When the Spanish-American War ended in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt was a hero!
TR: The Rough Rider
Theodore Roosevelt, was a New York Knickerbocker, Harvard graduate, Republican state legislator, cowboy, Civil Service Commissioner and Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley when tensions in Cuba escalated over cruel Spanish rule.
When war was officially declared, he resigned his position, and formed a volunteer cavalry brigade, consisting of the many sides of his personality: New York politicians and policemen, cowboys from “out west,” and Ivy League college fellows. Nicknamed “Rough Riders,” TR’s innate commanding personality maneuvered them to the forefront, and they won a widely publicized victory on San Juan Hill. If he was well-known before, Colonel Roosevelt was now a household name.
The “war” was mercifully short, but the rampant yellow fever and assorted tropical diseases kept the soldiers quarantined on Long Island. For the better part of six weeks, Republican politicians, civic leaders, reformers and newspapermen trekked out to Montauk Point to discuss Colonel TR’s future plans: specifically, his availability as a Gubernatorial candidate.
It was not as simple as it sounded. Barely forty, TR was a well-known maverick. Political parties loathe mavericks – people they cannot control. The reformers loved him, but they worried about the influence of the political bosses. And TR himself, a very savvy politician, knew he could not win an election without a major party behind him – or govern effectively (should he win), without the latitude of his own agenda.
Tom Platt: The Easy Boss
Thomas Platt (1833-1910) was a US Senator and the titular head of the New York Republican Party for more than a decade in 1898. He was nicknamed “the Easy Boss” because of his genial nature, and the fact that he did not “rule” with a heavy hand. A businessman by profession (as opposed to a lawyer), he was shrewd, but willing to listen, to accommodate when/if feasible, insisting he only wanted what was best for New York. It was he who helped incorporate the boroughs of Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens into what is now Greater New York.
“Boss” Platt, who had known Roosevelt for a dozen years, was none too thrilled about backing him as the Republican candidate. He was wary, knowing TR was not a man who could or would “toe a party line.” He might even undermine his influence and power, which was considerable.
But political bosses know their politics inside and out, and usually have a shiny crystal ball into their party’s future success – or failure. NY Republicans in 1898 were having hard times. The newspapers were filled with scandals and corruption that had been uncovered “on their watch.” Reform was in the air. The Democrats were sure to win. Their squeaky-clean, well-respected candidate was Justice Augustus Van Wyck.
Unless, of course, the GOP could come up with a sure-winner!
Platt sent an emissary to Montauk.
Both TR and Platt knew each other much too well to actually demand “latitude” (TR) or party-loyalty-above-all (Platt).
TR was interested in the Governorship, believing he could actually accomplish some good in Albany. It was also a two-year position, which also appealed to him. Other options might present themselves.
TR was breaking all records in popularity and prestige and Platt needed a winner. All he asked for, in return for the GOP’s political support, was that he be consulted about political matters and major appointments.
Consulted is an open word. “A” respectfully asks for “B’s” input/opinion; “B” respectfully obliges, but the bottom line is that “A” is not bound to act according to “B.” At least, that was TR’s understanding of the word. He was happy to tell Tom Platt that he would oblige and consult him often. But he would run a clean campaign, and if elected, a clean administration.
Platt was happy – sort of. The Republican Party supported TR.
He campaigned vigorously, as only TR could, but it was a squeaker! He won by just 1% of the vote. As expected, he governed as vigorously as only TR could.
During the two years of his governorship, he held twice-daily press conferences, levied taxes on public utility franchises (i.e. streetcar companies) that derived their franchise from the state. He signed legislation to improve civil service reform, set wage-hour standards, raised teachers’ salaries, outlawed racial segregation in public schools, expanded the state’s forest preserves, established the Palisades Interstate Park, reformed the Fish and Game Service, and strengthened banking and insurance laws.
TR also quickly learned to “consult” Platt regarding “appointments” by offering him a list of viable candidates to choose from.
But it was not working. The Governor was giving the machine politician grief. Platt and the party he controlled were being softly undermined. They could not handle another two years of Roosevelt.
In 1896, Garret Hobart of New Jersey (1844-99) was elected William McKinley’s Vice President. The two men became close personal friends as well as colleagues. Hobart, a stranger to political Washington, had also gained the respect of both sides of Congress. When McKinley was considering a second term, Hobart as Vice President was a given. But at only 55, Hobart suffered a massive heart attack and died. The position was open.
In 1900, the Vice Presidency was inconsequential. Honorable and ceremonial, but a political dead-end. Even the VPOTUSes who assumed the Presidency were considered inconsequential, and never even nominated for terms of their own. Hobart’s death was a golden opportunity for Platt to rid himself of his troublesome Governor. He convinced the politicians that Theodore Roosevelt was the perfect running mate for McKinley.
TR wanted the Vice Presidency as much as he wanted to hang by his thumbs; he had his eye in the top spot for 1904. But Platt, who convinced the powers-that-were that TR was viable, came off smelling like a rose. TR got the nod, and smiled, and held his nose.
On Inauguration Day, 1901, The Easy Boss traveled to Washington, in his own words, “to see Roosevelt take the veil.” And the rest is history.
Corry, John A. – A Rough Ride to Albany – John A. Corry Publishing, 2000
Dalton,, Kathlen – Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life – 2004, Vintage
Roosevelt, Theodore- The Rough Riders – Desert Publications (Reprint) 1992