President Makers

Owen Johnson

New York Sun/June 11, 1916

Owen Johnson Looks In at the Republican and Progressive National Conventions and Finds Striking Contrasts in the Habits of the Followers of Elephant and Moose at a Great Crisis


THOUSANDS of rooters, good-natured, fanatic, hysterical or impassioned, out for a holiday or aflame with the convictions of crusaders; noise, stump speeches, drunken eloquence, latest information, whispered tips, delegates inwardly dazed, tagged with imposing badges and assuming for public performance the strutting gravity of masters of destinies; hotels shrieking with periodic demonstrations, the colossal spectacle of the convention in session staging the political farce of representative assembly, avalanches of words—and at the bottom the futility of it all.

Nothing that you see has any value, nothing that you hear has any more significance than a March gale has power to move a skyscraper. For all that is visible, audible, tangible, the Republican convention of 1916 might be a national country fair. It is one of the great necessary moments when a tense, nerve-strung people blows off, throws its hat in the air and relaxes in childish capers.

Color is here, types of South and West, vivid contrasts, rail birds and excursionists. Falstaff from the village four corners, orators of the winter stoves, local humorists prepared to meet all comers, inventors of strange and terrifying noises, marching clubs, high pitched quartets, hawkers of campaign badges, groups of negro delegates, reminders of Hawaii and Puerto Rico; Hoosiers; lumberjacks, cowboys and down East Yankees; the whole national procession on a holiday. Color, humor, pathos, life—but of a serious significance, nothing.

The game is not played in the open. The crowds know this, the stump orator, the debaters caught about by the crowd know it, for their give and take is always good humored and the victory sought is a laugh. They know that all their words, their songs, their frantic shrieking is as so much empty air.

The delegates who more wisely and solemnly debate with frenzy alone are not deceived by the fury of their own eloquence. No one really cares what they whisper or proclaim. They do not count any more than the delegations of loyal and thirsty rooters in the local headquarters.

This is the thing that puzzles you. Here is the greatest manifestation of a democratic people uniting to write the history of the next four years; something is to be done, something is being done, but where and how? In the convention hall itself the same elaborate farce is being staged.

Orators who have been carefully picked make exactly the speeches that have been determined upon beforehand; safe men who will venture nothing, who will never say anything but what may be construed in exactly two opposite ways.

Occasionally for the high lights that every domestic spectacle requires, a trusted lieutenant, a very trusted one, is brought out by the same manipulating hand to make a pretence of daring excursions into aggressive generalities which have a tricked-up sound of progress and audacity. Gradually you begin to see the strings and to pass restlessly past the high sounding figureheads in search of the force which really counts until you find the answer in one man, the stage manager of this elaborate spectacle, ex-Senator Murray Crane.

It is a strange convention, this gathering of Republican clans. The Old Guard has been true to its defiance. Some had died, but the rest have not surrendered.

But the marshals of the empire, the Hannas, the Plaits and the Quays, have gone. It is an old guard in command of corporals. Everyone feels this lack of leaders, this disorganization, this confusion of minds. The delegates are uninstructed, but handcuffed, so carefully picked to avoid the dangerous excesses of enthusiasm that they are incapable of enthusiasm at all. They are not an impressive lot in some sections; they seem to have been swept together out of political free lunches, very safe men, who will not think too much.

They know the role that they have been chosen to play, only the lines are still lacking, and they wait impatient and perplexed for the cues that are being determined upon. Above, back of the speakers, Senator Murray Crane looks over the assembly with a watchful eye, directing everything, estimating each result attempted, sensing the need of new effects, whispering, always whispering, in the ear of the presiding officer, in the ear of the chairman of the committee on resolutions, darting out occasionally for a brief conference and back again to the centre of the web, a king spider alive to every trembling thread of the complex web with receptive ears to catch every rumor and lips, whose movements are never seen behind the screen of his drooping gray mustache; alert, and yet marked with thoughtful, restless furrow as though he realized the responsibility which he alone will have to bear, prophet or wrecker, as it may turn out, of the great Republican party.

Gradually the thing you’ve looked forward to with eagerness ceases to interest. All that Is enclosed by the ring-decked walls, these puppets on the speakers’ stand, these rows on rows of shining baldish heads, like stuffed figures at a county fair waiting to be knocked clown, somehow are too obvious, too well rehearsed, too obedient, you wonder how the miracle of Republican stability is to be evolved from this meaningless performance; then all at once you realize that what alone is vital is what lies outside the fear of the anger of the great multitudes, that In the final analysis will somehow force its will upon this mob of petty conventions and small ambitions.

