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article number 194
article date 12-25-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
President Theodore Roosevelt Learns to Use the Media, 1906
by Mark Sullivan

From the 1930 book, Our Times, The United States 1900 – 1925. Volume III Pre-War America.

AUTHORS INTRODUCTION: Which Arose in Large Part from His Valor as a Fighter, and to Some Degree from Particular Arts of Combat That He Practiced, and from the Agreeable Excitement That Accompanied His Fighting — Causing the Public to Feel, as It Was Put by a New York Policeman Who Had Served Under Him, “The Fun of Him! There Was Such Fun in Being Led by Him !“ Including Allusions to Certain Inventions, Whereby Cartoons Became a Polemic Feature of Newspapers; and Whereby Magazines Became Forums of Public Discussion, Media of the Literature of Exposure.

THE ARTICLE: The assumption, generally accepted, that Roosevelt’s successor would be whomever he should name, attributed to him a power greater than most heads of States have possessed. And it is simple history to say that the relation Roosevelt had to America at this time, the power he was able to wield, the prestige he enjoyed, the affection he received, the contentment of the people with him — their more than contentment, their zesty pleasure in him — composed the lot of an exceptionally fortunate monarch during a particularly happy period of his reign. The basis of it was the fights Roosevelt made against organized wealth — the sum of which was that he had, in the plain sight of the common man, presented spectacle after spectacle in which business, capital, corporate power, took off its hat in the presence of the symbol and spokesman of government.

Some serious folk, thinking this triumph was the whole of the attraction Roosevelt had for the people, wrote exalted tributes in which they pictured him as St. George slaying the dragon. But that kind of service, if it stood alone, would have made Roosevelt not a king, but rather an austere Cromwell destroying kings. The battles Roosevelt fought, had they been waged by a LaFollette or a Bryan, or even a Grover Cleveland, might have had the sombre sourness of a Puritanical crusade.

President Roosevelt at Inspiration Point, Yosemite, April, 1903.

What brought to Roosevelt the affection that few kings have had, and gave gay delight to the people, was, in addition to his valiance in high affairs, certain qualities of his temperament, facets of his scintillating personality, not all of which need be enumerated at this place, but which included his methods of combat, and the agreeable excitement that accompanied them: the din, the alarums, the thunderclaps of his denunciations, the lightning strokes of his epithets, his occasional ruthlessness of attack, his grinning acceptance of occasional setbacks, the quickness of his rally, the adroitness of his parry; the vibrations he emitted, like a master tuning fork, setting the whole atmosphere of the country a-tingle; “the fun of him,” as one of his New York police captains remarked after his death — “It was not only that he was a great man, but, oh, there was such fun in being led by him.”

So that if Roosevelt’s victories were those of St. George, his activity in combat, if one may use a far-fetched figure, was that of St. Vitus — except that no warrior nor statesman, and indeed no musician or artisan, ever wasted less energy in lost motion than did Roosevelt. His every gesture counted, his every blow went to the mark, or started there, and if he had to retreat, he knew — to the surprised dismay of those who thought they had him beaten, the precise moment when he could turn.

Roosevelt in battle — which was Roosevelt most of the time — was a huge personality endowed with energy almost abnormal, directed by an acute intelligence, lightened by a grinning humor, engaged in incessant action. The spectacle, occupying the biggest head-lines in the daily newspapers, gave to the life of that day a zest and stimulus and gaiety such that average Americans who lived through the period carried it as a golden memory, and, in their elder years, recalled it as the ancient forty-niners remembered California, sighing “there’ll never be another Roosevelt,” and telling their grandchildren that once they saw a giant. Anni memorabiles!

Speaking at Boise City, Idaho, May 28, 1903.

Roosevelt’s fighting was so much a part of the life of the period, was so tied up to the newspapers, so geared into popular literature, and even to the pulpit (which already had begun to turn from formal religion toward civic affairs), as to constitute, for the average man, not merely the high spectacle of the Presidency in the ordinary sense, but almost the whole of the passing show, the public’s principal interest. It caused the people to take delight in Roosevelt as President, to wish nothing better than that he should go on being President, and to be willing, if Roosevelt himself would not run, to accept whomever Roosevelt might choose.

