Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Book Review: Let the People Rule - Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary By Geoffrey Cowan
Author Geoffrey Cowan was one of the men responsible for increasing the number of political
primaries in 1968. In his new book, Let The People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of
the Presidential Primary, he writes about....well, the first nationwide primaries in 1912.....except
for the 50% of book dedicated to the aftermath of those primaries. It's a strange experience, this
book. On the one hand we have a reasoned study of the primaries in 1912 and Theodore
Roosevelt's role - albeit late-to-the-party [pardon the pun] - in popularizing the early votes to
select the Republican nominee for president - with a slogan of "Let the people rule". But, on the
other hand, we have the sordid and racist approach TR took after walking out of the Republican
convention to form his own party and convention. His slogan for this would have been "Let the
[white] people rule."
Most troubling are the details surrounding Roosevelt's decision to exclude black southern
delegates from the Progressive Party/Bull Moose convention [after he'd bolted the Republicans].
Of this central theme of the book, Cowan writes, "I wanted to try to understand how TR could
reconcile his professed belief in the right of the people to rule with his decision to exclude blacks
from Mississippi and other states of the deep South from his party. Was it purely a cynical
tactical decision?… Or did he have other more noble motives; could his actions, for example, be
compared to those of Lyndon Johnson, who did everything in his power to ensure the seating of
the all-white delegation from Mississippi in 1964 [at the Democratic National Convention], but
then used the power of his office to press for the Voting Right Act of 1965?"
The story begins with TR's foolish decision - made on the evening he won his first full term in
November 1904 - to announce that he would not be a candidate in 1908. TR almost
immediately regretted the decision. Not willing to go back on his word, however, he chose his
friend William Howard Taft as his successor and - shortly after Taft was inaugurated - TR set sail
for a year-long absence that included an African safari and a tour of Europe.
During his absence from America, TR received numerous correspondence from friends alerting
him to things Taft was doing that - in their opinions - were counter to Roosevelt's policies.
These complaints to TR only got louder once Roosevelt returned to the United States. Yet, despite the pressure to challenge Taft, Roosevelt resisted until late-1911. Why? Cowan postulates, "It seems...likely that [TR] had been hoping to avoid a direct conflict with Taft and to run [instead] in 1916." Then, however, on January 21, 1911, men he considered too radical on the progressive scale created the National Progressive Republican League with Sen. Robert M. La Follette as its leader. Among the items on their agenda was an effort to create as many presidential primaries in 1912 as possible. La Follette announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination on June 17, 1911. Cowan writes, "By early October 1911, the progressive leaders thought that there would be enough primaries to offset the advantages of incumbency, quite possibly enough [for La Follette] to beat Taft." Thus, Cowan says, the main reason TR finally decided to challenge Taft was to stop the more radical La Follette.
Then there was the personal element and final straw [for TR] in his disappointment in Taft. Taft's
government filed an antitrust case against United States Steel on October 26, 1911. Among
the bombshells in the documents released were accusations that - as president in 1907 - Roosevelt had naïvely capitulated to the steel barons when he agreed to allow them to form the International
Harvester trust. Cowan writes that the case provided TR. "with the perfect opening to expand
on the argument against Taft...and a reason for a form of righteous indignation that would
appeal to the business community."
Roosevelt officially announced his entrance into the Republican race for president on February
25, 1912. His candidacy was based on the idea of reaching directly to the people through
presidential primaries. Cowan points out, though, that, "until a month earlier, when he
concluded they had the potential to revolutionize the political process and offered the best and
perhaps only way to wrest the nomination from a sitting president, he and his supporters had
been privately and publicly skeptical about the virtues of such primaries." Indeed Roosevelt had
never been a supporter of direct democracy [as opposed to representative democracy]. In his
mind, not everyone was worthy of the vote. For TR, only certain people - namely, white people -
were fit for democracy. Cowan writes, "Roosevelt had been president of the United States
during the years when hundreds of thousands of blacks were removed from the voting rolls in
the South. TR had found ways to extend the reach and power of government in other important
areas, yet he did nothing to preserve popular suffrage in the region."
Yet it was while Roosevelt was holed up in his offices at The Outlook magazine to draft his
announcement that the pushing of the primary idea came to him. According to Cowan,
"Roosevelt suddenly had an inspiration - an idea to be included in a statement. He would
propose presidential primaries in order to be sure of popular demand. To those in the room [with
TR at the time] it was a masterstroke. The demand for primaries would immediately put TR at
the forefront of the progressive movement [ahead of La Follette] and put Taft on the defensive.
Equally important, in the eyes of some of his most progressive aides, it would give legitimacy to
a third-party run if TR failed to win the Republican nomination."
