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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen. 1904.


The Despair of Politicians

WE had been summoned to the White House, my wife and I. I say, “summoned” on purpose, because we had carefully avoided Washington; it was enough for us to know that he was there. But he would not have it, and wrote threateningly that he would send a posse if we did n’t come. So we went. I do not think I ever saw a prouder woman than my wife when the President took her in to dinner. I heard her ask him if her smile reached from ear to ear because she felt like it. And I was proud and glad, for so it seemed to me that she had at last come to her rights, and I where there was nothing more to wish for. But withal I felt a bit unhappy. I had thought to do him the highest honor I could by wearing the cross King Christian gave me, but it turned out that among the dozen diplomats and other guests no one wore any decoration save myself, and I did n’t like it. The President saw, I think, that I was troubled, and divined the reason in the way he has. He slipped up behind me, at the first chance, and said in my ear: “I am so much honored and touched by your putting it on for me.” So he knew, and it was all right. The others might stare.

It is just an instance of the loyalty that is one of the traits in the man which bind you to him with hoops of steel once you are close to him. It takes no account of condition in life: good reason why his Rough-Riders worshiped the ground he trod on. When they ate bacon and hard-tack, that was his fare; and if there was any better to be had, they shared even. It was that trait that came out in him the night a half-witted farmer drove to Sagamore Hill on purpose to shoot him. He was in the library with Mrs. Roosevelt when the voice of the fellow, raised in angry contention with the secret service guard under the trees, attracted his attention. He knew the officer was alone, out of ear-shot of the others down at the barn, and he acted at once upon the impulse to go to his aid. Before Mrs. Roosevelt could put in a word of warning, he was out on the veranda in the moonlight, his white shirt bosom making a broad target for the frenzied man who had a cocked pistol in the buggy. He whipped up his horse when he saw the President, and made straight for him, but before he had gone a step the secret service man had him down and safe. I joined Mrs. Roosevelt the next day in demanding the President’s promise that he would not do it again, and he gave it good-humoredly, insisting that he had been in no danger. “But,” said he, “he was fighting my fight, and he was alone. Would you have had me hide, with him, perhaps, one against two or three?” It was a hard question to answer. We could only remind him that he was the President, and not simply Theodore Roosevelt, and had the whole country to answer to.

I think I never knew a man who so utterly trusts a friend, once he has taken him to his heart. That he does not do easily or offhand; but once he has done it, there is no reservation or secret drawback to his friendship. It is a splendid testimony to the real worth of human nature that his trust has rarely indeed been betrayed. Once his friend, you are his friend forever. To the infallible test he rings true: those who love him best are those who know him best. The men who hate him are the scalawags and the self-seekers, and they only distrust him who do not know him. He never lost a friend once made. Albert Shaw summed it all up in a half-impatient, wholly affectionate exclamation when he was telling me of a visit he had made to Washington to remonstrate with the President.

“I never knew a man,” he said, “to play so into the hands of his enemies. He has no secrets from them; he cannot bear a grudge; he will not believe evil; he is generous and fair to everybody; he is the despair of his friends. And, after all, it is his strength.”

And the reason is plain. Had I not known him, I would have found it long ago in his insistence that the America of to-day is better than that of Washington and Jefferson. A man cannot write such things as this he wrote of Lincoln without meaning every word of it and acting it out in his life:

“The old-school Jeffersonian theorists believed in a strong people and a weak government. Lincoln was the first who showed how a strong people might have a strong government and yet remain the freest on earth. He seized, half unwittingly, all that was best in the traditions of Federalism. He was the true successor of the Federal leaders, but he grafted on their system a profound belief that the great heart of the nation beats for truth, honor, and liberty.”

