Presidential Enmity and Amity

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | April 25, 2013

April 25, 2013
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Last week, in College Station, Texas, a meeting of the most exclusive club in the world was held, all five members attending. Mostly, they traded compliments, posed for smiling pictures, and Got Along Famously. That they had, hitherto, devoted major portions of their lives to thwarting the dearest dreams of one another, no longer mattered. They were Presidents of the United States – past, present and one, perhaps, hoping to return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the guise of First Man – and they were celebrating a favorite ritual: the opening of a Presidential Library. Hence George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter gathered graciously, as Presidents have done ever since Ronald Reagan dedicated his Library in 1991; but the notion of  a Presidents Club, wherein the spirit of Kumbaya prevails, is very recent – as these spirited Presidential letters reveal…

Presidential Enmity: 

Taft on Roosevelt and Roosevelt on Wilson

Theodore Roosevelt hated William Howard Taft; Taft hated Roosevelt; Roosevelt hated Woodrow Wilson. Wilson hated – but we’ll stop, for lack of time and space. Presidential enmity, of course, didn’t begin a hundred years ago; but the opposite, presidential amity, didn’t start, really, until recent memory. Here we feature a flurry of letters in which the fur, ermine though it be, flies…

“Love is a growing, or full constant light,” the poet says, “And his short minute, after noon, is night.” As if John Donne telling us this isn’t enough, here we have William Howard Taft, once the darling of Theodore Roosevelt – he had, said T.R., “the most lovable personality I have ever come in contact with” – turning on his old chief who had, after all, just turned on him at the 1912 Republican convention by trying to deny him re-nomination and grab the nod, instead, once more for himself. Taft, controlling the party’s bosses if not the rank-and-file, won – and the day after wrote,

Whatever may hereafter result, it is a great victory to have removed forever the danger of Mr. Roosevelt’s coming again to the Presidency or into control of the Republican party. The character of Mr. Roosevelt’s campaign has been so unprecedented and so unfair, that it is a just judgment which he has suffered.

President Obama with former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter
President Obama stands with former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter. Charles Dharapak, AP.

But Roosevelt, furious, bolted from the Republican Party to found his own, which he then took into the 1912 election as a third-party challenger. Taft, undaunted, held the enemy clearly in his sights – and it was not the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt, he revealed in his letter to a campaign supporter, was his real target:

I am very hopeful of the outcome, but if I am to be defeated I can stand it because I shall have been an agent in preventing the return to the White House of the third termer[Roosevelt] whose candidacy I consider a genuine menace to the welfare of our country.

Taft, once again, got his wish. Although he came in third, he drained off enough votes to make Roosevelt come in second. Wilson won with 41% of the vote – and thus, when the British luxury liner Lusitania was sunk by the Germans during World War I on May 7, 1915, killing 1,198 civilians, including 128 Americans, it was Wilson’s job to respond. His response was to…protest. And then, in the upcoming 1916 election, to brag about it, his campaign slogan being, “He kept us out of war.” That was enough, right then and there, for Roosevelt – though not running, for the first time in sixteen years, in a presidential contest – to call him out. Wilson’s failure to declare war after the sinking of the Lusitania, Roosevelt felt, was nothing short of cowardly – and he says so here:

William Howard Taft says that Theodore Roosevelt has made an ass of himself, blatherskiting about the “Lusitania.” Shapell Manuscript Collection.

What a dreadful creature Wilson is! I cannot believe our people have grown so yellow as to stand for him.

Taft, meanwhile, hearing this sort of thing from Roosevelt from the moment World War I began, had another take – one both grounded in the past, and yet, foreshadowing the future. In picking on Wilson, Taft said, Roosevelt was an ass – and he, Taft, should know: being President, and knowing what to do was, he writes here, an awful responsibility:

It seems to me that Wickersham [he had been Taft’s Attorney-General] and Roosevelt made asses of themselves and were most boyish in yielding to the passionate expressions they uttered.  I have been President, and I know what an awful responsibility a man has to carry in such a crisis and how trying such blatherskiting is when a man is trying to find the right way out of a difficult situation.

A hundred years later, one can see Taft, even in his fit of pique, laying the groundwork for the Presidents Club’s chief protocols: support, silence, and solidarity – and, as keen observers of the photograph from the Bush Library dedication will surely note, strange bedfellows – for the only President there to have lost to someone else in that same picture is now so close to the man who defeated him, that they are affectionately known as “the odd couple.” George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, sent on a rescue mission after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami by President George W. Bush, discovered on that trip that they liked each other – a lot. As Clinton concluded, “George and me… that is the way our country ought to work.”

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT. 1857-1930. The 27th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 2 pages, octavo, The White House, Washington, Sunday, June 23, 1912. To Mrs. Mary Williamson Averell Harriman in Arden, New York.

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