Roosevelt in his political battles used many arts. He neglected no old maneuver, and devised several new ones, of which the characteristic was that they were carried out before the public eye, making of the average man always an excited spectator, usually an ardent partisan.

Roosevelt used the newspapers, not in the older furtive manner of holding out offices and perquisites to editors, nor by the direct way (which the railroads and other great corporations to some extent practiced) of establishing alliances with newspaper owners, or identity of interest with them. Roosevelt had another method, largely original with him, and as novel in political warfare as aviation in martial combat. Roosevelt’s method was looked upon by his Old Guard adversaries somewhat as old-school military men looked upon the first use of gas — they knew no continuously effective way of getting help from newspapers except directly, by appeal to the editor or business office, usually the latter.

Roosevelt asked no favors from the newspapers. He did not request their attention, he commanded it. “Roosevelt,” said a critic’ of him, “has the knack of doing things, and doing them noisily, clamorously; while he is in the neighborhood the public can no more look the other way than the small boy can turn his head away from a circus parade followed by a steam calliope.”

Post-card of 1907. During Roosevelt’s Presidency, the “Teddy Bear” was, to older people, a symbol of the President’s fun-loving and playful qualities, and, to children, a welcome and beloved addition to the menagerie of toyland … no doll family was complete without its snow-white, awkward, laughter-provoking bear.

And an editor who printed some of Roosevelt’s outgivings reluctantly — but printed them — explained that Roosevelt had a way of “slapping the public on the back with a ‘bright idea.’”

The heart of Roosevelt’s method was to inspire headlines. He was the first public man to realize and adapt himself to the relative ebbing of the power of the editorial compared to the news despatch and the cartoon, the first to have a technic for getting the advantage of the head-line. Probably Presidents before him had known the thing that Roosevelt meant when he said, “The White House is a bully pulpit,” but no President before him or after used the White House so frequently or effectively for pulpiteering and other forms of promotion of his policies and purposes.

More than any other President he understood that everything coming out of the White House is news, and turned that fact to his advantage. He was the earliest American public man to grasp the syllogism that on Sunday, all normal business and most other activities are suspended; that Sunday is followed by Monday; and that, therefore, the columns of the Monday papers present the minimum of competition for public attention — whence many of the public statements, epithets and maledictions with which Roosevelt conducted his fights were timed to explode in the pages of the Monday morning newspapers.

During each of Roosevelt’s several crusades he conducted a barrage of newspaper head-lines deliberately designed to stir up public sentiment for his cause and for him, and even more directly to incite public odium for his adversaries. To the head-lines and news despatches that he especially devised and timed for the direct purpose of promoting the matter he had in hand, were added the despatches that arose spontaneously from his multifarious collateral activities, the investigations he ordered, the indictments he incited, the prosecutions he pursued, the denunciations he uttered. The whole composed a veritable onslaught of anti-trust, anti-railroad, anti-boss ammunition, and created in the minds of average Americans an imperious demand for the measure Roosevelt advocated, with the result that, for example, the debate on the railroad rate bill in the Senate in 1906 was, as Senator Dolliver of Iowa put it, “only a counterpart of the larger discussion that has gone on throughout the country in city and village and township alike.”

Roosevelt “rough-riding” the world. (L. D. Bradley in the Chicago “Daily News.”

Cartoons, Roosevelt inspired as the morning sun awakens life. At any gusty word from him, cartoons filled the air like autumn leaves in a high wind. The cartoon, as a method of political combat, was not new; but until the 1890’s it had been confined to weekly periodicals, and was handicapped therefore by some remoteness from instant timeliness; the process of reproduction had involved time-consuming tooling on wooden blocks by hand-working engravers. About the time Roosevelt became an important figure in American life, there had been invented a photo-engraving process which permitted the making of a chemically etched zinc block within a few minutes after completion of the artist’s pen-drawing. Thus the daily newspapers were enabled to use cartoons freely, thus cartoonists were able to make their drawings within an hour of receipt of the current news, and thus the newspapers were able to present them to the public a few hours later.

