Jeff Berger —
I recently finished a biography called Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker by historian Stacy A. Cordery (Penguin Books, 2008). My interest in the book was inspired my brother Ron’s Wise Guy article on “The Populist and Progressive Traditions in American Politics” (Jan. 7, 2016), and it made me ponder the question of who would Alice have voted for in the current 2016 presidential election.
The Alice who I speak of was the first daughter of Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt. Since Alice was an iconoclast and political junkie, perhaps some of us can relate to her in one way or another, except that unlike us she lived politics as an insider in Washington, DC.
Alice was married to Republican Congressman Nick Longworth, who served as Speaker of the House from 1925 to 1933, for 27 years. She also had an extramarital relationship with Republican Senator Bill Borah, who was considered the best orator of his day, and had a child with him.
Alice attended both Republican and Democratic Party political conventions, and her house was the center of social activity, especially for Republicans. Thus, Alice’s influence on the Republican Party during her lifetime cannot be overestimated.
Alice lived 96 years, dying only 36 years ago, and there is much about her life from which we can infer about what she would have thought of the current slate of presidential candidates. At the same time, there are plenty of examples of her own contradictions or hypocrisy, which were sometimes affected by her ambitions for her family, which would make Alice’s preferences unpredictable.
The reasons why Teddy Roosevelt and Alice both turned against William Taft in 1912 when Teddy was the candidate of the Bull Moose Party had as much to do with Teddy’s own ambition as it was their policy differences (see Ron’s Wise Guys article). Even though Taft was more conservative than Teddy, Nellie Taft was always more progressive. Nellie also had a progressive influence on her husband, but her tragic stroke in 1909 limited her influence thereafter.
Nellie never liked the mischievous young Alice or the ambitious Teddy, but not for reasons of policy. If Nellie and Alice had been able to ignore their respective familial ambitions, they would have appreciated each others’ insatiable thirst for knowledge—both were avid readers on a wide range of subjects. The anti-intellectualism that has beset the contemporary Republican Party did not exist in the early 20th century. Likewise, no politician of her day would have ever tried to get elected by cloaking himself under the cloak of Christianity, something that Alice would have found off-putting because she was much too irreverent and a believer in science to be religious. She was especially interested in the fields of astronomy and biology.
One of the trademarks of her father’s philosophy that Alice and the Republican Party inherited was Teddy’s militarism. Anytime a politician would suggest a “world court” or a “league of nations,” the Roosevelts objected on the grounds that it would infringe on the United States’ right to act unencumbered by “entangling alliances” or by international opinions. In other words, they wanted to reserve America’s right to be an international bully in order to get its own way. This became the platform of the Republican Party during the 1920s, when Alice helped convince the Party to support a strong U.S. Navy.
Although Alice continued Teddy’s progressive friendliness towards Labor, she did not support policies such as a minimum wage, and she was angry about her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s spending policies during the New Deal. In contrast to FDR, Alice never traveled around to see firsthand how real Americans lived during the Great Depression. Her insensitivity to and lack of understanding of how poor or average Americans lived was never her concern. It was also ironic that while Alice was attacking her cousin in the White House, her favorite Republican presidential candidate was William and Nellie Taft’s son Robert. It is also ironic that Nellie voted for FDR.
During the late 1930s, Alice became a newspaper columnist. With her malevolent wit, Alice’s style has much in common with Ann Coulter today. Alice had kept a pillow beside her bed that was embroidered with the words, “If you have nothing good to say about anyone, come sit by me.” (I wonder if Ann Coulter inherited that pillow.) Alice was fond of mimicking her cousin Eleanor and made fun of Eleanor as a “do-gooder” or “mollycoddle.” Alice could never forgive Eleanor for falsely tainting her brother Ted, who served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the Harding administration, for his alleged involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal in 1924. As Eleanor also published a column, the two cousins represented opposing views in the newspapers.
Alice was well aware that Eleanor had friends who were lesbians, but she was never critical of this. More generally, she was not judgmental about social nonconformity. Alcoholism bothered her because she saw its destructive effects, but she enjoyed gambling at poker and was pretty good at it (poker was another thing she and Nellie had in common). Of course, there was also Alice’s own marital infidelity.
Although Alice liked her father’s militarism, she and her fellow Republicans were actually non-interventionists during the 1930s, until bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Alice had become a charter member of the America First Committee, which had Charles Lindbergh among its members. She was no anti-Semite, nor pro-German, as was Lindbergh, but she was not fond enough of the British to want to help them survive when London was being bombed. Of course, it was FDR who advocated defending America’s friends in Europe, and it is ironic that today’s Republicans pretend to have taken over the role that FDR’s Democrats began.
Alice was also fond of the poet Ezra Pound, who was a Fascist sympathizer whom she visited in jail when he was imprisoned for treason after the war. I know Alice liked his poems, and they shared a dislike of FDR, but I find it disturbing. I have to forgive her, however, given that I like Richard Wagner operas even though he was an inspiration to the Nazis.
Everything changed for Alice when the Cold War began and she became a fervent anti-Communist. Curiously I never read about any complaints from Alice about the United States’ membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, although she did express a distaste for the United Nations. With her cousins no longer in the White House, she was able to follow a more consistent philosophy that crossed party lines. Thus she became friendly with both Richard Nixon and John Kennedy, who were both staunchly anti-communist.
Alice did support Dwight Eisenhower, who marginalized Nixon, his own vice president, but she was not particularly drawn to Dwight because he didn’t possess the kind of intellectualism that was attractive to her. When Nixon and Kennedy faced each other in the 1960 presidential election, Alice voted for Nixon even though she liked Kennedy too, and she was not disappointed when he won.
Both the Roosevelt and Kennedy families had much in common, as they were both wealthy Northeastern elites. Alice also loved the intelligence of Kennedy’s “Best and the Brightest” policy advisers, who were the intellectual elites of the nation.
Alice also liked Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president, whom she voted for in the 1964 presidential election. Indeed, there was much for Alice to like about LBJ. Besides being anti-Communist, LBJ was a “Wild West” Texan with an aggressive and militaristic personality that was reminiscent of her father. LBJ could also be as irreverent as Alice, though this irreverence included a bit of anti-intellectual resentment toward Kennedy that Alice managed to overlook. Alice also shared Lady Bird Johnson’s pro-environmentalism, which Alice inherited from her father.
When Nixon was elected in 1968, Alice easily resumed her friendly alliance with him. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, she initially dismissed the accusations, but when Nixon was finally forced to resign in the face of overwhelming incriminating evidence, she was not particularly sorry to see him go. At 90 years of age, that was pretty much the end of Alice’s political life.
In conclusion, what can we surmise about whom Alice would have voted for in this year’s presidential context? Among the Republican candidates, we can safely assume she would have not liked any candidate who denied the science of climate change, because she was well versed in science and would have recognized global warming as a very real threat to the environment. It’s also safe to assume that she would not have voted for a candidate, like Ted Cruz or Ben Carson, who cloaked himself in the mantle of Christianity. Neither would she have liked Marco Rubio, whom she would have considered too young and inexperienced.
I suppose a case could be made for Jeb Bush, but I think she would have been drawn more to Chris Christie or Donald Trump, because they are both tough and aggressive (even bullying) personalities from the Northeast. Alice would have especially liked Trump’s irreverence.
On the Democratic side, we can rule out Bernie Sanders, because Alice would have never supported a self-proclaimed socialist. But I truly believe that among all the candidates from either party, she would have supported Hillary Clinton. In many ways, Clinton is the candidate who is most like Alice’s father, with just the right mixture of progressivism and militarism. And being a woman would be a plus too.