Now do you wonder that he is the despairing riddle of the politicians the land over, the enemy, wherever they meet, of all the after-us-the-deluge plotters? They have not the key to the man; and if they had, they would not know how to use it. The key is his faith that the world is growing better right along. In their plan, it may go to the devil when they have squeezed it for what there is in it for them. They can never comprehend that the man who believes in the world growing better helps make it better, and so, in the end, is bound to win; or why he is closer to the people than any man since Lincoln’s day. It is all a mystery and a nuisance to them, and I am glad it is.

Speaking of Lincoln, one of the few times I have seen Roosevelt visibly hurt was when some yellow newspaper circulated the story that he had had Lincoln’s portrait taken from the wall in the White House and hung in the basement, and had his own put up in its place. Ordinarily he takes no notice of attacks of that kind, except to laugh at them if they are funny; but this both hurt and saddened him, for Lincoln is his hero as he is mine. It was at the time the White House was undergoing alterations, and the pictures were hung in the basement to preserve them, or there would have been no pictures by this time. Some of the old furniture was sent away and sold at auction, as it had to be, there being no other legal way of disposing of it. Even the chairs in the cabinet-room his official family had to buy at five dollars each, when they wanted them as keepsakes. Among the things that went to the auction-shop was a sideboard from the dining-room, and promptly the report was circulated that it had been presented by the temperance women of Ohio to Mrs. Hayes, and that President Roosevelt had sold it to a saloon-keeper. Resolutions began to come from Women’s Christian Temperance Union branches East and West until Secretary Loeb published the facts, which were these: that no sideboard had ever been presented to Mrs. Hayes, but an ice-pitcher with stand, long since placed in a Cincinnati museum, where it now is. The sideboard was a piece of furniture bought in the ordinary avenues of trade during President Arthur’s term, and of no account on any ground. But long after the true story had been told the resolutions kept coming; for all I know, another one is being prepared now in some place which the lie on its travels has just reached.

I know what it was that hurt, for I had seen Roosevelt recoil from the offer to strike an enemy in the Police Department a foul blow, as from an unclean thing, though that enemy never fought fair. He does. “I never look under the table when I play,” he said, when the spoilsmen beset him in their own way at Albany; “they can beat me at that game every time. Face to face, I can defend myself and make a pretty good fight, but any weakling can murder me. Remember this, however, that if I am hit that way very often, I will take to the open, and the blows from the dark will only help me in an out-and-out fight.” “Clean as a hound’s tooth,” one of his favorite phrases, fits himself best. It was the showing that an honest man’s honest intentions were not accepted at their face value that saddened and hurt, for it smudged the ideal on which he builds his faith in his fellow-man.

It was only yesterday that a friend told me of an experience he had at Albany while Roosevelt was Governor. He was waiting in the Executive Chamber with, as it happened, a man of much account in national politics, a Federal office-holder occupying a position second to none in the land in political influence. The gentleman had come to Albany to press legislation for good roads, being interested in the manufacture of bicycles or automobiles, I forget which. While they waited, in came the Governor. There were but two other persons in the room, an old farmer and his daughter, evidently on a holiday. They were looking at the pictures with much interest. Mr. Roosevelt went over to them and engaged them in conversation, found out where they were from, said he was glad to see them, and pointed out one or two of the portraits especially worth seeing. Then he shook hands and bade them come back as often as they pleased. It was clear that they did not know who the friendly man was. When they went out he came straight across to the Federal official.

“Now, Mr.—,” he said, shaking his finger at him, “the legislature has appropriated every cent it is going to this year for good roads, and nothing you can say will change their minds or mine on that subject. So you can save yourself the trouble. It is no use.” And, turning to my friend, “Do you wish to see me?” But his amazement was so great that he said no, making up his mind on the spot to talk to the Governor’s secretary. The official had gone away at once.