The South was a problem. Almost every Republican delegate owed their job to Taft. It would
take 540 votes at the convention to secure the nomination. The eleven southern states
controlled 246 of those votes. Yet the irony of this was lost on no one: none those states had cast
an electoral vote for a Republican presidential candidate since 1876 - yet they controlled the
convention almost entirely.
But in the South almost every delegate owed their job to Taft, making it almost impossible for TR
to win there. Cowan writes, "With Taft's tight control of the party...there was almost no realistic chance of creating any southern primaries." To counter this bloc, TR would challenge the credentials of dozens of theses delegates. Doing so kept them out of the great "tally" of delegates that would
be published daily by newspapers all spring [since their status wouldn't be resolved until the June convention, they were counted as unaffiliated]. Doing this made Taft's votes always appear lower than they really were [since there was almost no chance that TR's challenge against them would be upheld]. But it would give the appearance, throughout the spring, that Taft was trailing badly. In the meantime, TR's operatives began a secret campaign to try to bribe black delegates committed to Taft to switch their vote at the convention in favor of Roosevelt.
First, though, the primaries were key [to even get to the point where TR would have to worry
about the South]. Roosevelt created a phenomenal publicity bureau to promote the
creation of primaries in states throughout the country. According to Cowan, "The publicity
bureau translated the demand for direct presidential primaries into a powerful political and public
relations issue. They released statement after statement demanding that primaries be instituted
everywhere, keeping their candidate [TR] on the front pages of every paper in the country - and
putting Taft on the defensive."
The states came through: North Dakota [March 19], Indiana and New York [March 26],
Wisconsin [April 2], Illinois [April 9], Michigan [convention for April 11], Nebraska, Oregon and
Pennsylvania [April 13], Massachusetts [April 30], Maryland [May 6], California [May 14], Ohio
[May 21], New Jersey [May 28], and South Dakota [June 4].
The early weeks were slow. La Follette won in North Dakota [the first statewide primary in U.S.
history]. But then Taft surprised all by winning both New York and Indiana. La Follette won the
Wisconsin primary next. Suddenly, having not won a single early primary, TR's strategy was in
doubt. As Cowan writes, though, "then a miracle happened. Roosevelt swept Illinois. The
results were so striking - and such a departure - that it became the dividing line for Roosevelt
supporters. Those who were with him before April 9th called themselves the 'Before April 9th
Men'. The campaign welcomed those who joined later. But they knew who had really been with
TR from the start. Roosevelt didn't just win. It was overwhelming....He won every county and
earned all of the states 68 delegates."
Cowan argues that, in retrospect, "the Illinois election represented the first decisive presidential
primary victory in history. Taft went on to win in New York and La Follette won in North Dakota
and Wisconsin. But none of those races had turned the tide of the campaign. The Illinois vote
showed, for the first time, how a primary victory can change a campaign's momentum."
With wins in Pennsylvania, Oregon and Nebraska, Roosevelt's momentum was growing. Cowan
writes that - after these victories - "In ways that the original crusaders for reform might not have
anticipated, Roosevelt's primary winning streak was also having a dramatic impact on delegates
selected by the old rules. In some states, especially in the south, delegates in Taft's corner were
starting to consider defecting."
Next came Massachusetts on April 30th. Because of TR's previous victories, it was widely believed that - if Taft lost Massachusetts - he would have to stand aside for TR. But one group in
Massachusetts that held the key was often overlooked - the African-American vote. And the
African-American community had never forgiven Roosevelt for his handling of the Brownsville,
Texas, incident in 1906 in which TR allowed black soldiers to be dishonorably discharged based
on flimsy evidence. Taft, while Secretary of War during the incident, had been absent from
Washington at the time that Roosevelt made his decision and had largely escaped the
vengeance against the Roosevelt Administration by the black community. Although it was
largely unknown in 1912, ironically Taft had been opposed to Roosevelt's decision to discharge
the black soldiers. As Cowan writes, "Even though only the intimates of Taft knew about his
reservations [in dishonorably discharging the men], African-American still favored him over Roosevelt who they blamed most for the decision. As a result of black voters, Taft won the Massachusetts primary."
Roosevelt next won California. The effect on the country was palpable. Cowan notes,
"Overnight, the advent of primaries had changed politics - seemingly forever. In that first year of
political primaries, in the intoxicating aftermath of California, it seemed for a moment that the
popular will would be forceful enough to overcome the power of convention leaders, of the
officeholders and party bosses. That theory was soon put to the test."
