Bully for Them

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, "My hat is in the ring."

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, “My hat is in the ring.”

If you’re looking for a great summer read, and you anticipate a summer with a lot of time on your hands, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Its 928-page length is to some extent a function of the fact that it covers four separate topics, each of which could have been a book of its own: a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a brief biography of William Howard Taft, a study of the two men’s complicated political and personal friendship, and (the ostensible subject) an account of the two presidents’ relations with muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and S.S. McClure.

Adding bulk as well is Goodwin’s leisurely narrative, which is constructed on the foundation of carefully chosen and artfully deployed quotations, from the letters and journals of all the characters and from contemporary newspapers. These quotes illuminate the characters and propel the story but also showcase the lingo of the time, which seems to have been an especially fertile one for verbal innovation. As I was reading along, the thing that increasingly popped out at me was a kind of reverse Downton Abbey anachronism experience: the way people in the period—roughly 1890 through 1916—used and sometimes invented expressions that I’d guess would have come from a later date. The use of quotation marks (within the quotes) and phrases like “so-called” suggest that a good number of the terms had recently entered public discourse.

When Roosevelt was police commissioner of New York City, protestors (itself a modern idea) carried placards that read  “Send the Police Czar to Russia” and “Roosevelt’s Razzle Dazzle Reform Racket.” (Here and henceforth, I put the modern-sounding expressions in boldface.) Goodwin quotes TR worrying about consequences of the public perception “that the Republican party had become unduly subservient to the so-called Wall Street men—to the men of mere wealth, the plutocracy.” The World described a Roosevelt speech as an attempt to “out demagogue all other demagogues.” (I boldface here not only for demagogue itself but for demagogue as a verb.)

As the 1908 election approached, a friend pleaded with Taft to run for president rather than wait for a Supreme Court appointment: “For the love of Mike, do not go the Supreme Bench.” The Washington Post said Taft voiced opposition to rival figures’ “stand-pat attitude.” In a financial crisis, J.P. Morgan was hailed as “the Man of the Hour.” According to theLiterary Digest, the defeat of a direct primary bill in New York was a “slap in the face” to TR, who was contemplating reversing his previous declaration and running again. At the convention, the pro-Roosevelt crowd shouted, “Four years more. Four years more.” (When the GOP faithful  directed the chant in Richard Nixon’s general direction 64 years later, they reversed the second and third words.) He ultimately decided not to run, clearing the way for Taft, who, after his election, made “a clean sweep of Roosevelt’s team.” On inauguration day, when Taft and TR embraced, witnesses “applauded like mad.”

Roosevelt himself emerges as a connoisseur of and innovator in verbal play. He loved the expression “I am pleased as Punch” (note capital P); Goodwin quotes him using it on three separate occasions. He wrote to his son Kermit, “I came out of the encounter with flying colors.” He observed to William Allen White, “Aldrich and his people really threw up their hands.” He reflected on the “dreadful lines of division” between “the havesand the “have-nots.”

Some of his innovations haven’t survived, or have morphed a bit. When Taft offered to resign his post in TR’s administration, the president replied, “Fiddle-dee-dee!” He said, “I did not care a rap about Mr. Tillman’s getting credit for the bill, or having charge of it.” Questioned about White House responsibilities when he was about to go on a trip, Roosevelt said, “Oh, things will be all right. I have left Taft sitting on the lid.” The line instantly became a cartoon-inspiring catchphrase but soon faded.

Taft and his wife, Nellie, were no linguistic slouches, either. He observed that a rival political figure “keeps mum” and once wrote to her that he hoped she wouldn’t get “the blues.” And she to him, in reference to TR’s waffling on whether to endorse Taft: “I felt like saying ‘D—you, support who you want, for all I care.” On calls for him to be more Roosevelt-like: “that is not your style, and there is no use trying to force it.” After assuming the presidency, Taft professed to be “a fish out of water” in his new office. But he did love the presidential automobile and once instructed an aide to prepare it “to take a joy ride.” He wrote to the same aide, Archie Butt, that it must distress him “to see Theodore and myself come to a parting of the ways.”

If some of the quotes turned up in a television series about the period, I would immediately take to Twitter, complaining (wrongly) about the anachronisms. Nellie suffered a stroke that left her speech impaired, and one of her children wrote to a sibling, “She gets pretty depressed about talking.” A Congressional bill made what President Taft considered “inappropriate” increases in duties. TR’s daughter Alice wrote in her diary (referring to her husband, Nicholas Longworth): “Poor Nick angry—says I must ‘shut up.’”

And I could have sworn one quoted term dated from the Clinton administration. But no. David Graham Phillips wrote a muckraking series of articles in Cosmopolitan about the dynamics among three phenomena: senators’ work on behalf of corporations, increase of their personal wealth, and the growth in their power. The word he used to describe it was “triangulation.

The political and linguistic drama heats up in 1912, when Roosevelt challenges his one-time friend and protégé with what Goodwin calls a “spontaneous declaration”: “My hat is in the ring.” (The Oxford English Dictionary supports the idea that Roosevelt was the first person to use this expression in a political context.) His campaign manager called the Illinois primary “the day on which the Roosevelt ‘band wagon’ got its real start.” A reporter told TR, “I am absolutely convinced that you will be nominated hands down” at the GOP convention. The New York Times noted, “Each side makes confident assertions, but each side secretly is scared stiff.” The same paper mentioned Roosevelt’s call for “a living wage.”

After Taft prevailed at the convention, a couple of significant political trademarks were established. He called Roosevelt, now reclaiming some of his radical positions, “a real menace to our institutions” and said the main issue was whether the Republican party would remain “the chief conservator” of the constitution. His victory, he said, had “preserved the party organization as a nucleus for conservative action.” Roosevelt, meanwhile, was nominated by a new party that called itself “Progressive.”

Both men, of course, were defeated by Woodrow Wilson, and they retreated separately to nurse their grievances against the other. They ultimately reconciled, a process kicked off by a joint appearance in 1916. Republicans hailed the event as “a Big Love Feast.”

Read the original article at Lingua Franca

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