Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.
“Shifty, adroit logothete. Cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician. No more backbone than a chocolate éclair. A flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him. Puzzlewit! Fathead! Brains less than a guinea pig!”
Yes, those are the words of Theodore Roosevelt. President of the United States, author, philanthropist, avid reader, and inspiration for the teddy bear. He was, from most accounts, a kind and sociable man. But if Roosevelt found flaws, he was quick to articulate them—a fast and furious torrent of putdowns designed to bombard the target of his attack with insults that might require a dictionary to fully process.
Roosevelt didn’t unleash these particular tirades at just anyone. He reserved them for individuals he held to the highest standard because they held the highest office in the land. For Roosevelt, anything less than the naked, harsh truth directed at the commander-in-chief would be a disservice to his country. When it came to other presidents, Theodore Roosevelt pulled no punches. How rough did it get? We’re about to find out.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. This week’s episode is TR vs. Other Presidents.
Roosevelt’s famously tempestuous attitude toward politicians may have started with his impossible standards. His role model for all things presidential was Abraham Lincoln, the 16th commander-in-chief of the United States, and one of the few presidents Roosevelt had no quarrel with. He grew up in a household where Lincoln was revered—at least by his Republican father, Theodore Senior, or Thee. (His mother Mittie, a southerner and Confederate sympathizer, likely had other feelings.) Thee had worked with Lincoln’s administration during the Civil War and had even joined Abraham and his wife Mary at church.
After Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, his funeral procession ran through New York City. From his grandfather’s mansion in Union Square, 6-year-old Roosevelt and his brother, Elliott, watched as the president’s coffin was carried through the streets.
A photographer even captured the moment, a young Theodore peering out of the window in what would be the first of his many eyewitness experiences in history. Here’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.
Jenkinson: Lincoln, in Roosevelt's view, was the savior of the country. He was also a friend of his father and TR worshipped his father and his father's associations, and he regarded Lincoln as somebody who had the moxie and the moral strength to do the right thing against almost impossible odds and he knew that Lincoln had paid the ultimate price for that—that he had been assassinated in part because he grew in office, whereas most presidents, as you know, don't grow in office, they decline. But Lincoln was one of the few who actually grew in a big way during the course of his presidency.
Roosevelt’s admiration for Lincoln endured throughout his life. As president, Roosevelt referred to him as “my great hero,” a degree of affection he reserved for very few people aside from his father.
With Lincoln’s portrait hanging both in the White House and in his home office at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt was constantly reminded of Lincoln’s legacy. “I look up to that picture,” he said, “and I do as I believe Lincoln would have done.”
He even kept a lock of Lincoln’s hair in a ring, which Roosevelt wore for his inauguration in 1905. It was given to him by John Hay, who had served in Lincoln’s administration—and went on to serve in Roosevelt’s.
Tyler Kuliberda: It was kind of like a Victorian thing, and they would make jewelry into them, so that's what Hay does, and he keeps these, and I think he has two of them made, and he has them for quite a while, and gives them to TR to wear at his inauguration in 1905.
That’s Tyler Kuliberda, the education technician at Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s onetime home and now a National Historic Site.
Kuliberda: I think Roosevelt saw Lincoln as kind of this incredible president, and I think in his own presidency would have liked to been president during a time like Lincoln when the nation was in crisis, and he had to solve these kind of major problems as president.
Roosevelt enjoyed having a memento of Lincoln so close to him. But he was not so fond of one of the other presidents who would end up on Mount Rushmore alongside him.
Roosevelt was famously cool toward Thomas Jefferson, blaming the long-deceased president for his ineffectual efforts in building a military force during the War of 1812 and for Jefferson’s subversive opposition to George Washington’s policies while serving as his secretary of state.
But it was Roosevelt’s contemporaries that received most of his scorn. That rant about a “cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician”? That was directed at Benjamin Harrison, our 23rd president from 1889 to 1893 and the same man who appointed Roosevelt as a civil service reform commissioner around the start of his term.
Roosevelt had campaigned for him when he was on the Republican ticket. So where did things go so wrong?
For one thing, Harrison didn’t really want reform for federal employees. The position was more of a figurehead role. That didn’t suit Roosevelt and his high standards at all. In his mind, if someone was granted a federal job, it should be because they deserved it and not because they were owed a favor.