I recommend this anecdote to the special perusal of the friends who think Roosevelt is playing to the galleries when he hails the plain man cordially. He does it because he likes him. They might have seen him one day in an elevated car, when we were riding together, get up to give his seat to a factory-girl in a worn coat. I confess that I itched to tell her who he was, but he let me have no chance. We were talking about a public institution I wished to see reformed, and he was anxious to know if there was any way in which he could help. “If there is,” he said, “let me.” But there was not, and I was sorry for it; for the matter concerned the growing youth and the citizenship of to-morrow, and I knew how near his heart that lay.

I have been rambling along on my own plan of putting things in when I thought of them, and I cannot say that I feel proud of the result; but if from it there grows a personality whose dominating note is utter simplicity, I have not shot so wide of the mark, after all. For that is it. All he does and says is to be taken with that understanding. There again is where he unconsciously upsets all the schemes and plots of the politicians. They don’t understand that “the game can be played that way,” and are forever looking for some ulterior motive, some hidden trap he never thought of. Bismarck, it is said, used to confound his enemies by plumping out the truth when, according to all the rulers of the old-school diplomacy, he should have lied, and he bagged them easily. Roosevelt has one fundamental conviction, that a frank and honest man cannot in the long run be entangled by plotters, and his life is proving it every day. To say that the world can be run on such a plan is merely to own that the best there is in it, the cynics to the contrary notwithstanding, is man himself, which is true and also comforting in the midst of all the trickery contrived to disprove it.

It was the simplest thing in the world, when the nation was justly up in arms about the Kishineff atrocity, to do what Roosevelt did, and that was why he did it. Friends from all over wrote to me to warn the President not to get into trouble with Russia by mixing up in her domestic troubles. Mischief would be sure to come of it. The Czar would n’t receive the Jews’ petition, in the first place, and we would have to take a rebuke if we tried to send it. But the President did not need my advice or theirs. I laughed when I read in the paper how he cut that Gordian knot that was so full of evil omen: merely telegraphed the whole petition to the American minister in St. Petersburg, with orders to lay it before the Czar and ask whether he would receive it if transmitted in the usual way. To which the Czar returned a polite answer, as he was in duty bound, that he would not; but he had received it, all of it, and the results were not long in showing themselves. For days the cables had groaned under guarded threats of what would happen if we tried to send the petition over, and that was what happened!

Perhaps it is in a measure this very unexpectedness—more pity that it is unexpected—of method that is no method, but just common honesty, that has got abroad among people the notion that he is a man of impulse, not of deliberate, thoughtful action. More of it, probably, is due to his quick energy that sizes things up with marvelous speed and accuracy. In any event, it is an error which any one can make out for himself, if he will merely watch attentively what is going on, and what has been going on since Roosevelt came prominently into the public eye. What position did he ever take hastily that had to be abandoned, ready as he would have been to quit it had he been shown that he was wrong? He shut the saloons as Police Commissioner, since the law he had sworn to enforce demanded it. And though politicians claimed that he alienated support from the administration he stood for, he taught us a lesson in civic honesty that will yet bear fruit; for while politics are allowed to play hide-and-seek with the majesty of the law, that majesty is a fraud and politics will be unclean. As Health Commissioner he gave the push to the campaign against the old murderous rookeries that broke the slum landlord’s back; abuse and threats were his reward, but hope came into the lives of two million souls in my city, and all over the land those who would help their fellow-men took heart of hope because of what he did. He offended a thousand spoilsmen as Civil Service Commissioner, and earned the gratitude and confidence of a Democratic President; but who now who has sense would have had him do otherwise?

He compelled the corporations to pay just taxes, and though they swore to knife him for it, the Court of Appeals has said it was fair and just. I have heard some people blaming him hotly for interfering in the anthracite coal strike. Their cellars were full of coal that winter, but their factory bunkers were not; and, singularly, I remember some of those very men, when their pocket-books were threatened, predicting angrily that “something would happen” if things were not mended. And in that they were right; something would have happened. Perhaps that was a reason why he interfered. However, I shall come back to that yet. But where is there to-day a cloud on the diplomatic horizon because of the “impulsiveness” of the young man in the White House? When were there so cordial relations with the powers before—with England, with France, with Germany that sends the President’s personal friend to represent her here? Does any one imagine William of Germany seeks personal advantage in that? Then he is not as smart as the emperor. For the first time in the memory of diplomats, I imagine, they are able to discuss things, up at the White House, just as they are; yet they don’t take a trick, and they know it.

