Few people realize how history might have been changed but for the death of Garret A. Hobart
Garret Hobart: The Unknown Running-Mate
Garret Augustus Hobart (1844-1899), born and raised in New Jersey, educated at Rutgers University, was a prominent attorney, with many varied business interests. He gravitated to political service, and became a member of the New Jersey Assembly and served a term as its Speaker. Then he was elected to the State Senate, and served there as Senate President.
Although he had no national exposure, his prominence in Republican politics as well as his independent wealth made him an ideal delegate-at-large to several national conventions.
Why Hobart was “Modern”
William McKinley, a fiscal “sound money” man, was very well known by the time of his election in 1896. He had been a Republican Congressman for nearly fifteen years, followed by two terms as Governor of Ohio.
When Garret Hobart was nominated as his Vice President, named primarily as a geopolitical accommodation, the two men had never met. McKinley duly invited Hobart to visit him, and strangely enough (considering the previous hundred years of presidential politics) the two would become close personal friends as well as political allies. They sincerely liked each other.
With McKinley skating to an easy win in 1896, he found a true “partner” in the new vice-president. Hobart was consulted on political matters. He was given specific and confidential tasks to perform for the President. He had also become a knowledgeable and effective parliamentarian, and had gained the respect of both houses of Congress.
This was a totally new aspect of the vice-presidency, which, prior to that time, had strictly been a toothless, clawless position of semi-honor. Previous vice presidents had all but been ignored.
Mrs. Hobart and Mrs. McKinley
But the real godsend was Jennie Hobart, the Vice President’s wife. Ida McKinley was a frail invalid, afflicted with laming phlebitis and an epileptic condition, a stigmatic word that was never spoken aloud. The misfortunes of her health also wreaked havoc on her emotional outlook, and she became petulant and difficult. Her world became extremely narrow, and she grew to depend on her doting husband for everything. He spared no effort to make her unfortunate situation easier.
The new First Lady’s peevish personality precluded any suggestion to relinquish her title or the essence of her position to substitutes. She would brook no challengers. Thus it created monumental inconveniences for the President as well as for the White House staff.
Into this breach stepped Jennie Hobart, a kind and tactful lady. She made it a point to befriend both McKinleys, but in particular, the hapless Ida. Knowing that it was impossible for the First Lady to stand and receive guests, it was Jennie who offered to receive with her. Ida could be seated, holding a large bouquet of flowers. Jennie would stand beside her, be introduced as “Mrs. Vice President,” shake hands with the visitor, and introduce the guest to the frail First Lady. This way it kept Ida from doing anything other than smiling and nodding, yet she would be “center stage.” It worked well. Everyone benefitted.
The Social Challenges
Since the usual political “entertaining” was often curtailed to accommodate to the President’s ailing wife, the Hobarts helped fill another void. They had a large house nearby, and with their independent means, provided the atmosphere for political figures to meet informally – or in confidence. This was very much in keeping with Secretary of State and Mrs. Madison opening their home for social-political entertaining nearly a century earlier. This way, the Vice President got to know everyone in town. Mrs. McKinley did not mind a bit, and the President was grateful. Much could be accomplished.
Garret Hobart became not only a popular vice president, but a well regarded one, all the more so, since he had little national experience prior to his election.
McKinley never deigned to invite him to regular Cabinet meetings, however; it would take decades before that would happen. But Hobart was actively and substantively consulted by the President, who grew to depend on the man who had become his true friend and ally.
Hobart: The Accident of Fate
William McKinley was an extremely well-liked president, and after a jingoistic war (which he opposed) was easily fought and won, he was even more popular. He was a shoo-in for a second term. With no political fences to mend, so to speak, and since he got on so well with his equally admired vice president, it was expected that the McKinley-Hobart ticket would prevail again in 1900.
History can be a fickle player. Garret Hobart had a fatal heart attack in 1899. He was only fifty-five.
Theodore Roosevelt was elected the new vice president.
When McKinley was assassinated only months into his second term, the dynamic Theodore became President of the United States. The quiet Garret Hobart, a good man, is forgotten by history – even in New Jersey. But he was the one who enhanced, advanced and enriched what had previously been an inconsequential office.
· Leech, Margaret – In The Days of McKinley, 1959, Harper & Brothers
· Halstead, Murat – The Illustrious Life of William McKinley, 1901, Memorial Edition
· Purcell, L. Edward, (Editor) Vice Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary – 2005, Facts on File Publishing