For the six years he held the post, Roosevelt was defiant, putting lackadaisical civil service workers and departments in his crosshairs. He advised Harrison to fire George H. Paul, postmaster of Milwaukee, for granting jobs to his friends. His investigation into the Baltimore Postal Service—where Roosevelt found workers soliciting money for political purposes on government property, which, according to historian Edmund Morris, was against the Civil Service Code—put him against Postmaster General John Wanamaker even more directly.
Wanamaker tried to run his own investigation into the matter and reported that it found that no wrongdoing had occurred. But a House Investigative Committee, acting on Roosevelt’s insistence, found that Roosevelt was right. Here’s Jenkinson:
Jenkinson: It was just a natural instinct of his to read the job as boldly as possible and to make sure that he got himself in the newspapers and to make sure that he was on the right side of these questions and he wasn't afraid to take on his own political party. He'd take it right up to the edge, and … where they're just like so annoyed and disgusted with him because he won't … he won’t play the game. You know, he just couldn't play the game and they wanted him to be a figurehead at least and to be … they knew that he was the best stump speaker they had and that he could galvanize an audience, but they wanted him to be less hectic and to be less certain of things and to go along more than he did.
This wasn’t how government was supposed to work—government wasn’t supposed to be fair. Cynicism and cronyism mandated that politicians did favors and the winning team showed support. But Roosevelt didn’t care what party anyone belonged to. He was on a mission, and if Harrison’s allies were in the way, he had no problem taking them down.
That commitment had consequences for their relationship. When Harrison and Roosevelt met, Harrison took to tapping his fingers, a nervous tic that developed as a result of the aggravation Roosevelt caused him.
There was, of course, the situation with the money-soliciting Baltimore postal workers.
And the fact that Roosevelt went after William Wallace, the postmaster of Indianapolis and a man who also happened to be Harrison’s best friend, for hiring incompetent—and corrupt—workers because they were Republicans.
Later, Harrison would say of Roosevelt, “The only trouble I ever had with him … was that he wanted to put an end to all the evil in the world between sunrise and sunset.”
Harrison’s overt displays of favoritism needled Roosevelt, perpetuating some of his most articulate insults. He called Harrison “the little gray man in the White House” and “a genial little runt” behind his back.
Roosevelt managed to last through Harrison’s term, and would end up being re-appointed civil service reform commissioner once Grover Cleveland entered office in 1893. He left his post in 1895 and became president of the board of police commissioners in New York City. His next brush with the presidency would come when William McKinley ran for the office in 1896.
McKinley’s campaign had given Roosevelt pause. Before McKinley’s first term, Roosevelt wrote to his friend and Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge that “it will be a great misfortune to have McKinley nominated … If I could tell you all I have learned since his campaign has progressed, you would be as completely alarmed over the prospect of his presidential nomination as I am.”
When it seemed like McKinley would soon be named the Republican nominee, Roosevelt dashed off a letter to his sister, Bamie: “McKinley, whose firmness I utterly distrust, will be nominated; and this … I much regret.”
Roosevelt didn’t dislike McKinley. He noted he was an “honorable man, of very considerable ability and good record as a soldier and in Congress.” But where Roosevelt felt Harrison was politically savvy, he got the impression that McKinley was without a spine. “He is not a strong man,” Roosevelt said. “Unless he is well-backed I should feel rather uneasy about him in a serious crisis, whether it took the form of a soft-money craze, a gigantic labor riot, or danger of foreign conflict.”
Roosevelt’s tune changed slightly when McKinley was elected.
Jenkinson: TR was an ardent Republican and he could never stray from the Republican camp. And so that dictated a lot of what he did.
McKinley appointed Roosevelt assistant secretary of the Navy in 1897. But the peace didn’t last long.
Jenkinson: He thought that McKinley was unimaginative and unnecessarily cautious and that McKinley was timid about going to war against Spain in 1898. And TR really went on a somewhat questionable campaign to sort of force McKinley's hand to declare war against Spain when McKinley said, you know, "We've had one big war during my lifetime. I hesitate to begin another one." But TR read every possible story coming out of Cuba in the way that made the Spanish look worst, made it sort of a righteous issue of whether we stand for anything and especially after the sinking of the Maine. That's why he called McKinley names and said that he had the backbone of a chocolate éclair.