Roosevelt is as far as possible from being rash. When people say it I am always reminded of the difference between the Danish word rask and the English rash. Rask means quick, resolute. That is what he is. He arrives at a conclusion more quickly than any one I ever knew; but he never jumps at it. He has learned how to use his mind, and all of it, that is why. “I own,” writes a friend to me from Ohio, “that he has been right so far every time. But next time where will we find him?” Learn to think a thing out, as he does; and when you have done it, ask yourself, “Which, now, is right?” and you will know. Watch and you will see that the real difference between his critics and him is this: they chase all round the compass for some portent of trouble “if they do this or do that,” and in the end throw themselves headlong on some course that promises safety; whereas, he goes calmly ahead, seeking the right and letting troubles take care of themselves if they must come. That is the quality of his courage which some good people identify as a kind of fighting spunk that must be in a broil at regular intervals. I do not suppose there is a less emotional man in existence than Secretary Root of the War Department. He was the only one, the newspapers said, in the cabinet who would not give five dollars for his chair as a souvenir. He could put the money to better use, and he did n’t need the chair. But when he came to take leave of Roosevelt, this is what he wrote: “I shall carry with me unabated loyalty to your administration, confidence in the sound conservatism and patriotic unselfishness of your policy,… and I shall always be happy to have been a part of the administration directed by your sincere and rugged adherence to right and devotion to the trust of our country.” Blame me for partiality, if you will, but against Secretary Root the charge does not justly lie. He just spoke the truth.

Verily, I think that were the country to be called upon to-morrow to vote for peace or for war, his voice would be for peace to the last hour in which it could be maintained with honor. Slower than Lincoln would he be to draw the sword. But once drawn for justice and right, I should not like to be in its way, nor should I be lazy about making up my mind which way to skip. I remember once when I got excited—over some outrage perpetrated upon American missions or students in Turkey, I think. It was in the old days in Mulberry Street, and I wanted to know if our ships could not run the Dardanelles and beard the Turk in his capital.

“Ah,” put in Colonel Grant, who was in the Police Board, “but those forts have guns.”

“Guns!” said Roosevelt; nothing more. It is impossible to describe the emphasis he put upon the word. But in it I seemed to hear Decatur at Tripoli, Farragut at Mobile. Guns! The year after that he was busy piling up ammunition at Hong Kong. They had guns at Manila, too. And Dewey joined Decatur and Farragut on the record.

I said Roosevelt had learned to use all of his mind. To an extraordinary degree he possesses the faculty of concentrating it upon the subject in hand and, when it has been disposed of, transferring it at will to the thing next in order, else he could not have written important historical works while he was Police Commissioner and Governor. Whether this is all the result of training, or a faculty born in him, I do not know. Napoleon had the same gift. I have sat with Mr. Roosevelt in his room at Police Headquarters and seen him finish his correspondence, dispose of routine matters in hand, and at once take up dictation of some magazine article, or a chapter in one of his books where he left off the day before. In five minutes he would be deep in the feudal days, or disentangling some Revolutionary kink in Washington’s time, and seemingly had lost all recollection of Mulberry Street and its concerns. In the midst of it there would come a rap at the door and a police official would enter with some problem to be solved. Roosevelt would stop in the doorway, run rapidly over it with him, decide it, unless it needed action by the Board, and after one nervous turn across the floor would resume dictating in the middle of the sentence where he had stopped. I used to listen in amazement. It would have taken me hours of fretting to get back to where I was.

