One hundred years ago this month, Theodore Roosevelt left office after nearly two full terms as president. Opinion polls did not exist then, but if they had, TR’s popularity at the time of his departure would surely have been among the highest ever. His concern for the downtrodden, his attempts to rein in the ultra-rich, his muscular yet often conciliatory foreign policy, his deft handling of the 1907 economic panic, and his ramming through of the Panama Canal treaty had combined to make Roosevelt, a Republican, widely admired throughout the nation.
In all these areas, Roosevelt acted out of sincere conviction, with characteristic determination and force. Yet he also understood the limits on his power, both legal and political, and the importance of selling his policies — and himself — to the public. By courting the press far more effectively than any previous president; by concentrating on battles he knew he could win, and playing them up relentlessly when he did; by puffing up minor incidents when they fit his message; and by governing from the center while rewarding supporters and neutralizing opponents with high-profile gestures, Theodore Roosevelt can be said to have invented the set of political tactics we now call “triangulation.”
Roosevelt started triangulating as soon as he became president. On October 16, 1901, barely a month after succeeding to the office upon the assassination of William McKinley, he dined at the White House with the black leader Booker T. Washington. Southern whites were not pleased that the President of the United States had treated a black man as an equal. Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman of South Carolina said, “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again.” The denunciation was so severe that no other African-American would be a guest at the White House until 1929. But Roosevelt knew that Southern Democrats would never vote for him anyway, and the dinner was enough in itself to win him and his party the unswerving support of blacks nationwide — even after the Brownsville Incident of 1906, in which three entire companies of black soldiers in Texas were dishonorably discharged because some of them were believed (incorrectly, in all likelihood) to have taken part in a riot in which a white man was killed.
In 1902 TR earned his durable image as “The Trust Buster” by filing suit against the Northern Securities Company, a massive combination of railroad interests formed by a group of robber-baron all stars: E. H. Harriman, James J. Hill, J. P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller. Roosevelt’s Justice Department filed suit to break up the trust, and in 1904, the Supreme Court ruled in the government’s favor. As the historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in The Age of Reform, in the short term the court’s ruling made little difference to the American economy: “The decree was ineffective and consolidation went on apace.” Yet for the first time, the federal government had taken a firm stand against the abusive practices of big business. Even though TR never took on such a big fish again (and there were plenty of them), he had prepared the ground for the continuing fight against industrial trusts that would show more substantial results in later decades.
Not long after filing the Northern Securities suit, Roosevelt used the reputation it had earned him to mediate a settlement in the anthracite miners’ strike of 1902, which threatened to cripple the country. Persuasion was the only weapon at his disposal; as Henry Cabot Lodge, the Senate Republican leader, wrote to TR during the crisis: “You have no power or authority, of course . . . Is there anything we can appear to do?” But, having shown that he did not reflexively favor business, Roosevelt could get union leaders to listen to him, and by convincing some powerful financiers that a settlement would head off unrest that might end up in socialism, he was able to broker a deal and get the miners back to work.
As with Northern Securities, the anthracite settlement did not lead to any immediate reforms; labor–management disputes would remain bitter and often violent until after World War II. In both these cases, it might be said that Roosevelt spoke loudly but carried a small stick. Yet, in Hofstadter’s words, Roosevelt’s interventions were “symbolic acts of the highest importance.” And TR understood the importance of symbolism — not just in bolstering his personal popularity, but in increasing his moral authority (which in many cases was all the authority he had) and shifting public opinion in favor of his program.