He would later campaign extensively for McKinley’s second term. By this point, Roosevelt was more than just a supporter. After a two-year term as governor of New York, he was the vice-presidential candidate on the McKinley ticket.
Jenkinson: Roosevelt campaigned for McKinley in a really big way in 1900 against William Jennings Bryan; McKinley didn't leave his home in Canton, Ohio. He ran that front porch campaign and sent out this voluble, hectic, crazy, energetic vice presidential candidate to do all the work on the stump. Roosevelt of course threw himself into just head and shoulders and had the time of his life. And took on Bryan and probably McKinley would have won anyway, but it's Roosevelt who did the heavy lifting in the campaign and really found his voice in the American West while doing that. He said horrible things about Bryan. He said he was a human trombone, which is virtually my favorite thing, my favorite Roosevelt insult of all. So he believed that McKinley was sound economically and he realized especially after 1898, that McKinley could be manipulated or managed, let's put it, to pursue a more vigorous American role in the world than he might instinctively have intended.
One would think that Roosevelt would exert a little more patience with the guy on his campaign ticket, but … it’s Theodore Roosevelt we’re talking about here.
For one thing, Roosevelt didn’t really want to be vice president. He thought the office was ineffectual and constricting. “I would a great deal rather be anything, say professor of history, than vice president,” he said.
Kuliberda: This is a man who cannot sit still, and you put him in the vice presidency, which he just regarded as an idle office.
But Roosevelt’s friends knew it was a step closer to the presidency. Senator Lodge urged him to take it on and stick by McKinley’s side, declaring it “invaluable” for his future in politics.
So why would McKinley select him as a running mate? It was more indifference than anything. Supporters buzzed in McKinley’s ear that Roosevelt, then the governor of New York and a war hero, would bring some much-needed fire into the campaign. Plus, the New York Republican party machine desperately wanted him out of the state.
And so McKinley and Roosevelt became the Republican hopefuls of 1900. Ohio Senator Mark Hanna, who viewed Roosevelt as a loose cannon, was not a fan. “Don’t you realize,” he said, “that there is only one life between this madman and the White House?”
Roosevelt’s concerns about the role proved accurate. McKinley never consulted him on policies and refused to let him interact with the Senate as a liaison, as he had done with his previous vice president, Garret Hobart. Roosevelt, meanwhile, found McKinley’s glacial decision-making process infuriating. But he wouldn’t have to endure it for long.
On September 6, 1901, McKinley was shot in the stomach by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.
He died of gangrene only a little over a week later. According to an eyewitness, when Roosevelt heard the news of McKinley’s shooting, “a look of unmistakable anguish came to his face, and tears immediately filled his eyes.”
Jenkinson: Well, TR was in upstate New York. He had presided over the Senate for I think five days before they adjourned and now he was sort of just wandering and giving speeches and going hiking and camping and, you know, writing and doing all the things the Theodore Roosevelt does. He got the word that McKinley had been shot. And he made an emergency trip to Buffalo to be at McKinley's bedside and then he realized McKinley was probably going to recover. He went back. He thought it was unseemly for him to hang around the sick man's bed. And so he went to upstate New York. He was on Marcy, the highest point in the state, when a messenger came running up the path and informed him that the president was going to die that night.
Roosevelt raced to Buffalo to be by McKinley’s side, although he would be too late to see the president before he passed. Though they had their differences, the tragedy overshadowed any political divide.
Following McKinley’s assassination, it was time for Roosevelt to step into the role held by men he had often criticized.
The so-called madman was now in the Executive Mansion. Would that experience afford him a new perspective on the challenges of the job? Of course. Would it prompt him to bite his tongue when it came to his successor? Probably not.
We’ll be right back.
Imagine what it would be like to disappoint someone with the standards of Theodore Roosevelt. Just … think about that for a moment.
William Howard Taft didn’t have to think about it. He experienced it first-hand.
Taft was Roosevelt’s secretary of war. When Roosevelt left office, he selected Taft as his choice for the presidential nomination. Taft was named the nominee in 1908, and Roosevelt believed he would welcome advice with an open ear.