One secret laugh I had at him in those days. The room was a big square one, with windows that had blue shades. When he got thoroughly into his dictation—during which he never permitted me to leave; he would stay any movement of mine that way with a detaining gesture, and go right on—he made, unconsciously, a three-fourths round of the office, and when he passed each window would seize the shadecord and give a little abstracted pull, bringing it down an inch or so, until by degrees the room was in twilight. By the fourth or fifth round he would acquire a game leg. One of his knees stiffened, and thereafter he would drag around with him a disabled limb to the end of the chapter, when he as suddenly recovered the use of it. I sometimes wonder if his game leg takes part in cabinet discussions. If it does, I will warrant the country will know of it, though it may not be able to identify the ailment. I give it as a hint to nations that may be meditating provocation of Uncle Sam. I should beware of provoking the President’s game leg.

Which reminds me of the time we plotted against him in Mulberry Street, putting in quarters at a raffle at an Italian feast. The raffle was for a sheep which we hoped to win, and to lead to Headquarters in procession, headed by the Italian band. We even took Mr. Roosevelt around and made him spend five quarters in his own prospective undoing. But we did n’t win the sheep. It was the Widow Motso on the third floor back who did; and when I heard her rapturous cry, and saw her hug the sheep then and there, and kiss its black nose, I was glad the plot miscarried. The widow killed the sheep the next day. Roosevelt never knew what he had escaped. It was all my way of paying him for calling sheep “woolly idiots,” whereas they are my special pets. There is no animal I like so much as a sheep. It is so absolutely, comfortably stupid. You don’t have to put sense into it, because you can’t.

I am tempted to tell you of more jokes, for he loves one dearly so long as it hurts no one’s feelings. Two timid parsons found that out who saw Mr. Gilder shake hands with him at a reception and express the hope that “he would not embroil us in any foreign war.”

“What,” cried the President, “a war? with me cooped up here in the White House! Never, gentlemen, never!” I wonder what the parsons thought when they caught their breath. Perhaps the man I met on a railroad train and told the story to, expressed it. “There, you see,” said he; “he says it himself. If he could get away he would start a fight.” His fun sometimes takes the form of mock severity with intimate friends. In the swarm of officials that came to wish the President a happy New Year were the Civil Service Commissioners, headed by John R. Procter, his old colleague, all men after his own heart. Mr. Procter still laughed at the recollection of that New Year’s greeting when I saw him last. The President drew himself up at their approach and remarked with stiff dignity, loud enough for all to hear:

“The moral tone of the room is distinctly lowered.”

No one need ever have any fear that Roosevelt will get the country into an undignified position. If unfamiliarity with a situation should lead him off the track, take my word for it he will take the straight, common-sense way out, and get there. The man who in his youth could describe Tammany as “a highly organized system of corruption tempered with malevolent charity,” and characterize a mutual acquaintance, a man with cold political ambitions whom I deemed devoid of sentiment, as having both, but “keeping them in different compartments,” can be trusted to find a way out of any dilemma.

If he got into one, that is to say. I know him well enough to be perfectly easy on that score. It seems to me that all the years I have watched him he has tackled problems that were new and strange to him, with such simple common sense that the difficulties have vanished before you could make them out; and the more difficult the problem the plainer his treatment of it. We were speaking about the Northern Securities suits one day.

“I do not claim to be a financial expert,” he said; “but it does not take a financial expert to tell that, the law being that two small men shall not combine to the public injury, if I allow two big men to do it I am setting up that worst of stumbling-blocks in a country like ours, which persuades the poor man that if he has money enough the law will not apply to him. That is elementary and needs no training a financier. So in this matter of publicity of trust accounts. Publicity hurts no honest business, and is not feared by the man of straight methods. The man whose methods are crooked is the man whose game I would block. Those who complain know this perfectly well, and their complaining betrays them. Again, with honest money—I did not need any financier to tell me that a short-weight dollar is not an honest dollar to pay full-weight dollar debts with.”