After Roosevelt victories in Ohio, New Jersey, and Ohio, most TR supporters were convinced
that he had locked up the nomination. Roosevelt wasn't so sure. "Although Roosevelt had won
more delegates in the primaries [than Taft or La Follette] there were still plenty of uncommitted
delegates that presumably could go for Taft [at the convention]." This was where TR's earlier decision to file bogus mass challenges against southern delegates [to keep them out of the Taft column as long as possible] came back to haunt him. Now, there were legitimate challenges to delegates that TR could make - but, like the 'Boy Who Cried Wolf' - any TR challenge, even legitimate ones, were unlikely to be upheld. Indeed, as Cowan writes, "After several days looking into all of the cases, the Taft-controlled national committee ultimately and unsurprisingly voted to seat virtually all of the delegates pledged to the president."
By the time the Republican Party National Convention convened on June 18, 1912, thirteen
states had chosen delegates via the presidential primary - including some, Cowan writes,
"created during the past few months as the result of legislation promoted by Roosevelt
operatives and supporters. His moral claim to the Republican Party nomination rested largely on
the fact that he had won nine of those primary contests and that in those thirteen states he had
won two-thirds of the delegates and more than half of the popular vote."
Also by the time the convention opened, word of the Roosevelt camp's efforts to bribe black voters to abandon Taft had been exposed by the national press. One long-asked question about this unsavory
incident was whether Roosevelt knew about it. Cowan writes, "It is unclear how much
Roosevelt knew about any efforts to bribe the black delegates. In view of his strong aversion to
graft and his repeated attacks on the claim of bribery by Taft forces, it is certainly possible that
his managers shielded [TR] from knowledge of their tactics, or that any such efforts were being
made by supporters who were engaging in a bit of freelance work. There is no doubt, however,
that such efforts were being made in [Roosevelt's] name."
By the beginning of the convention, Cowan writes that the Roosevelt people, "knew that they
were now fighting for public opinion. One way or another, it seemed preordained that they would
create a new party, or walk out of the convention and claim to be the true representatives of the
Republican Party. Thanks to the primaries, they had a strong case to make. After all, TR had
won the popular vote against Taft overwhelmingly. It seemed clear that he would have won
hundreds of additional delegates if the public had been allowed to participate in the selection
process elsewhere [where there were no primaries]. What's more, he had a clear majority of the
delegates from states outside of what were often derided as the rotten boroughs of the old
Confederacy, delegates chosen from areas were no Republican candidate could ever win an
election. Outside of the delegates from those eleven southern states, Taft had just about 300
delegates in his corner, whereas TR had at least 450."
But Taft prevailed, and was nominated on June 22, 1912. Roosevelt bolted and the
Progressive/Bull Moose Party called for their convention six weeks later. Almost immediately,
TR signed off on a strategy to deny seats at the convention to black delegates from the South in an effort to rally as many southern whites to the party as possible. Cowan writes, "Black leaders were stunned. Having burned their bridges with the leaders of the Republican Party in their states and with President Taft and his political team [by supporting TR at the Republican convention], their options were limited. They were determined to become a part of the party that quickly became known as the
Bull Moose party...They were convinced, or claimed to be convinced, that there must be some
mistake; that this decision could not have come from TR; that Roosevelt could not have
intended that they be excluded from the party." But that was exactly what he intended in the
South. Blacks in the North were welcome; those in the old confederacy were not.
When the Bull Moose Convention opened on August 3, 1912, TR at first refused to meet with
angry black southern delegates. His aides finally persuaded Roosevelt to meet with the black
delegates just before the opening of the convention. Cowan writes, "The details of that meeting
remain unknown. Simply by having the meeting, [southern Republican African American
leaders] Perry Howard and Sidney Redmond had achieved one of their major goals. It gave
them a degree of legitimacy [with their black southern constituents who felt betrayed by them for
following them away from Taft and into the Roosevelt camp during the primaries] they were
seeking. If Roosevelt made any specific promises [at that meeting], they have never come to
light." But these men had nowhere else to go - they couldn't go back to the Republicans so they
had swallow TR's decision on no black delegates from the South and stay with him for the
November election. As Cowan sums up the episode, "For Theodore Roosevelt, practical politics
had trumped the right of the people to rule." [As it turned out, TR carried not one southern state]
So what was the end result of Roosevelt's actions in 1912? Cowan writes, "In some important
respects, Theodore Roosevelt's third-party had a lasting effect on American politics and policy.
The Bull Moose campaign gave greater credibility to innovative ideas such as an eight-hour
workday, a form of Social Security, the federal income tax, and a federal inheritance tax. Some
of his ideas found their way into the New Deal legislation championed by his cousin, President
Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected as a Democrat in 1932. The most direct impact of
Roosevelt's campaign [in 1912], however, was his role as a midwife in the birth of presidential
primaries. Even though he didn't win the Republican party nomination, his campaign
transformed the presidential nominating process....Roosevelt…more than any other force,
popularized presidential primaries and increased the number of states that embraced them. His
rhetoric helped to enshrine the cause of popular democracy in the nation's vocabulary."