Hmm. Not quite.
Roosevelt felt Taft was a little too careless with his image. Seeing Taft fishing and golfing instead of shaking hands and kissing babies, he urged Taft to “put yourself prominently and emphatically into this campaign.”
Of his recreational activities, he said: “I am convinced that the prominence that has been given to your golf playing has not been wise, and from now on I hope that your people will do everything they can to prevent one word being sent out about either your fishing or your playing golf.”
Roosevelt had very particular ideas about how a president should behave, and what kind of image they should project. Presidential candidates weren’t supposed to be seen enjoying themselves. “I never let friends advertise my tennis, and never let a photograph of me in tennis costume appear,” he said. And Roosevelt believed that Taft should allow his constituents to see him smiling: “Always. Because I feel that your nature shines out so transparently when you do smile—you big, generous, high-minded fellow.”
According to Kuliberda, TR had tight control over his public image—very much a thing with politicians today but a new concept in TR’s time. It’s one of the things that made him the first modern president.
Kuliberda: He was very aware that you are going to be written about in newspapers. Your image is going to be broadcast through newspapers, people are going to see you, even the ones you don't interact with, so if you're playing golf, like William Howard Taft did, that has its sort of own connotation, if you're playing tennis that has its own connotations. Roosevelt thought it was feminine. He didn't want to be seen as feminine, so he doesn't allow anyone to photograph him playing tennis.
If it sounds like Roosevelt was acting as an image consultant for Taft, well, he was. He was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, and his success—or failure—would in some way reflect back on Roosevelt’s legacy.
According to Jenkinson, Roosevelt was right to lecture Taft about golfing, because average people back then couldn’t afford to golf.
Jenkinson: That was a rich man sport. It takes time, it takes money, it takes privilege. Roosevelt said, "If you want to be the leader of a people, you have to narrow the distance between yourself and the common man, not accentuate it by being photographed in an aristocratic hobby." Roosevelt had incredible political instincts. He wanted to be photographed climbing a mountain or being lowered on a rope in front of a waterfall or killing something because then that would be something people could really respect. But if you're photographed doing something that only the privileged get to do, then you're sending the wrong signal to the country.
It’s not hard to imagine that Roosevelt’s nagging irritated Taft. The press’s spin on things may have also rubbed him the wrong way: They decided that his last name could be an acronym, short for Take Advice from Teddy.
Taft beat Democrat William Jennings Bryan, and TR was sure his successor would continue his legacy of reform. Roosevelt left on a hunting trip to Africa for a year, allowing Taft a chance to make his own mark in office.
Jenkinson: So TR was not as good a judge of character as his wife, Edith. He loved Taft and Taft was an incredibly able man, but Taft really wanted to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court. And that's what he was well suited to. It was his wife, Nellie, who forced him to accept the presidency. He didn't really want it but she was ambitious for him. And so TR thought that Taft would continue his policies. What he didn't realize is that Taft was not strong. He was big, but he wasn't strong. And so in the Republican Party at the time, there was a progressive wing of people who wanted reform and child labor and to lighten the burdens of the poor and clean up our food supply and so on, and then there was the stand-pat wing of rich capitalists who just wanted government to either be their handmaiden or to get out of the way. And Roosevelt was able to hold those two tribes, those two factions of the Republican Party, together, because he was a war hero and because he was our first cowboy president and because he was Roosevelt. But Taft wasn't able to do it. He didn't have enough firepower, enough charisma. And so Taft had to choose, and he chose to move back towards the old stand-pat J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller wing of the party.
Taft didn’t live up to Roosevelt’s lofty expectations. He found it easier to be complacent with existing laws than to become combative. A former lawyer, he wanted to remain within the boundaries of office, whereas Roosevelt was keen on exerting as much control as he could. Taft possessed none of Roosevelt’s firebrand policies, none of his aggressive attitude towards improving the country. At the end of the Africa trip, he wrote to Roosevelt to complain: “I do not know that I have had harder luck than most presidents, but I do know that thus far I have succeeded far less than … others. I have been conscientiously trying to carry out your policies but my method of doing so has not worked smoothly.” Poor Taft bemoaned that he couldn’t even lose weight.
