Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt stands in the minds of many as an American hero, a beloved president, a fearless soldier, a masculine hunter and a storied adventurer. Many know of his break with the Republican Party and subsequent creation of the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party in the 1912 presidential race. But few know the sordid conclusion of the campaign told in Geoffrey Cowan’s powerful new book, “Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary,” which paints a colorful and complex, yet ultimately ignominious portrait of the Rough Rider.
The book, published by W.W. Norton on Monday, details Roosevelt’s larger-than-life campaign in which he championed the people’s right to rule through primary voting, as opposed to party bosses selecting candidates. The book also, however, reveals the shocking events surrounding Roosevelt’s decision to prohibit participation by black delegates from the Deep South in the Progressive Party’s national convention. These delegates were not average citizens, but well-respected lawyers, business leaders, physicians and poets.
“The birth of the presidential primary in 1912 is a fascinating and in some ways surprising story, a great yarn that also sheds light on issues that we continue to face today,” said Cowan, a professor at USC who previously served as dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is the author of “See No Evil: The Backstage Battle over Sex and Violence on Television” and “The People v. Clarence Darrow: The Bribery Trial of America’s Greatest Lawyer.” He also co-authored with Leroy Aarons the two-act play “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” which toured once in the US and twice in China. He has served as president of the Annenberg Trust at Sunnylands since 2010 and director of the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP) since its creation in 2007.
Cowan spent 10 years researching “Let the People Rule,” pouring through material from dozens of previously unknown and unused manuscript collections, contemporary news accounts and a wide range of books, diaries, letters and memoirs. Cowan’s book describes the dramatic story of Roosevelt’s four month campaign in 1912 to seize the Republican Party nomination from William Howard Taft, his former friend and handpicked successor. To have any chance of beating Taft, he had to create direct presidential primaries — as opposed to political party bosses selecting candidates through caucuses and conventions — and capture the public imagination for his crusade for popular democracy. Roosevelt branded his campaign with the slogan, “Let the people rule!” Though it became clear he did so for political reasons when he refused to let Southern black delegates participate in his newly created party.
While he failed to get the nomination — and both he and Taft lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson — Roosevelt’s campaign forever changed the way America selects presidential nominees, something Cowan knows a thing or two about. As a student at Yale Law School in 1968, at the spritely age of 26, Cowan founded the Commission on the Democratic Selection of Democratic Nominees to increase public participation in the presidential selection process while working for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. The commission was chaired by Iowa Governor and later Senator Harold Hughes and studied how presidential delegates were chosen. The commission’s report was delivered at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
“Cowan’s research [and the commission’s report]…showed that 600 delegates, nearly half the number needed to nominate a president, weren’t picked by voters at all, but by party bosses,” wrote Diane Krieger in a USC News article. “Cowan’s efforts led to a pamphlet, which led to a floor vote that resulted in sweeping reforms.”
Indeed, four years later at the Democratic National Convention on July 10, 1972, ABC News anchor Howard K. Smith began his “Evening News” commentary by saying, “The Democratic Convention meets tonight in the long shadow of Geoffrey Cowan. You don’t know Geoffrey Cowan? Well, I’ll tell you who Geoffrey Cowan is. He was, four summers ago, a Yale student to whom the novel question occurred — how are all the delegates to the coming Chicago Convention chosen? Over the hall tonight hang huge pictures of men who made the Democratic Party what it is. One is missing — young Geoffrey Cowan. He did more to change conventions than anybody since Andrew Jackson first started them.”
In “Let the People Rule,” Cowan explains his motivation to challenge the presidential selecting status quo: “In 1968 both Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy challenged Lyndon Johnson in a series of primaries and caucuses, taking on a sitting president much as [Theodore Roosevelt] had done in 1912. Like [Roosevelt], they won almost every primary. On March 31, 1968, LBJ withdrew from the race, ultimately giving his support to Hubert Humphrey, his vice president. Throughout that spring, McCarthy and Kennedy captured the public imagination. Yet because of the power of incumbency, Humphrey, who had not won a single primary, seemed certain to capture the nomination, particularly after Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, 1968. In order to prevent that from ever happening again, I helped to create a commission that led the 1968 Democratic Convention to change the party’s delegate selection rules for the future. My inspiration in 1968 was [Roosevelt] and the role that he had played in opening up the political process some 56 years earlier. Though we could not predict it at the time, political scientists now see the reforms of 1968, along with those of 1912, as pivotal moments in the development of the presidential nominating process.”
These days, primary selection rules are so convoluted, ever-changing and inconsistent that Hillary Clinton reportedly lost the 2008 Democratic nomination to Barack Obama because the Clinton campaign was not aware of certain primary rules in some of the more important states. During some election cycles, certain states are winner-take-all; in others, those same states are proportional. Very few people know, understand and keep up-to-date with all the latest rules from both political parties in all states in every election. CCLP, under Cowan’s direction, has created a crowd-sourced Google Spreadsheet that details and tracks the delegate selection rules for the 2016 primaries and caucuses by state, party, type, voter participation, election dates and more. Titled the “Project on Presidential Primaries: Roadmap to Nomination,” it is available at communicationleadership.usc.edu/news/the-project-on-presidential-primaries.
Today, with another larger-than-life Republican presidential candidate threatening to run as an independent if he doesn’t get the nomination, it is clear that the lessons of the 1912 campaign are still very relevant.
“Whatever shortcomings they may have brought with them, however, the presidential primaries that [Roosevelt] did so much to create and popularize in 1912 have, indeed, given the people the right to rule,” Cowan wrote in his book. “And they almost certainly deserve some of the credit for enabling the candidacies of our first Catholic president, the first man to take office on the eve of his seventieth birthday and the first African-American President of the United States.”
A Geoffrey Cowan will be speaking about his book at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, at Zócalo Public Square at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. On May 25 he will speak at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. For more details on his multi-city book tour, visit geoffreycowan.com.
Justin Chapman, a frequent contributor to the Pasadena Weekly, is a Project Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy. He is also the author of the travel memoir “Saturnalia: Traveling from Cape Town to Kampala in Search of an African Utopia.”