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18 April 2016

Book Review; Let the People Rule

Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential PrimaryLet the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary by Geoffrey  Cowan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This could have been such an interesting book; the cast of characters, the soap-opera story-line, the era...

As it is, it is an informative, if repetitive book. I did not come out of it feeling like I knew more about the people OR the process, which is a shame after reading 300 pages.

I did come out of it realizing that for all our gnashing of teeth in this current election cycle that the world has gone to hell, the world has gone to hell before. And will go to hell again.

Consider this description of Roosevelt as he was considering launching his campaign; "To the group's amazement, he [Roosevelt] could not explain how is proposed recall of judicial decisions would work in practice. Much as he was enthralled by his personality, Arthur Hill, Roosevelt's prospective young lieutenant, was stunned by the new candidate's intellectual incoherence; 'He is entirely incoherent in his thought and that is one reason why he is such an excellent representative of American feeling,' Hill told his mother in one of a series of insightful and self-deprecating letters. 'We ought to be led by an enthusiast and a man of vigor, and Roosevelt is all of that. But as for his thought, I do not think it is worth thinking about except as far as it reveals his personality. The best he does is to read good books and imperfectly understand their contents.'"

Sound familiar?

The history of presidential nominations can be divided into four distinct periods; King Caucus - nomination of candidates by members of Congress (1792-1828), Pure Convention System (1832-1908), Mixed System (created by the rise of the primaries) (1912-1968), Dominant Primary System (1972-present)

The primary system that began in 1912 was driven by that hero of the people, Theodore Roosevelt. He had already been president once. He hand-picked his successor, Taft. But then grew disillusioned with how Taft was running the country and decided to throw his "hat in the ring" and try to wrest the Republican nomination from Taft through grassroots populism; "Let the People Rule."

But as much as one would like to think the primaries actually give the people the right to rule, they don't. Nor did Roosevelt, who used the system, really believe that the people should have the right to rule. He didn't. But his grassroots popularity made a primary system the best way for him to become a contender. So he fought for it, not because he believed in it but because it believed in him. Cowan writes, "The man who embraced democracy as his core campaign theme and had done so much to open up the political system, had been a skeptic if not an opponent of presidential primaries and suffrage for women only weeks before he embraced them; and he had pleaded for the support of southern blacks in the Republican party only weeks before he excluded them from his own new party. Looking at the way he conducted his campaign led me to wonder what, if anything, TR would not have done--and what any serious candidate today would not do--in order to be elected president."

Roosevelt knew how to game the system. Consider this; "Taft had made some good arguments and delivered some good lines, but fundamentally he had the temperament of a judge, not a fighter. Roosevelt was a warrior dressed for battle. He did not need to answer arguments directly; his strategy was to hit and hit hard; to regain the initiative. He created a level of political frenzy that subsumed the issues. And people believed what they wanted to believe."

Roosevelt was a politican, it the purest form of the word. Back before Taft was his mortal enemy in the 1912 primaries, Roosevelt had helped get Taft elected; "[Roosevelt] warned Taft not to be photographed playing golf. he did not want Taft to look too elite, too far removed from the lives of people he hoped to lead. 'It's true that I myself play tennis,' he told journalist Mark Sullivan, his chosen messenger. 'But you never saw a photograph of me playing tennis. I'm careful about that. Photographs on horseback, yes; tennis, no. And golf is fatal."

But this man of the people was far from that in actuality. His letters reflect the class and race-based views prominent in his time. "Every real proponent of democracy, Roosevelt said, 'acts and always must act on the perfectly sound (although unacknowledged, and often hotly contested) belief that only certain people are fit for democracy.'"

Only certain people are fit for democracy. In California, the Chinese and the Japanese are not fit. In the south, the Blacks aren't fit.

Except he needed the black vote in the south during the Republican primary. Because they would vote for him. So he fought for their seat at the table. But, then, when he failed in his bid for the Republican nomination and started his own party, he needed the white establishment. So the very men he had fought for were now excluded.

But "Political Expediency!" doesn't make for a good campaign slogan.

But Roosevelt could talk a good talk. Consider this excerpt from the speech he made when finally announcing his candidacy; "It would be well if our people would study the history of a sister republic. All the woes of France for a century and a quarter have been due to the folly of her people in splitting into the two camps of unreasonable conservatism and unreasonable radicalism...may we profit by the experiences of our brother republicans across the water, and go forward steadily, avoiding all wild extremes."

But reasonable doesn't usually win votes. Roosevelt switched timbre from reasonable to riled depending on his audience. He knew how to fire the people way up. But Taft did things like this; "When someone in the crowd shouted that 'Roosevelt is a liar,' Taft stopped him. 'That isn't in my vocabulary,' he said. 'My experience on the bench has taught me the value of words and one of the most unsafe things to do is to go further than the facts.'"

Reasonableness doesn't rile the people. Reactiveness does.

So the problem with democracy is people? Maybe...

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