"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.
To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or anyone else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about anyone else.
— Theodore Roosevelt, Kansas City Star, May 7, 1918.
TR, the 26th President of the United States (1901-1909), died exactly 95 years ago today (January 6, 1919) at his beloved home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, on the North Shore of New York’s Long Island.
Roosevelt was just 60 years when he died in 1919, and with a wide-open Presidential election just a year away, TR was heavily-favored to finally return to the White House. After pledging to serve just one term in office when he was elected in his own right in 1904, Roosevelt turned the Presidency over to his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, in 1908.
Almost immediately, Roosevelt began to regret giving up the Presidency. Even worse, he felt that President Taft was a poor choice to carry the torch for TR’s legacy. The once-close relationship between Roosevelt and Taft broke out into a vicious war of words, escalated by TR’s decision to challenge the incumbent President Taft for the 1912 Republican nomination.
When Taft was victorious in the battle for the Republican nomination, things got even uglier. Roosevelt and his supporters bolted from the GOP Convention, formed a third-party — the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party — and nominated TR for President under that banner.
Neither Taft or Roosevelt had a chance to win in 1912. The split in the GOP meant that Taft and TR siphoned votes from each other in an election where the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson, was already drawing interest from a number of Progressive Republicans. Taft and Roosevelt focused on attacking each other and Wilson was so confident of victory he didn’t even have to campaign for himself near the end. In the final days of the campaign, Wilson hit the trail in support of a strong Democratic majority in Congress.
The wounds of the 1912 election took time to heal (one of those wounds was a gunshot wound to the chest that Roosevelt suffered during an assassination attempt in Milwaukee in the closing days of the campaign). TR’s break from the GOP angered many Republican leaders who had supported and defended Roosevelt for years. Taft was especially hurt from some of the mean-spirited comments Roosevelt made about him because he considered TR one of his closest friends.
Roosevelt’s actions in 1912 likely cost him the Presidency in 1916. Despite his comfortable victory over Roosevelt and Taft four years earlier, President Wilson was vulnerable as he sought reelection. Despite Wilson’s vulnerability, Roosevelt recognized that he still had to make amends and that 1916 was out of the question for him. The GOP nominated Charles Evans Hughes and Roosevelt healed more wounds several days later when he turned down a Presidential nomination from the party he formed four years earlier, the Progressives, and signaled his support for Hughes, who narrowly lost to Wilson.
Although he frequently denied it, friends and foes alike were convinced that Theodore Roosevelt had his sights set on the 1920 Presidential election. TR had healed most of the wounds caused by his break with the GOP, including the biggest and most personal — he reconciled with William Howard Taft. TR had also been an even more outspoken and vehement critic of Woodrow Wilson than he usually was of political opponent.
When World War I broke out, Roosevelt attacked Wilson for not offering assistance to American allies in Europe. As the U.S. drifted closer to war, TR criticized Wilson for not putting American soldiers on a war footing. And once Americans started fighting and dying, Roosevelt slammed Wilson for not having our soldiers better prepared.
Roosevelt may have been getting ready to run for President when he died. He was certainly seen as the frontrunner and considering the eventual nominees in 1920 (Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox), it’s difficult to imagine him losing a nomination or general election to either man.
But TR was also in terrible health despite being relatively young and living a famously active lifestyle. In fact, that lifestyle may have been the cause of his troubles. While exploring a tributary of the Amazon in 1914, TR was stricken with malaria and almost died in South America.
What Roosevelt really wanted was to reprise his military glory with the Rough Riders regiment that had served so well during the Spanish-American War. When Roosevelt offered his services to President Wilson and requested a commission in Europe, the President quickly turned him down.</p>
Roosevelt felt that Wilson took glee in rejecting TR’s request for a military commission, and he very well might have. The two men shared a mutual dislike and distrust of each other at that point.
But in fairness to Wilson, Roosevelt had barely survived a bout with malaria, was shot in the chest at close range on the campaign trail in 1912, was overweight, suffered from crippling rheumatism, and happened to be blind in one eye and deaf in one ear. Had he lived, these may or may not have been issues on the campaign trail, but they were definitely liabilities on the battlefield.