For this is the outstanding fact of this groping, blundering convention.

It does not dare to do what it wants to do. It hates Roosevelt and it fears Hughes. It Is trying to blind itself to the fact that after the nomination there is an election. It would like to shut its eyes to the two dominating figures that haunt It, to forget them and scorn them both, to content itself with the selection of a pliable demagogue or a figurehead of its own choosing, but slowly and surely outer forces are forcing it rebelliously to acknowledge that to win it must surrender to the compelling need of both leaders.

I expected, if not real enthusiasm, at least a professional simulation of enthusiasm from a well trained chorus. Nothing has been more striking than this inability to move the delegations to any real outburst of feeling. There seem to be nothing but doubt and uncertainty in the air. The first days, the speeches of the temporary chairman and the succeeding have been like memorial services over the body of a great leader. Everything else is evasion. Nothing specific Is urged or condemned.

The delegates feel this. They feel the suspense. They realize that nothing has yet been decided. The strangest thing is the Hughes movement. It has no headquarters. None of the little corporals genuinely want him except for the purpose of their own little party fights, and yet every delegate is saying: “Are we going to be forced to vote for him In the end?” Sometimes the convention under the perfectly futile avalanche of time consuming oratory seems like a patient being etherized for a capital operation.

The only human notes have been the dramatic return of figures of the past, Chauncey M. Depew and Uncle Joe Cannon, who have aroused a certain amount of good humored enjoyment, a strange contrast to the prevailing note of the Progressive gathering, which is alive with the note of the future.

No contrast has been more striking than the fury, and acrimony, of the debate on the resolution to confer with the Republican convention, a debate which tore the convention to pieces for a whole afternoon and almost ended in a stampede for the instant nomination of Roosevelt, and the calm clockwork acceptance of this invitation by the controlled and passive delegation at the Coliseum. The announcement of the Progressive request for a conference was made, this invitation accepted and the committee appointed with a shout of genuine relief, the first emotion shown in two days’ session, but not an instant’s discussion resulted, not a speech from the floor or, for that matter, from the manipulating forces on the platform. The crisis which everyone had been waiting for, hoping for against hope, was met and dealt with in routine businesslike dispatch and was over in five minutes.

Previously another incident had shown the temper of the day. Gross of Wisconsin had succeeded Lodge to present a minority report, a curious dashing note, strangely out of place with its cold radicalism which had aroused the impatience of the convention. At the conclusion of the report Gross attempted to address the convention in support of his resolution.

Instantly objectors sprang up all over the hall. No one wanted to hear him; in fact everyone seemed indignant that he should be permitted to express opinion hostile to the evident intention of the assembly. Wiser counsels prevailed and Gross was given his opportunity, but the significance of the protest was not lost on the spectators and its contrast with democratic independence of discussion in the Auditorium.

The revolutionary, a slight .youthful figure, boyish in face, boyish in his good humor and boyish in his obstinate courage, faced his hostile audience and forced its attention. As you looked out over the rows of delegates, they seemed strangely middle-aged and cynically incomprehensive of this reckless enthusiasm of youth, impatient to be rid of the spectre of the thing which was introduced upon their settled convictions. For this is the impression the Republican convention is settling upon the minds of those who watch In wonder: a body without youth, without youth’s ideals and joy of combat. A great middle-aged complacency sitting in fatuous belief that the world lies within the walls of the Coliseum, thinking only in terms of itself, seeing neither the writing on the wall nor listening to the voices without.

Yet a curious thing—in these same self-satisfied masses which met in exaltation of party regularity there is beginning to creep a feeling of unease. Not all fail to perceive the writing on the wall. There are some who perceive the approaching rocks of reckoning ahead and are beginning to agitate against the policy of drift, and gradually this apprehension is spreading to the mass, which is becoming vaguely conscious of something intangible and threatening looming over their heads. The movement toward Hughes is not of enthusiasm; it is one of fear, of a realization of disorganization, of helplessness before the blunders of little leaders.

Meanwhile they sit and wait the outcome of the great poker game which is being played in a quiet room far removed from the shouting and the parade. For that is what it has come to. Each party is trying to size up the cards the other holds. Each party is putting on a bold front, bluffing in the good old American poker way, seeking an inkling of what the other will do on the last showdown. Do the Republicans want the Progressives to kill off the Hughes candidacy and then make possible a dark horse which will unite both factions as they must united? Are the Progressives ready to take the Justice in preference to a compromise on a weaker figure if they are convinced they can’t have T.R.? Which is really sparring for time? The Progressives to add to the confusion and indecision in Republican ranks and force final recognition, or the regulars determined on a waiting policy which will convince Roosevelt that his own nomination is impossible but that his ascendancy is necessary?