In some ways, Taft was like a sibling, looking up to a bigger brother for approval. He invited Roosevelt to the White House, but Roosevelt refused. “I don’t think it well for an ex-president to go to the White House, or indeed to go to Washington, except when he cannot help it,” he sniffed. Time and again, Taft would make advances and Roosevelt would rebuff them. Taft would later say Roosevelt’s chilly demeanor “deeply wounded” him.
Jenkinson: He had felt that he had assurances from Taft that Taft would continue the progressive initiatives, particularly on conservation questions. And when Taft didn't, Roosevelt felt angry, betrayed, and somewhat righteous and vindictive. Plus, I mean, it’s just the case that Roosevelt couldn't stand not to be empowered. He just couldn't stand not to be the guy. He was the youngest former president because he was youngest president and he made a stupid mistake by renouncing a third term. He left at the height of his powers before he had finished all that he wanted to do.
The friction grew worse when Taft finally made a sweeping change, advising the government to sue the monopolistic U.S. Steel—an industrial behemoth Roosevelt had tacitly approved of in 1907 in order to avert financial panic. Not only was Taft slow to act, but when he did, it was to try and reverse one of Roosevelt’s decisions. An irate Roosevelt actually penned entire published essays devoted to separating his policies from those of his onetime friend.
The problem? Roosevelt’s decision on the U.S. Steel situation was probably a mistake. According to Jenkinson, the key players in the merger concealed their true motivations from the president. Economics was not TR’s strong suit, and he acted quickly to stave off the panic—but if he’d had more time to read up on his options, he might not have approved the merger. Still, nothing stopped him from defending the decision he had made.
Jenkinson: When it became abundantly clear that he had been manipulated and that it was probably an unnecessary thing and maybe an unethical thing for him to have done, he just got more and more and more righteous about it. The same was true about Panama when the Wilson administration gave the Colombian government $25 million. He threw just a gigantic hissy fit over that and broke with the Wilson administration.
A poison pen was not Roosevelt’s only comeback. He decided to challenge Taft in the ultimate arena of the presidential election. Roosevelt announced he was returning to run in 1912, vying for the Republican nomination against Taft. Those references to a “flubdub” and “someone with brains less than a guinea pig”? Roosevelt was referring to Taft. The incumbent was quick to retort, calling Roosevelt a “honeyfugler,” or someone who gains an advantage by cheating, as well an egotist, a demagogue, and a flatterer. And after Roosevelt said he was no longer going to attack Taft personally, Taft proclaimed, “having called me everything in the category of bad names that are mentioned in polite society, he now wishes to indulge in less emphatic expressions.”
Jenkinson: So now, their friendship has been damaged and frayed by all of this, but now it was really a tragic business because Taft loved Roosevelt. He actually wept and said, "He was my closest friend. I loved TR." And TR was much less emotional about it. He was really caught up in his own righteousness. So they began to call each other names. And, you know, Roosevelt was great at insults. He called him a fathead and all the other things that he said. A puzzlewit. McCarthy: How did the public react to his insults, especially with Taft because it's not like you're insulting just anyone when you call them a guinea pig power brain, you're insulting the president. Jenkinson: Well, most people didn't know about this. Most people were … So they knew that TR was this cowboy and that he was shot from the hip and that he was not afraid to punch somebody metaphorically or physically if necessary. Certainly, that was his public persona—that he was a Christian warrior and that he was not afraid to take on trusts or anything that got in his way, and he loved that, and he circulated those stories. He was glad that they circulated because he felt that they gave him a political advantage. But we know more about this than they did because some of this was in private letters.
The Republicans tried to curb the rivalry, offering to arrive at a compromise and find a third candidate. Roosevelt would have none of it. “I’ll name the compromise candidate,” he said. “He’ll be me. I’ll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform.”
After a controversial convention that saw the Republican National Committee award Taft the necessary delegates to guarantee his selection, Roosevelt could have been gracious in defeat. Instead, he remained in the race, breaking away from the Republicans and running as a Progressive in his Bull Moose party. The sniping continued.
