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The American Political Invention That 'Let The People Rule'


We've all been living with a rowdy and raucous bunch of Republican candidates this fall, and we're headed into an election year which promises much more of the same. But brothers and sisters, this may not be the roughest or even the loudest Republican campaign in recent history.

Geoffrey Cowan of the University of Southern California has written a new book about another campaign - 1912. The book is called "Let The People Rule." It's about a political campaign that featured two presidents and a renegade third-party led by former President Teddy Roosevelt. The story of this book is that the 1912 campaign launched political primaries. They've dominated so many elections now it's hard to recall that at the beginning of the 20th century, the selection of presidential nominees was still in the hands of elected political leaders and those people we once called bosses.

Geoff Cowan, welcome to our program.

GEOFFREY COWAN: Thank you, Linda. It's good to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: Now, in your book, you say that without the primaries, the United States would never have elected Presidents Kennedy, Reagan or Obama. Could you explain that?

COWAN: Well, I think that they just had to prove that they could win a popular vote. So, in Kennedy's case, he was a Catholic. And people thought after the Al Smith election and so forth that a Catholic couldn't win in the United States. But when he was able to win in West Virginia, he proved that a Catholic could win, even in a heavily Protestant state.

Reagan, people claimed, was too old to run for president and to be elected. But he proved himself such a vigorous campaigner in the primary system that he overcame those beliefs.

And of course, in the case of Barack Obama, had he not won primaries - and particularly the heavily important caucus in Iowa - if the public hadn't shown that they were prepared to vote for a black president, we wouldn't have one today.

WERTHEIMER: Geoff Cowan, you paint a picture of a campaign which makes our current Republican tussle look kind of tame. Former President Roosevelt challenged the sitting president, William Howard Taft. Both were men of considerable political passion. You describe scenes where they yelled and screamed. They passed out. This was really rough and ready politics.

COWAN: It was. I mean, it was amazing. To picture Roosevelt as a man at this time in his life - he felt he was old. He was 53 years old, feeling lonely and irrelevant. And all of a sudden, he takes on this campaign, and it becomes a crusade for popular government. And he ultimately goes on fire in the campaign, but he discovers he's up against all the old machine tactics that he used to use himself, and he has to let the public get involved. And he energizes the public through the most extreme kind of rhetoric, which truly brings him into the streets and onto his side.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Teddy Roosevelt is one of your heroes, right?

COWAN: He is.

WERTHEIMER: Do you still feel that way after researching the campaign of 1912? I mean, he pushed the primaries as a way to make the voice of the people heard, but, like most of his contemporaries in politics, he could not imagine that those voices should come from black people.

COWAN: Well, it's true. I mean, I think Roosevelt proves himself to be the ultimate political force in this book. He really wasn't for primaries until he realized it was the only way in which he could challenge a sitting president then it becomes his crusade, is to create the primaries and to call for the people to rule.

When he ultimately does not get the Republican Party nomination and decides to start his new Bull Moose Party, he does, for the first time, let black delegates be part of the party from elsewhere in the country. But he specifically prohibits any black participation from the Deep South, something which just infuriates people who'd been his supporters and who'd believed in him and resides that he is just shockingly abandoned the right of the people to rule. It's a pretty horrible story in that respect.

WERTHEIMER: Do we pick better people because we have all of these primaries around the country, where we vote for almost a year?

COWAN: You know, the primary process itself is very confusing. But in the end, I guess I believe what Winston Churchill said, which is that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. And that phrase of his, which I always have previously thought to be kind of acute, more recently I've thought of it in this way, to say well, you know what, he's also saying it's the worst form of government - except for all of the others. And so there are a lot of bad things. And in this campaign, if there's somebody you don't think should be nominated, if you think there's a coarseness to the campaign that's horrible, if you think it's creating voices around the world that seem to speak for America and damages in the world, you may say it's pretty horrible. On the other hand - what's the reverse?

The reverse is a system in which you basically let people who were leaders in one way or another - people sometimes decried as party bosses, people who are part of special interests make the decision. And I think that's a worse system than the one we have.

WERTHEIMER: Geoff Cowan, his book is called "Let The People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt And The Birth Of The Presidential Primary." Thank you very much.

COWAN: Thank you, Linda, pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.