Theodore Roosevelt never
made it to the 1920 Presidential campaign that most Americans expected him to easily win. It’s a wonder that the former President made it through 1918 at all. TR kept his name in the news through regular editorial columns, but his health was failing. Early in 1918, he spent a month hospitalized for a relapse of malaria and a debilitating ear infection. Late in 1918, as his political friends began planning his next campaign, Roosevelt’s closest friends worried as he spent another six weeks in the New York hospital named after his philanthropist father.
Friends who visited TR in late 1918 noticed a marked change. His physical condition had been weakening, of course, but the bigger concern was a dimming of the radiant optimism that had long been a Roosevelt trademark. The reason why that light wasn’t shining as brightly was no secret, however. His assorted physical ailments were difficult for even his doctors to keep track of. But everyone knew why Theodore Roosevelt’s heart was broken in 1918.
While President Wilson promptly shut down any chance of the old Rough Rider joining one last fight, TR had four healthy sons of fighting age during World War I and none of them were about to miss out on a chance to make their father proud. TR’s second oldest son, Kermit, was so anxious to take up arms that he actually joined the British Army and fought in the Middle East while awaiting U.S. entry into the war.
TR had great pride in his sons and was personally fearless in his own wartime experience. But there is no sense of fearlessness when four of your children are fighting on the frontlines of what had become the deadliest war in human history up to that time. Instead, TR felt helpless.
First came word that Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. — “Ted” — who would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War II’s Normandy Invasion, had been wounded in France. Over 200 of Ted’s fellow soldiers were killed, but Ted refused to surrender, even after the Germans used chemical weapons to gas Ted and temporarily blind him. The elder Theodore Roosevelt was relieved to hear that Ted was recovering and would be rewarded a Croix de Guerre from the French and a Silver Star, Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Medal, and Distinguished Service Cross from Uncle Sam.
While Kermit was made artillery captain under General John J. Pershing (after being awarded the British Military Cross in recognition for his service with the Allies), the third Roosevelt son, Archibald Bulloch Roosevelt — “Archie” — also earned France’s prestigious Croix de Guerre, and it didn’t come easily. An initial telegram from the War Department said that Archie had been “slightly wounded”. In fact, Archie had been seriously wounded — a compound fracture of his left arm also severed his arm’s main nerve. Even worse, shrapnel had blasted into Archie’s left leg, splintering his kneecap and leaving it in such bad shape that his French doctors decided that amputation was the best bet. Fortunately for Archie, one of the other patients convinced the doctors otherwise — that helpful patient was Archie’s older brother Ted. While he kept his leg, Archie was classified as “disabled” and discharged. A quarter of a century later, Archie was once again nearly killed by shrapnel in another World War, classified as “disabled” and discharged.
In another French hospital, TR’s youngest son, 20-year-old Quentin, was recovering from a broken arm suffered in a rough landing. While his brothers were old-school soldiers, Quentin was one of the early American combat pilots. Quentin was also impatient, hoping to end up a war hero like his father and brothers. But as the war continued, Theodore Roosevelt’s fears lengthened. His boys had faced enough close calls. He was ready for them to return home. When he heard that Quentin had started flying missions in German territory, he had an uneasy feeling. When he heard that Quentin recorded his first kill in action of an enemy pilot, TR was proud, but cryptically wrote to his youngest daughter, “Whatever now befalls Quentin, he has had his crowded hour, and his day of honor and triumph.”
It was a cable directly from General Pershing that notified Roosevelt that his youngest son was missing in action, and a reporter from the Associated Press the next morning who confirmed that Quentin was dead. Roosevelt, devastated, wondered aloud how he was going to break the news to his wife.
Quentin had been shot down in a dogfight with a German fighter. When his plane crashed, German troops on the ground checked his identification and recognized that the young man was the son of the former American President. They gathered his belongings to send to President Roosevelt and buried Quentin with full military honors.
Theodore Roosevelt’s health had been failing, but Quentin’s death broke his heart and seemed to accelerate the end. When TR saw his sister Corinne for the first time after Quentin was killed, she worriedly asked if he was ill. “No,” the former President said, “but I am not what I was.”