I thought of the wise newspaper editors who had been at such pains to explain to us how Roosevelt was responsible for the “unsettled condition” of Wall Street. Their house of cards, built up with such toilsome arguing, was just then falling to pieces, and the news columns in their own papers were giving us an inside view of what it was that had been going on in the financial market, and why some securities remained “undigested.” Water and wind are notoriously a bad diet; and what else to call the capitalization of a concern at thirty millions that rated itself at five, would puzzle, I imagine, even a “financial expert.”

And has he then no faults, this hero of mine? Yes, he has, and I am glad of it, for I want a live man for a friend, not a dead saint—they are the only ones, I notice, who have no faults. He talks, they say, and I hope he will keep on, for he has that to say which the world needs to hear and cannot hear too long or too often. I don’t think that he could keep a scrap-book, if he tried. I am sure he could not. It is not given to man once in a thousand years to make and to record history at the same time. But then it is not his business to keep scrap-books. I know he cannot dance, for I have seen a letter from a lady who reminded him of how he “trod strenuously” on her toes in the old dancing-school days when the world was young. And I have heard him sing—that he cannot do. The children think it perfectly lovely, but he would never pass for an artist. And when the recruit in camp accosted him with “Say, are you the Lieutenant-Colonel? The Colonel is looking for you,” he did not order him under arrest or jab him with his sword, but merely told him to “Come with me and see how I do it”; which was quite irregular, of course, if it did make a soldier out of a raw recruit. Oh, yes! I suppose he has his faults, though all these years I have been so busy finding out good things in him that were new to me, that I have never had time to look for them. But when I think of him, gentle, loyal, trusting friend, helpful, unselfish ever, champion of all that is good and noble and honest; when I read in an old letter that strays into my hands his brave, patient words: “We have got to march and fight for the right as we see it, and face defeat and victory just as they come”; and in another: “As for what—say of my standing alone, why, I will if I must, but no one is more heartened by such support as you give than I am”—why, I feel that if that is the one thing I can do, I will do that; that, just as he is, with or without faults, I would rather stand with him and be counted than anywhere else on God’s green earth. For, standing so, I know that I shall count always for our beloved country, which his example and his friendship have taught me to love beyond my own native land. And that is what I would do till I die.

There is yet one side of Theodore Roosevelt upon which I would touch, because I know the question to be on many lips; though I approach it with some hesitation. For a man’s religious beliefs are his own, and he is not one to speak lightly of what is in his heart concerning the hope of heaven. But though he is of few public professions, yet is he a reverent man, of practice, in private and public, ever in accord with the highest ideals of Christian manliness. His is a militant faith, bound on the mission of helping the world ahead; and in that campaign he welcomes gladly whoever would help. For the man who is out merely to purchase for himself a seat in heaven, whatever befall his brother, he has nothing but contempt; for him who struggles painfully toward the light, a helping hand and a word of cheer always. With forms of every kind he has tolerant patience—for what they mean. For the mere husk emptied of all meaning he has little regard. The soul of a thing is to him the use it is of. Speaking of the circuit-riders of old, he said once: “It is such missionary work that prevents the pioneers from sinking perilously near the level of the savagery against which they contend. Without it, the conquest of this continent would have had little but an animal side. Because of it, deep beneath and through the national character there runs that power of firm adherence to a lofty ideal upon which the safety of the nation will ultimately depend.”

He himself declared his faith in the closing words of his address to the Young Men’s Christian Association in New York City the night before he surrendered his stewardship as Governor into the hands of the people; and so let him stand before his countrymen and before the world:

“The true Christian is the true citizen, lofty of purpose, resolute in endeavor, ready for a hero’s deeds, but never looking down on his task because it is cast in the day of small things; scornful of baseness, awake to his own duties as well as to his rights, following the higher law with reverence, and in this world doing all that in him lies, so that when death comes he may feel that mankind is in some degree better because he has lived.”