The Odd Couple: Uncle Mark and Teddy

By Charles W. Bailey

Marcus Alonzo Hanna is typically depicted as a crude political boss who purchased the election of William McKinley as president. He is remembered, if at all, in terms of cartoons that caricatured him as "Dollar Mark," an ugly and obese thug who manipulated a puppet McKinley while purchasing lesser politicians outright and grinding helpless workers under his heel. That image, created and cultivated by political opponents and hostile newspapers, is inaccurate and unfair. Mark Hanna was indeed the United States' first national political campaign manager, the first to organize and run a campaign as you would a successful business--by developing a rational and detailed plan, financing it on a systematic basis and managing it competently. If you did that, you would win, in politics as in business. That is how Hanna won in 1896 with McKinley. Every successful national campaign since has copied Hanna's methods; the saturation television techniques of today are the equivalent of the 19th century flood of leaflets, posters, pamphlets and surrogate stump speakers.

But Hanna was much more than McKinley's campaign manager: He played a leading role in the political transition from the 19th to the 20th century. As a presidential intimate, chairman of the Republican National Committee, and a U.S. senator, Hanna exercised great power for a decade. Historians have generally focused on the Hanna-McKinley alliance. But Hanna's relationship with Theodore Roosevelt was equally significant for the future of American politics and government.

Hanna bespoke the older values--just as the younger man, Roosevelt, exemplified the new ones. These two strong figures came together at the hinge of history, part of both the past and the future. For a few years at the start of the new century they shared political power in an uneasy alliance; then, inevitably, age gave way to youth, the old order gave way to the new, and Hanna was shoved aside.

They made an odd couple. They had traveled very different roads: Hanna's roots were in rural Ohio, Roosevelt's in New York City. Hanna was the son of a grocer, Roosevelt the privileged child of a patrician family. Hanna had a high-school education; Roosevelt graduated from Harvard. Hanna rarely read a book; Roosevelt not only read them by the armful but wrote them, too. Hanna was a highly successful businessman who turned to politics after he made a fortune; Roosevelt was a dilettante intellectual who seemed to have entered politics because he could think of nothing he would rather do.

They differed in their concept of government-business relations. To Hanna, the public interest was almost always identical with the interests of business; to Roosevelt, the public interest was distinct from, and often contrary to, business interests. Hanna saw government's role as establishing a pro-business climate. Roosevelt was the first president to use the power of government to control the excesses of business.

Physically they were equally ill-matched. Hanna, 62 in 1900, was an old man. His body had thickened, his face was gray with fatigue and lined by the pain of arthritis that forced him to lean on a cane when he stood. By contrast, Roosevelt, 21 years younger, was the picture of vigor, barrel chest straining against his vest, pince-nez eyeglasses sparkling and teeth snapping below a bushy moustache as the words poured out.

Yet they shared many traits. Each struggled against old-style politicians and old-style political machines; both had trouble controlling their home territories despite their national reputations. Both were conservative, politically and personally; both enjoyed holding and using power. Both liked newspaper reporters and knew how to manipulate them. Both despised men who thought it virtue enough merely to be rich. Both loved company and were blunt and outspoken, but neither could abide off-color jokes. Each had trouble controlling his temper and, in the end, each revealed a regard for the other that went far beyond mere respect.

As a young man, Mark Hanna was good-looking if not quite handsome. He had a ruddy complexion, curly auburn hair and beard, an athletic body, a ready smile and luminous dark-brown eyes. His voice was a commanding baritone. As he grew older, he gradually trimmed back the beard until nothing remained but sideburns.

From his middle years he was beset by ill health. He had frequent bouts with the "grippe," malaria, and typhoid fever, to say nothing of hives, varicose veins, occasional blackouts and crippling arthritis in his knees. Hanna lived his last fifteen years in almost constant pain. But he pushed himself ever harder, seeking and finding new fields to master, his brown eyes still bright and probing, his voice still strong and commanding.

Hanna was driven to succeed, determined to be "head and front" of anything he undertook. He was blunt and outspoken; direct, not devious. He had two grand passions--business and politics--and excelled in both. He married the girl he loved despite the stubborn opposition of her rich and powerful father; then he took over the father's business and built it into one of the notable fortunes of those booming times. He left an estate of almost $7 million--comparable with some $110 million today.

Hanna was nourished by people. He learned not from solitary reading or reflection but from the give-and-take of conversation. His wife never knew how many there would be for dinner. Often on the spur of the moment he invited prominent visitors to Cleveland, whether he knew them or not, to dine at his lakeside mansion.