In the six months he had left to live following Quentin’s death, the spark — the urge to fight one last battle appeared from time-to-time, particularly when Woodrow Wilson was mentioned. And there were times when Wilson wasn’t mentioned at all where TR brought up his hatred rival to seemingly fire himself up. Back in the hospital as the Holidays approached in December 1918, TR’s longtime friend Margaret Chanler mentioned her concern for him. “I am pretty low now,” he confessed before stoking his fire for Wilson again, “but I shall get better. I cannot go without having done something to that old gray skunk in the White House.”
On the night of January 5, 1919, Roosevelt was having so much trouble sleeping that one of the nurses who had been helping monitor the former President’s health since his return home from the hospital shortly before Christmas gave him a shot of morphine. James Amos, a former valet of TR’s who was also helping out as Roosevelt recovered, helped the former President into bed. As his eyes finally grew heavy, Roosevelt asked, “James, will you please put out the light?”
Archie Roosevelt notified his siblings of their father’s death with a simple telegram: “The old lion is dead.”
Woodrow Wilson learned of his rival’s death while on a train traveling through France. Reporters on the train noted that Wilson’s expression changed from being surprised to being satisfied or triumphant.
Roosevelt’s former rival, William Howard Taft, was neither satisfied or triumphant — he was devastated, but felt fortunate that he and TR had reconciled and once again become friends. When Archie Roosevelt noticed former President Taft in the back of the church at TR’s funeral, Archie urged Taft to sit up front with the Roosevelt family. Following the graveside service on the hill where Roosevelt was to be buried, Taft lingered long after other mourners had left, crying near his old friend’s casket.
President Wilson’s official representative at Roosevelt’s funeral was the always quotable Vice President, Thomas Riley Marshall, who didn’t disappoint. Vice President Marshall also didn’t miss the irony in the notoriously feisty Roosevelt dying peacefully in his sleep:
"Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake, there would have been a fight."
On the night of March 18, 1917, several hundred Republican leaders gathered in the Union League Club in New York City. With German U-boats engaging in unrestricted warfare and sinking American ships on the high seas despite United States neutrality in World War I, the Republicans demanded that President Woodrow Wilson declare war against Kaiser Wilhelm II’s belligerent empire, infuse fresh warriors into the stagnant European war, and prove that the U.S. was a truly international power that was only getting stronger in the midst of the American Century.
After the meeting, three of the nation’s most influential and powerful Republicans sat down to dinner in a nearby cafe. Charles Evans Hughes was a former New York Governor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and had narrowly lost the 1916 Presidential election to President Wilson four months earlier in one of the closest elections in American history. Theodore Roosevelt was also a former New York Governor, had served as President from 1901-1909, and his third party challenge for the Presidency in 1912 had split the GOP, sabotaged the re-election chances of his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, and ensured Wilson’s first Presidential election victory. Elihu Root, 72, had stepped away from the Senate two years earlier, had previously served as Roosevelt’s Secretary of War and then Secretary of State, and was frequently mentioned as a potential Presidential contender.
As they discussed the crisis at hand and envisioned American entry into the war, Roosevelt — a vicious critic of President Wilson, who disliked TR just as strongly — passionately spoke of his hope to lead American soldiers into battle in Europe much like he had done nearly 20 years earlier with the Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. At 58 years old, Roosevelt was overweight, nearly deaf, blind in one eye, and had never fully recovered from a near-fatal bought of malaria that he contracted during a seven-month-long expedition in unexplored jungles of Brazil a couple of years earlier. Partly due to his age, but mostly due to their contentious relationship, it was unlikely that President Wilson would grant Roosevelt his wish. But with tears welling in his eyes and his voice breaking, the former President told Hughes and Root how badly he hoped to serve his country one last time. ”I must go,” said Roosevelt, “but I will not come back.”
Roosevelt’s emotional declaration dramatically silenced his fellow Republican statesmen at the table. Hughes, who would later become Secretary of State and then Chief Justice of the United States, solemnly looked at Roosevelt (who had once said that the sober, reticent Hughes was a “bearded iceberg”) without saying anything. It was Root, who had served in Roosevelt’s Cabinet throughout almost all of TR’s Presidency, who finally spoke up.
"Theodore, if you can make Wilson believe that you will not come back, he will let you go!"