Lessons From the Presidents For Turbulent Times (2018)
Even as a child, TR’s mind was wax to receive, and marble to retain, which helped him pass all eight exams to enter Harvard. TR was eventually selected to become a member of Harvard’s most exclusive social club, the Porcellian (the same club that would later NOT admit Franklin Roosevelt). TR adored his father, so it was beyond irritating that his father’s nomination to be the head of the Port Authority of New York was not passed by the Senate, due to the split in the party between the Half-Breeds and Stalwarts. Not long thereafter, TR’s father died of colon cancer, having only been diagnosed three months prior. To that point in TR’s life, losing his father was the most sorrowful event.
TR vowed to make even more of his life than he had planned, and what he had previously planned was very ambitious. TR decided he would try and go much further to honor his father, and to make his own legacy. Unlike most, privilege did not dampen TR’s ambition, it enhanced and focused it. While at Harvard, TR figured out that science was not for him as a profession, since it would be sedentary, and that he could pursue his interests as a naturalist on his own. TR also concluded that the legal profession didn’t suit him, so as a result, TR drifted towards working-class politics.
But TR’s passion to serve as an elected official never waned, and he even personally investigated tenement conditions when a bill that would prohibit the manufacture of cigars in tenements reached his committee. TR was initially opposed to the bill, but after doing personal on-sight research, he became a champion of the union-sponsored bill (Samuel Gompers was the main force behind the bill). That incident showed that TR had developed at least some empathy and sympathy as a person and as a politician, and that his view of the world should not be limited to his privileged upbringing.
Jacob Riis knew that empathy, like courage, took time to develop, and Riis saw with his own eyes that TR had both characteristics. TR came to appreciate that the divisions among the classes led to a lack of communication and empathy across the board, which led to far too much rancor. By his third term in the Assembly, TR was working with Democrats, and he was a bipartisan politician.
At the Republican National Convention in the Summer of 1884, TR worked to keep James Blaine from getting the nomination, but to no avail, and in the process TR earned the enmity of the Republican Party bosses. However, TR gained the respect of the growing progressive wing of the party. That wing of the party dubbed themselves the Mugwumps, and vowed not only to oppose Blaine, but also to support the Democratic nominee. TR did not want to burn any bridges with the Republican leadership, so he wound up supporting Blaine, and the reformers viewed TR as a traitor. TR admitted that it would probably take quite a few years before he would be able to re-enter politics.
TR’s time in the Dakota Badlands proved to be the most important educational asset of his life. TR mentally healed and he transformed himself into a mega-improved TR. TR kept himself insanely busy on the ranch he had purchased with 1/3 of his inheritance from his father. TR often spent 16 hours a day in the saddle, doing everything that needed to be done, including cattle drives. As a result, TR became a real cowboy, not only with the work, but also in the eyes of his now fellow cowboys . . . and at last, TR could again sleep.
Unlike Lincoln who opened up to others around him in terms of his deep depression, TR forced his depression into an abyss, and did not share his feelings with others. That being said, in 1885, TR ventured back to NY for a quick visit, and he became re-acquainted with Edith Carow, who had been a childhood “soulmate” (a year before he met Alice, TR and Edith had a falling out). TR went back to the Dakotas, but he regularly corresponded with Eidth, and by 1886 TR was ready to re-enter the world of politics.
Shortly after returning to the arena, TR lost the mayoral race in NYC. In 1888, TR campaigned hard for Benjamin Harrison, and he hoped that his reward would be the post of Assistant Secretary of State, but he was instead offered a minor federal position in the Civil Service Commission. Instead of fuming and refusing, TR eagerly accepted, and astonished those that knew him by staying at that post for six years. TR understood that to establish his reformer bona fides, he would need to be part of the Civil Service Commission, and TR vowed to make the commission a “living force” which would battle the entrenched spoils system and the bosses.
First up for TR was the NY Customs House, where he exposed shenanigans by talking to people in the trenches, and after that TR turned his attention to the post office. In effect TR conducted a coup on the commission, taking on additional responsibilities while also gaining knowledge and power. TR also gained the enmity of the bosses and the Republican Party standard-bearers, but by the time TR left the commission, open violations of Civil Service reform were no longer tolerated.
TR’s formula for success was to hit the ground running, consolidate control, go into the trenches, and ask questions of as many people as possible. Once the basic problems were identified, TR knew he had to hit them head on, and then be ready to counter-attack, all the while spending his political capital to achieve what he wanted; and when the work was done, exit stage left.
When the opportunity came to return to NYC, it was as one of four members of the NYC Police Board. Three years later, after campaigning hard for William McKinley in 1896, TR was offered the post of Assistant Secretary of the Navy, another position that his friends believed was “beneath” TR. TR remained as Assistant SecNav until the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. And yet again, TR went against the advice of friends and family when he resigned as Ass’t SecNav in order to go to war as a volunteer.