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Theodore Roosevelt, family man as political strategy

Oxford University Press USA has put together a series of articles on a political topic each week for four weeks as the United States discusses the upcoming American presidential election, and Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Our scholars previously tackled the issue of money and politics, the role of political conventions, and the role of media in politics. This week we turn to the role of family in politics. The following is an excerpt from Lewis L. Gould’s Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans on Theodore Roosevelt.

You will have hard work to keep the pace with Roosevelt and sometimes I fancy you must be frightened at the spirit you have helped to unchain.
—Eugene Hale

Theodore Roosevelt was forty-two years old when he became the twenty-sixth president of the United States. He had been a Republican since his boyhood, but his allegiance to the Grand Old Party was not that of a regular partisan. He had little interest in the protective tariff and was not a fan of businessmen or the process by which they made their money. Instead, as a member of the New York aristocracy, he saw his duty as representing the American people in their adjustment to the promises and perils of industrial growth.

For Roosevelt the Republicans were the party of constructive nationalism, and the new president believed that government power could be employed to enable all citizens to share in the bounty of an expanding economy. In time he would come to believe that some government regulation of the economy was also necessary. Democrats were the party of ineptitude and states’ rights who could be counted on to thwart the constructive work of Roosevelt and his party. While Roosevelt was adroit at the political maneuvering that allowed him to win the Republican nomination in 1904, over the long haul he was not skilled at persuading his fellow party members to follow his policies.

Where Roosevelt excelled was in the public conduct of his office. He governed with energy and excitement. For the first time the president became a celebrity in his own right, and the newspapers avidly followed the president’s frenetic schedule, the antics of his brood of young children, and the social life of his daughter from his first marriage, Alice Roosevelt. When a friend told him that his daughter’s lifestyle, which included a pet snake, fast cars, and many parties, needed restraint, Roosevelt replied, “I can be President of the United States, or I can control Alice. I can’t possibly do both.” Roosevelt was the first president to use his family in a conscious way to enhance his own appeal.

The Roosevelt family in 1903 from left to right: Quentin, Theodore Sr., Theodore Jr., Archie, Alice, Kermit, Edith, and Ethel.

Roosevelt was also the first president to make the most of the celebrity potential of the office. Newspapers covered him as though he were a modern film star. “When Roosevelt was in the neighborhood,” wrote a journalist who did not like the president much, the public could “no more look the other way than the small boy can turn his head away from a circus parade followed by a steam calliope.” Roosevelt conducted public quarrels with a number of Americans, which only added to the fun of his years in the White House. Leaving the White House, Roosevelt attributed part of his success to the publicity value that the presidency had given him. “I have got such a bully pulpit,” he told a reporter in February 1909.

In the initial months of his administration, Roosevelt pledged to carry on McKinley’s policies, and in substance that is what he did. He soon demonstrated that he had a flair for the dramatic and the timely that his predecessor had not displayed. To build up support among southern Republicans, Roosevelt entertained the African-American leader Booker T. Washington at the White House in October 1901. The South reacted with outrage when the news leaked out that a black had dined with the president and his family. The episode illustrated the continuing power of racism in early-twentieth-century America. It did not stop Roosevelt from pursuing Republican delegates for 1904 among the shrinking number of GOP members in Dixie.

In one key respect, however, Roosevelt did abandon a McKinley initiative, and the consequences of that decision proved difficult for the Republicans. The reciprocity treaties that McKinley had championed were still pending before the Senate, and it would take a fight to gain approval for them. For Roosevelt, who found the tariff boring, the prospect of such a struggle was dismaying. As a result, he deferred to the Senate leadership, including Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, and gave the pacts only a tepid endorsement. The Senate did not act on them, and they lapsed.

What that meant was that no meaningful action on the tariff could take place in Roosevelt’s first term. When he again postponed the issue in his second term, the task of dealing with protection fell to his successor. Meanwhile, the tensions between advocates of tariff revision in the Middle West and defenders of protectionism in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states intensified. Democratic assaults on the tariff as a cause of higher prices and industrial bigness added to Republican vulnerability on the issue. The return of inflation and rising consumer prices during the first decade of the century gave Democratic arguments more bite with middle-class consumers. But Roosevelt left the issue alone to fester and divide Republicans.

Lewis L. Gould is Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Grand Old Party: A History of the Republicans, The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, and The William Howard Taft Presidency.

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Image credit: Pres. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt seated on lawn, surrounded by their family, 1903. Source: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

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