Progressive (No, Not Liberal!) Republican Presidents Roosevelt and Taft


Theodore, the first Roosevelt who became President, was what was then called a “Progressive” Republican. Today he and his ideas for reform would be considered, dare I write the word, “Liberal.” He certainly would not be posting Twitter and Facebook pieces that the Tea Party would embrace.

There once was a political creature known as a “moderate” Republican. Brings to mind a line from the film “A Man for All Seasons,” when Sir Thomas More, played by Paul Scofield, asks his daughter what faith is her departing beau as they watch him ride off. A Methodist, she replies. Sir Thomas, a devout Catholic who refused to support King Henry VIII in his request to have his first marriage annulled, replies: Good. A Methodist is just a Catholic who can read. (No quotation marks because I’m not absolutely certain of the precise quotations.) Today’s Tea Party members might look upon an early 1900’s progressive Republican as a Democrat who somehow got elected.

The following observations are borrowed from the new and fine history book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, “The Bully Pulpit, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.”

Too cheap to buy the book in printed form, I read a less expensive e-book and cannot provide page numbers for specific references.

A few examples of the reforms started by Progressive Republican President Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt and his chosen successor William Howard Taft include: federal regulatory legislation over corporations, railroads, conservation of natural resources, the food and drug industry, child labor, and women’s working conditions; direct election of senators (then elected by state legislatures); a progressive income tax; workmen’s compensation; and presidential primary elections state by state instead of nominees chosen at the national party conventions.

Surprised those reforms were on a Republican list at the turn of the 20th Century? If not for having read Doris Goodwin’s entertaining history, I would have guessed that list of reforms came from the Democrats.

The book also highlights the beginnings of what we now call “investigative journalism,” a phrase I often think of as somewhat redundant (I think of all journalism as “investigative”). But consider reading the book and you’ll find out that in-depth reporting on the major issues of the time, stories that often took months of extensive interviews and other research to produce, became an expectation.

And finally, the book also provides insights into the relationship of two men who, despite their different temperaments, had similar yearnings for social reforms. Just before the 1912 election Roosevelt said: “If the problems created by the industrial age were left unattended…,” America would eventually be “…sundered by those dreadful lines of division…” that sets the haves and the have-nots against one another.

The close friendship between Roosevelt and Taft did not survive Roosevelt’s attempt to win the Presidency again in 1912 but was rekindled some time later. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson, Democratic Governor of New Jersey, was elected with about 41% of the popular vote, as Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote. Roosevelt never held public office again, while Taft became Chief Justice of the United States.

The history of the Roosevelt/Taft times is fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which are the comparisons and contrasts of the national political scene then and now.

Some things never change.

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