Jenkinson: These were picked up in the newspapers and it was like the public was following this feud and Roosevelt wasn't sorry—he knew that his only path to victory was to bring down the sitting incumbent president of the United States. And so he wanted the public to share his view that Taft really wasn't up to it. McCarthy: Did any of his remarks come back to sort of bite him or ... Jenkinson: Well, you never really want to burn your bridges but TR—when I lecture about this, Erin, and I always say that TR, the post-president, was really a very unpleasant person. He just couldn't stand not being in power. And he didn't realize this when he left. He wrote all these letters to his children like, "I've had my time and the public moves on and, you know, nobody has enjoyed this more than I have and it's time for others. And there's a weariness about me in the country," but he didn't believe it. He actually thought that he was the indispensable man.
Indispensable, or indestructible? Preparing for a speech at Milwaukee Auditorium on October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin named John Schrank. He survived. He even finished his speech. Schrank later said he shot him in part because William McKinley had come to him in a dream and ordered him to do the deed. It seemed that Theodore Roosevelt’s clashes with presidents both past and present were far from finished.
We’ll be right back.
In competing against each other, both Taft and Roosevelt lost. It was Democrat Woodrow Wilson who secured the 1912 election. And unfortunately, Roosevelt didn’t much care for him, either.
Wilson was bookish and self-aware. He knew Roosevelt appeared to be larger-than-life. “He is a real, vivid person, whom they have seen and shouted themselves hoarse over and voted for, millions strong,” Wilson said. “I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than of human traits and red corpuscles.”
In the face of such self-deprecating commentary, Roosevelt still let him have it with both barrels. Wilson, he said, was “a good man who has in no way shown that he possesses any special fitness for the presidency.” Here’s Jenkinson:
Jenkinson: He just belittled poor Wilson and treated him just so shabbily and undermined him. Most presidents when they leave are graceful to their successors but TR just couldn't be and it wasn't a partisan thing. He was equally awful to Wilson as he was to Taft.
As it often did, Roosevelt’s scorn stemmed in part from a president who deviated from Roosevelt’s well-worn path. In a treaty with Colombia a few months before the opening of the Panama Canal, the United States proclaimed “sincere regret” that anything came between the friendship of the United States and Colombia, like the Panamanian coup Roosevelt had sent a ship to support.
To Roosevelt, that was an admission—a sign of institutional weakness he would never have allowed. That it was in open defiance of his decision rankled him even more.
In a press release, Roosevelt called Wilson’s handling of foreign affairs “such as to make the United States a figure of fun in the international world.” He criticized the treaty and with the help of Senate allies blocked the treaty’s ratification. When the treaty was finally ratified a few years after Roosevelt’s death, the “sincere regret” clause had been removed.
But it was more than a difference of diplomacy. In his heart, Roosevelt was a soldier. He lived for combat, be it verbal, physical, or territorial. When Wilson was faced with the decision to bring America into World War I, Roosevelt criticized his cabinet’s pacifism.
Writing to his friend Arthur Lee, Roosevelt said that “It is not a good thing for a country to have a professional yodeler, a human trombone like [William Jennings Bryan] as secretary of state, nor a college president with an astute and shifty mind, a hypocritical ability to deceive plain people … and no real knowledge or wisdom concerning internal and international affairs as head of the nation.”
On another occasion, he bemoaned Wilson’s lack of action following the German sinking of the Lusitania and told his son Kermit that a “lily-livered skunk” was occupying the White House.
Speaking to the public at large about the sinking of the Lusitania, he said: “This represents not merely piracy, but piracy on a vaster scale of murder than any old-time pirate ever practiced.” Roosevelt said that the act “constituted warfare against innocent men, women, and children traveling on the ocean, and to our own fellow countrymen and countrywomen, who are among the sufferers. It seems inconceivable that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity, but to our own national self-respect.”
Jenkinson: He belittled Wilson's manhood over this, that he wasn't a real man because he said he was an Aunt Nancy, I think he called him, and made all these slurs about the virility of Woodrow Wilson because Wilson was trying so hard to keep the peace and when Wilson said that he was going to keep us out of war, Roosevelt's view—and Roosevelt turned out to be right, by the way—Roosevelt’s view was, "We will have to get involved in this war. There's no way the United States of America is going to avoid World War I. So we may as well get ready for it. If we're prepared when the war comes, we'll be able to fight it more successfully and the victory will be more complete. If you dilly-dally around, by the time you get into war, you're not going to be ready for it and then that's going to be a delay and that means you're not going to be able to control the postwar arrangement in Europe. You're going to lose some of your leverage over the postwar."
