"Teddy" both admired and despised
He was called a "braggart," a "usurper," and even a "drunk."
But he was one of our outstanding presidents.
He is right up there with Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson, literally, and “larger than life” atop Mt. Rushmore.
But he was called by some, including the editor of the Enterprise, practically every negative name in the book.
He was Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt.
When sculptor Gutzon Borglum wanted to immortalize the four presidents in South Dakota granite, there was no problem with his portrayal of Washington and Jefferson. One was the “father” of his country and the other nearly so. Nor was there any serious objection to the highly venerated Lincoln, credited with “saving the Union.”
Teddy Roosevelt was a different story. Although very popular, he had served as president only a few decades earlier and was well remembered.
But not necessarily universally remembered well. Particularly after the unusually contentious election of 1912.
Theodore Roosevelt was born in New York City 150 years ago, on Oct. 27, 1858, to a well-to-do family. Frail as a child, he was tutored at home, but, as an adult, he led a famously rough-and-tumble life.
As a young man, he served in the New York assembly in Albany, and, following Republican William McKinley’s 1896 election as U.S. president, was appointed Assistant Secretary of Navy – a post later also held by a distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Following the outbreak of war with Spain in 1898, Roosevelt resigned his post for active service in Cuba, where, as Col. Roosevelt of the Rough Riders, he charged up San Juan Hill and into the national celebrity spotlight.
In an era when most politicians didn’t rock the boat, Roosevelt was an early “maverick,” and this upset a number of party regulars, particularly because “Teddy” was very popular with the public.
What do you do with such a nuisance? The answer was “put him on the shelf” as vice-president of the United States, under William McKinley. In the 19th century, vice-presidents typically wielded little power and most have been forgotten by history.
But when McKinley was shot in Buffalo, N.Y., in September 1901, Roosevelt was suddenly elevated to the presidency.
Marcus Hanna of Ohio, the major backer (we might today say “handler”) of McKinley, was horrified, as his worst fears had been realized.
“Now look,” he said, “that damned cowboy is president!”
Regardless of what other politicians felt, Roosevelt remained immensely popular with the public, and when he ran for president in 1904 he received the largest plurality to date.
When he was finished with his own presidential stint, he determined who the next two presidents would be.
The first, by selecting him. The second, Woodrow Wilson, was elected in 1912 because of Roosevelt’s later opposition to his own chosen successor.
William Howard Taft was Roosevelt’s personal choice for president, and he was elected in 1908. Teddy was initially happy, and went off to Africa to hunt lions.
But, as time went on, Roosevelt became disenchanted with his choice, and challenged Taft for the Republican presidential nomination at the end of his first term.
After the passage of four years, T.R. still had an immense personal following, but Taft had also had four years to solidify his control of the party machinery.
And here is where Teddy Roosevelt proved himself to be a real maverick. Although he himself had, earlier in his career, stressed party loyalty, this time, failing to gain the GOP. nomination, he went over to the Progressive Party, whose nomination he was able to secure.
This party also became known as the “Bull Moose” party, allegedly because Roosevelt, once the frail child, said something to the effect “I am as fit and strong as a bull moose!”
Teddy’s attempt to re-occupy the White House (incidentally, prior to his time in office it had simply been known as the Executive Mansion) made the 1912 election one of the rowdiest in U.S. history.
The state Republican convention was held at Bay City in April 1912, and trouble was anticipated even before the delegates assembled.
It turned out to be something like the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but on a smaller scale.
According to Michigan historian Clever Bald, “there was bedlam. Fights between Roosevelt and Taft participants broke out all over the floor.”
“Police and militiamen finally separated the combatants but it was impossible to bring the convention to order.”
Later, the Republicans held their national convention in Chicago, which “was dominated by Taft men, and the credentials committee refused to seat contesting Roosevelt delegates,” Bald tells us. “Many of those from Michigan attended the Progressive Convention, which nominated Roosevelt.”
Editorial support for the three major candidates – Republican Taft, Progressive Roosevelt and Democrat Wilson – was split across the state, but opinions were strong.
The Leelanau Enterprise publisher/editor, W.C. Nelson, was clearly in the Taft camp and referred to Roosevelt as a “braggart,” and a “usurper.” On Oct. 24, 1912, Nelson wrote “no voter will make a mistake if he votes for the Republican candidates, for men who stand for Republican principles.”
Then, on Oct. 31, he wrote, “if ever there was a time when voters should support the national ticket it is this year. There is but one truly progressive candidate for the presidency and that man is William H. Taft, the Republican nominee.”
But Leelanau, and most of Michigan’s counties, went for Roosevelt, and he was awarded the state’s electoral vote. Taft and Wilson each carried only about a dozen counties.
Following the election, in the Nov. 14 edition, the Enterprise continued to lambaste Roosevelt:
“The truth of the remark credited to the late P.T. Barnum that ‘the public enjoys being humbugged’ was fully exemplified by the late election, when some 4,000,000 voters in the United States cast their ballots for the greatest bluffer and faker of modern times for the presidency.”
Roosevelt, indeed, garnered more votes than Taft, but the split in the Republican ranks gave the election to Woodrow Wilson - only the second Democrat to occupy the White House since Abraham Lincoln.
In the last few weeks prior to the November election, Nelson wasn’t the only publisher/editor of a Michigan newspaper fulminating against T.R.
“Roosevelt lies and curses in a most disgusting way; he gets drunk, too, and that not infrequently, and all his intimates know it,” George A. Newett wrote in the Ishpeming newspaper, Iron Ore.
This editorial went one step too far, and when it was shown to Roosevelt in Chicago, he said “let’s go at him.”
A libel trial was set at Marquette for May 26, 1913, with judge Richard Flannigan presiding.
The former president arrived in court with an entourage of over 20 “stellar” gentlemen (a veritable little “Who’s Who” of the day) and T. R. himself was the first to take the stand.
He described himself as an “unusually judicious and moderate drinker,” who, in general, didn’t even like the taste of alcohol, according to Detroit News reporter Jay Hayden.
“I have never drunk a highball or cocktail in my life,” Roosevelt said. “I have never drank whiskey or brandy except when the doctor prescribed it, or possibly on some occasion after great exertion when I was chilled through. At public dinners I sometimes drink a glass of champagne or perhaps two. On the average I may drink one glass of champagne a month.”
“George Newett knew when he was beaten,” Hayden wrote. “Not only were his own witnesses, as it turned out, of doubtful reliability, but Newett himself was thoroughly convinced by T.R.’s own testimony and by that of his squad of stellar witnesses that the stories of his tippling were unfounded. The publisher manfully read a statement to the court admitting his error. The jury, of course, found him guilty of libel. T.R. shook hands all around and went happily away with his reputation intact, and with the minimum damages: six cents.”
Yes, you may call Teddy Roosevelt a “braggart,” or a “usurper.”
But don’t call him a drunk!