Here we are, well into the campaign for the 2016 presidential primaries, complete with televised debates, Twitter feuds and weekly sendups on “Saturday Night Live.” And who knew we had Theodore Roosevelt to thank for all this?
Such education comes courtesy of Geoffrey Cowan in Let the People Rule, an entertaining account of how Roosevelt and his minions created and benefited from 13 primaries in the run-up to the 1912 presidential election—an election in which Woodrow Wilson ultimately prevailed over incumbent William Howard Taft and a back-from-retirement Roosevelt.
Roosevelt battled Taft’s entrenched forces for the Republican nomination, championing “the right of the people to rule.” His success in the primaries made life difficult for Taft right up to the party’s convention in Chicago, but Taft’s network was too much to overcome. That’s when Roosevelt’s supporters famously walked out and had a convention of their own.
Roosevelt admirers looking for a love letter to their hero had best look elsewhere, though. As Cowan makes clear, Roosevelt’s No. 1 objective was returning to the presidency, and he was willing to do anything to achieve that goal, such as repeatedly denying the rights of African Americans from the Deep South.
Roosevelt’s charismatic personality notwithstanding, the real stars of Let the People Rule are the political operators—like the reporter who doubled as a campaign strategist or the clandestine organizer of a “draft Roosevelt” campaign that even Roosevelt’s daughter called “somewhat cooked.”
It wasn’t pretty, but that’s politics—then and now.