, The Great War and a Journey of Triumph and Tragedy
in this community), describes Taft weeping openly at Roosevelt's funeral. Taft went on to be named Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court in 1921. He died on March 8, 1930.