Into this new development, Roosevelt, with his incessant activity, fitted like a Heaven-devised engine. A cartoonist, going to his office in the late afternoon, need hardly worry about finding a topic for his cartoon; Roosevelt would have been sure to have done something or said something. Some essential quality in Roosevelt’s temperament and in his characteristic actions was kin to the spirit in which cartoons had to be made, lent itself to the nervous tension that was a condition of the cartoonist’s art. Upon the inspiration of a phrase from him, cartoonists’ pencils swung to paper like a needle to the North, their crayons cavorting like kittens in an ecstasy over catnip. His teeth, grim in contest or grinning in triumph, were Heaven-made for the caricaturist’s art, and likewise his thick-lensed glasses, happily adapted to portraying glaring looks — his whole physical make-up, as well as his temperament, ideal for both the subject and the spirit of the cartoonists’ technic.

This cartoon typifies the conception great masses of the people had of Roosevelt during his Presidency. (From “The Gazette-Times”, Pittsburgh.)

Roosevelt, in a quite academic address about international relations, said: “Speak softly — but carry a big stick,” and a myriad of cartoons pictured him as a mighty fighter swinging a hundred variations of a war-club against the dragon railroads. He said “strenuous life” and a thousand pencils drew him riding at top speed in pursuit of some malefactor of great wealth. He said “the spear that knows no brother,” and in a hundred newspapers, harassed amassers of money shrank from a spear held in Roosevelt’s burly fist. He said “square deal” and cowering figures with dollar-marks upon their foreheads and labeled “trusts” listened to doom from an avenging god that had big teeth and wore glasses.

He demanded regulation of the railroads, and the newspapers blossomed with pictorial melodrama, in which the railroads played the role of villain, their sprawling lines on the map lending themselves to depiction as “the octopus”; a railroad-train adapting itself to portrayal as an angrily twisting snake or dragon with the separate cars labeled “rebates” or with the names of the other sins charged against the railroads; a railroad-train emerging from a tunnel lending itself to the suggestion of a maddened wild animal at the mouth of his den, while Roosevelt — always in the role of hero — facing the dragon, provided the kind of dramatic action the cartoonists loved to picture.

In scores of drawings by W. H. Walker, the innocent child “Common People” was rescued by Roosevelt from the villain “Trusts.” He announced a hunting trip to Colorado, and a thousand mountain-lions or grizzly bears — biologically extraordinary because they had dollar-marks upon their skins — together with vultures, coyotes, rattlesnakes and other manner of varmints, labeled “railroads” or “trusts,” fled in terror before a figure who held a pistol in one hand, a lariat in the other, and a knife in his gleaming teeth.

He started a house-cleaning in one government department or another, and the press flowered with pictures of Roosevelt as the “Old Dutch Cleanser,” his strenuous broom an adaptation of the “big stick.”

He announced his mediation between Japan and Russia, and the mace with which he conducted the peace conference was the “big stick” not too completely concealed by festooned olive-branches — suggesting that any divagation by Roosevelt into pursuit of peace was merely a temporary departure from his native, permanent, and preferred function of hitting heads.

He said “parlor socialist,” and even the left wing of his own reforms scurried beneath the base-board to escape the blinding light that glared through the thick lenses of Roosevelt strenuous in satire.

At the end of a fight he said “delighted,” and on a hundred million newspaper pages, pleased teeth purred “dee-lighted” over some conquest of a trust.

Nine times out of ten, the cartoon was Roosevelt in combat; always, almost without exception, it was Roosevelt in action. From having lived through the period and from having searched the files during the preparation of this history, I venture to say that not among the literally myriads of Roosevelt cartoons are half a dozen in which he sleeps, or even rests. Once, seeking to symbolize his retirement from the Presidency, I worked for days with an artist to devise a picture in which Roosevelt, his labors over, should enjoy repose. We gave it up. The thing could not be done, was contrary no less to art than to nature.

Cartoons always emphasized Roosevelt in action. This one is by John T. McCutcheon of the Chicago Tribune.