Everywhere in their ranks you hear this curious complaining note: We must have Roosevelt to elect our candidate, but not to head the ticket. As one delegate said with much frankness: “All the Republicans want is for Teddy to be unselfish, give up his own candidacy, tell us whom he wants, make the issue and for God’s sake win the election for us.”

It is a strange situation. The Progressives are determined to nominate Roosevelt and put it up to Hughes to decide whether he will lead a divided fight. The Republicans may counter by a quick nomination of the Justice in the hope that a strong statement from him may force the hands of Progressives and rally to him the latent strength he undoubtedly possesses there, but a strength which has almost been alienated by his silence.

Everyone wants Roosevelt at Chicago, the Progressives now, the Republicans at the right time, which means after the nomination of another candidate for a dramatic reentry to the Republican party for the Zion of the united enthusiasm, which they know the present blundering and tepid campaign requires. What will happen no one knows. It isn’t politics; it’s poker, and everyone in the great spectacle, actor or audience, is waiting from hour to hour, not for what transpires inside the convention, but for what is mysteriously taking place outside. It is all very exciting, very tense and compelling, but the advertised show lags.

This is true of one convention. The real drama, moving, vital and unpremeditated, is in the ferment of the Progressive gathering. The contrast is absolute and striking. It is the contrast between the two eternal conflicting forces of political types, the opportunist and the idealist. There is no discipline in this Progressive convention, but there is no lack of enthusiasm; spectators who have gone “to see the animals” remain impressed by the genuineness of its emotions. Nothing is cut and dried; every move arouses a storm of debate. Differ as you may with its principles or doubt its practical service the fact remains that here at least is a true convention of the people as democracy conceived it, a conflict of ideas, a searching for the truth after the full expression of many minds.

It has its fanatics and its thinkers, it is uncontrollable, it may be utterly futile, but there is something that stirs you here; it is perhaps the tragedy of a lost cause—the last moments of something that was conceived in the hope of a revolution of ideas—and if it must now go down in failure it is going with no surrender of pride or conviction. The great blunder of these first groping days has been the failure to estimate rightly the strength of this progressive idealism. Old Guard political leaders, accustomed to professional adherents, could not be convinced that these were of different stuff.

Undoubtedly they believed that Progressive leaders were bluffing and that their difficulties were ended when they had matched wits with them and won. But they totally failed to comprehend the difference between a convention of those who regard discipline and party obedience as paramount in orderly government and those who are aflame with the prophetic fever of treasured ideas.

Perhaps even the practical organizers of the Progressive party failed to comprehend the strength of the organization which they have seen growing up under their hands. At any rate the situation which has turned a colorless cut and dried programme into one of thrills and dramatic tensions lies exactly in the fact the Progressives have now gone beyond their leaders and taken control, resolved against all compromise.

To the political observer it may be of only momentary annoyance, but to ordinary spectators the spectacle of this enthusiasm, amounting almost to fanaticism; these ardent passionate moments of sincere debate, leaves him with but one feeling—the pity of it. The tragedy that in the material competition of the modern scheme of life such idealists are foredoomed to failure, wherever in their independence and impatient of dictation they come into competition with the disciplined type which seeks practical results.

For the Progressive convention is the one thing that cannot be reckoned on. It is the one factor that may upset all calculation. The leaders themselves confess their inability to handle the situation. For the gathering is, strangely enough in these days of carefully organized machines, a popular movement and, like all popular movements, once in motion it sends its leaders on ahead or tramples them down. Just as the German emperor created in the great German military machine a master which finally imposed its will on him, so the leaders of the Progressive party have found they have brought into existence something that is beyond their comprehension.

The Progressives believe that they alone represent a great popular idea: their leaders are their servants. They have gone further in their fanaticism. They have done what the French Revolutionists did in their passion for political truth. They have exalted their political beliefs to the sublimity of a religion. It was so four years ago, it is just as true today. No one can move among them in convention or in hotel lobby without being struck by this. They are not politicians; they are crusaders. They don’t understand expediency, compromise, the will of majority and such practical phrases. They are not tortured with the idea of winning this election of the next. They believe in a great idea as exemplified by a great leader, and they are ready to survive or perish in this faith. All the rest in these convention days is commonplace, obvious, routine and modern. It is this spectacle of enthusiastic and fanatic men caught unawares in the press of immediate political expediency that is the thing.

(Source: Library of Congress, Chronicling America,

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