Writing to his son, Archie, Roosevelt was even more accusatory, placing the blame for the victims of the Lusitania directly on Wilson’s shoulders. “As a nation, we have thought very little about foreign affairs; we don’t realize that the murder of the thousand men, women, and children in the Lusitania is due, solely, to Wilson’s abject cowardice and weakness in failing to take energetic action when the Gulflight was sunk but a few days previously.”
(Just a quick fact check here: Though there were reports that the Gulflight had been sunk, it was actually just damaged and towed in. OK, back to the quote.)
“… [Wilson and Bryan] are both abject creatures and they won’t go to war unless they are kicked into it, and they will consider nothing but their own personal advantage in the matter.”
Wilson, however, did put up a fight—when Roosevelt goaded him into one. “The way to treat an adversary like Roosevelt is to gaze at the stars over his head,” Wilson said.
The men reconciled, if ever so briefly, when Wilson decided to join the war. Roosevelt came over to the White House and, over lemonade, pitched himself as going back to the Army to take up his post as a commander of the Rough Riders, which had barnstormed the Spanish-American War in 1898 and helped perpetuate Roosevelt’s reputation as a hands-on combatant. Wilson eventually refused, which once again drew Roosevelt’s ire.
Jenkinson: He said, "Theodore, war has kind of changed since San Juan Hill. It's not done that way anymore. There's no room for a voluntary cavalry unit in France. When Wilson wouldn't do it, it just threw Roosevelt, who was a naturally pugnacious figure and won a gloried war, it threw him in to a complete tailspin. He just wanted someone to punish and there was Wilson. And so he wrote increasingly awful op-ed pieces and then wondered why Wilson wouldn't send them over to France with the Rough Rider unit.
Wilson later said he believed Roosevelt’s cause was borne out of ego and self-aggrandizement. Secretly, he may have also feared Roosevelt becoming a war hero once more could lead to a White House run in 1920.
Roosevelt’s four sons wound up enlisting. One of them, Quentin, died in the skies over France. It was Wilson who confirmed the news via telegram.
Roosevelt wouldn’t live to see the remainder of Wilson’s second term. He died on January 6, 1919. Some of his remaining days were spent authoring editorials for the Kansas City Star about his repeated criticisms of the president. While it concerned Wilson, it summarizes Roosevelt’s feelings about the office he treated with such reverence:
“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or [his] bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.”
Roosevelt was fiercely critical of the office of the presidency, a role he believed needed to be contextualized and challenged constantly, which could be one explanation for why he assessed other presidents so harshly. But there is another possible explanation. Were his insults, criticisms, complaints, and admonishments fed by ego? By a sense that he, Theodore Roosevelt, could and did do a better job? Perhaps.
McCarthy: I feel like a lot of his hostility, you know, was about sort of people failing to live up to his standards for what he thought the presidency should be, but do you think his standard was just like: it should be me? Jenkinson: Just think of it this way: Who would you think could follow him? Who has his mighty potency and his power of language and his patriotism? There's nobody. I mean, we think that Franklin Roosevelt in many respects saved the country, maybe saved the world, but he was a mere shadow compared to TR and he always lived in envy of TR's vitality and TR's sheer political joy at being at a good slugging match with his opponents or perceived opponents. So I think, we sort of lock ourselves into a problem, because what follows TR? Wilson is a more kind of professorial figure and then the whole series of Harding and Coolidge and so on. These are just nonentities who released power back to the legislative branch. So TR was going to have trouble no matter what, but it was his own personality problem, his own righteousness and his own sense that he was the only one that really puts him in such an ugly light in the years from 19-9 to 1919.
But Roosevelt wasn’t fighting just for the sake of fighting or to have his own legacy polished. He fought because he felt it was the role of citizens to confront government, to force politicians to defend their positions and remain culpable to the individuals they represent. Theodore Roosevelt didn’t want to fight other presidents. He wanted other presidents to fight for him.
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jake Rossen, with research by me and fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer. Joe Weigand voiced Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.
The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.
Special thanks to Clay Jenkinson and Tyler Kuliberda.
To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.
History Vs. Is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.