Even when he died, the cartoon that was universally accepted as appropriate and one that became an American classic was the one in which Jay N. Darling of the Des Moines, Iowa, Register, pictured him on horseback, waving the gallant farewell of an unconquerable spirit to those left behind as he started unafraid upon the long trail.

Roosevelt realized the power inherent in the popular magazines, and took pains to keep in touch with the editors and writers of them, young men, as a rule, as ardent as himself. By reading the periodicals diligently, and by more intimate contacts, he knew the personnels of their staffs, knew the individual traits and biases of the writers, knew even the office politics of the periodicals as adequately as he followed the internal politics of his own party committees.

If there was in a magazine office; an owner, editor, or writer unsympathetic to his policies, Roosevelt took especial pains to maintain a balancing friendliness with others of the staff, doing it all with the habitual directness and casual boldness of his spirit. If a magazine printed an article with which he disagreed, he would write a letter to the author or editor, or have a talk with him, in which he would express his dissent with the forcefulness that was customary with him, a letter in which belligerency and graciousness were so mingled as to seem to say, “You can print this if you want to and we will fight it out before the public; or you can come to see me in fair friendliness and I will give you the facts that will enable you to see the light.” *

* Not alone with American, but with European writers as well, Roosevelt carried on a correspondence designed to get a presentation of his ideas, acts, and policies that was in accord with his own view of them. Archibald R. Colquhoun, an Englishman, writing in The Fortnightly Review, May 2, 1910, remembered that “even with the Atlantic between us, he could not read one of my books without dashing off, first one, and then another letter to me, pointing out what he believed to be misconception on my part. ‘You haven’t got it quite right on page so-and-so. I wish you’d call round and see Taft.’ That sort of a reader is a treat to any author.”

The more direct acquaintance of the writer of this history with Roosevelt, began with a not wholly approving editorial allusion I had written about one of Roosevelt’s judicial appointments. It drew from Roosevelt, a letter of eleven typewritten pages, with many interlineations, in which he reviewed every one of the judicial appointments he had made in the six years of his Presidency, detailing, as to each, the considerations that had determined the selection. If a new author wrote something helpful to one of Roosevelt’s fights, or otherwise interesting to him, the writer was likely, soon, to glow at a White House luncheon, at which his experience was apt to be that described by one such author: “You go into Roosevelt’s presence, you feel his eyes upon you, you listen to him, and you go home and wring the personality out of your clothes.”

“I am the State!” Puck and some of Roosevelt’s other critics felt or pretended that they felt alarms lest he should constitute himself Theodore I, King of America. (From “Puck,” 1904.)

It would be inaccurate historically, and unfair to Roosevelt, to imply that his cultivation of magazine writers was merely a cold technic for advancing his causes. His relations with authors, while they were of advantage to him, were a spontaneous incident of the enormous range of his interest in varied kinds of human beings. Roosevelt was interested in, and therefore had the power of stimulating every sort of writer and artist, poets like Edwin Arlington Robinson and Bliss Carman, novelists like Owen Wister and Kathleen Norris, historians like James Ford Rhodes and the English Trevelyan, naturalists like John Muir and John Burroughs, artists like Saint-Gaudens and Frederic Remington.

All these — artists, writers, poets, and sculptors — were stimulated by Roosevelt to new endeavor. And not only they. Everybody in America, in every sort of career, from teachers and naturalists to cowboys and prize-fighters, seemed to derive from Roosevelt in the White House, a lift toward higher functioning. Partly the wide-spread stimulus arose from the number of representatives of diverse lines of work or art with whom Roosevelt had contact — during no Presidency did the White House visiting list contain so many names, or reflect interest in so wide a gamut of human activity. Partly the increased elation with which nearly everybody in America went to his job in the morning arose from awareness of the obvious delight that Roosevelt had in his own job. Partly the stimulus Roosevelt radiated to the average man arose from consciousness that Roosevelt was making the fight for the common man, for the preservation of individuality against the irking chains of organization, corporate power.

His favorite author. This cartoon of a farmer reading one of Roosevelt’s messages was a favorite with the latter, who had it framed and humg above the mantel of his study. (Lowry in “The Chronicle”, Chicago.)
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