Hanna was full of contradictions. He was a pragmatist, but also a man of strong emotions and fierce loyalties. He almost never praised subordinates and rarely revealed his feelings--but wrote extravagantly long and amorous letters to his fiancee. He could be a relentless opponent in business or politics--but he never went back on a contract, a promise, or a friend. The only men he never forgave were those who lied to him. Though he lived among large events and leading figures, he remained a man of simple tastes: His favorite foods were corned beef hash and cottage cheese. He lived among leaders, men of power and wealth, but he seemed most at ease with workingmen.

Hanna seemed an archetype of the old system: fiercely individual and an entrepreneur who applied brains, hard work and toughness to his many and varied business ventures. But he was also one of the first big businessmen to understand that there must be more fairness in society. He believed that what was good for business was good for the entire country, but he also believed that workers were not getting their fair share of the profits from their labor.

Initially Hanna and Roosevelt had been political allies. They met at the Republican national convention of 1884 as part of a failed effort to prevent the nomination of James G. Blaine. They had little contact thereafter until the McKinley administration.

Once he had put McKinley into the White House, Hanna sought a new career as a political figure in his own right. McKinley wanted him in his cabinet, but Hanna chose to become senator from Ohio. He soon was one of the half-dozen Republicans who dominated the Senate. From the start he was the administration's chief spokesman there and remained McKinley's intimate adviser, but he also gradually acquired more independent power.

Meanwhile Roosevelt, after service on various public commissions, had sought and obtained a place in the McKinley administration as assistant secretary of the navy. He became an ardent advocate of war against Spain--a stance that put him in deep disagreement with Hanna, who strongly opposed the war.

That disagreement led to a public confrontation in March 1898 when both were speakers at a Gridiron Club dinner. Hanna spoke first and made his case against war. Then Roosevelt's turn came. "We will have this war for the freedom of Cuba, Senator Hanna," he shouted, "in spite of the timidity of the commercial interests." Roosevelt got his wish less than a month later. He quit his navy job to organize (with Leonard Wood) and lead his Rough Riders volunteer cavalry regiment in Cuba--and became virtually overnight a national hero.

From then, the careers of Roosevelt and Hanna were inescapably intertwined. Both were mentioned as possible successors to McKinley in 1904. Roosevelt came home from San Juan Hill and was soon elected governor of New York. He began to dream of the White House--and how to get there. One route ran through the office of the vice president, and that path was opened by the death in late 1899 of incumbent Garrett Hobart. In the months before the 1900 Republican convention Roosevelt carefully avoided saying that he wouldn't accept the vice-presidential nomination if it were offered. He did say that he wanted to remain as governor to push his reform programs through a reluctant legislature. But he never said "no," and he turned up a couple of times in Washington and was entertained at dinner by President McKinley (with Hanna among the guests).

In short, he was behaving like a candidate, and Hanna concluded that Roosevelt wanted the job as a steppingstone to the presidency in 1904. That prospect did not please Hanna, who thought Roosevelt was eccentric, politically unreliable and dangerously unsound in his attitude toward business and finance. In Hanna's view, Roosevelt was unfit for the presidency and must be denied any position that would put him in line to get it. At first Hanna was confident that he could stop Roosevelt. But McKinley remained neutral--perhaps his acute political antennae were telling him "Teddy" was the overwhelming favorite--and he forbade Hanna to throw the administration's full weight into the matter. Hanna obeyed with extreme reluctance. "Everybody's gone crazy!" he growled at one point, ignoring the fact that a reporter was in the room. "Here's this convention going headlong for Roosevelt for vice president! Don't any of you realize there'll be only one life between that madman and the presidency?"

There was growing support for "that madman" among delegates in the hot, sticky, noisy hotels of Philadelphia in June 1900. His much-publicized exploits at San Juan Hill and his colorful personality had made him something of a folk hero, particularly in the West. Meanwhile, big business interests in New York were anxious to get the reform-minded Roosevelt out of the governor's office.

Hanna believed he could stop Roosevelt but he faced two major obstacles: He was unable to come up with another satisfactory candidate--and he had been forbidden to deploy the administration's battalions against Roosevelt. So, characteristically, he took the direct approach and limped off to see Roosevelt in the latter's hotel room. They met alone for 40 minutes. Afterward, Hanna told Senator Charles W. Fairbanks of Indiana that Roosevelt had said he was not a candidate for vice president. The conversation continued, according to the account Fairbanks wrote in his diary that night:

"Then you are not a candidate?" inquired Senator Hanna.
"No," said Governor Roosevelt, "I am not."
"Then you will not be a candidate, will you?"
"No, I will not. But Senator, if they nominate me notwithstanding, what shall I do? How could I help it?"
"By God, Teddy, you know," said Senator Hanna, "that there is nothing in this country which can compel a man to run for an office who doesn't want it. . . . Teddy, if you are nominated, will you rise in your place and flatly decline?"
"I will, Senator," he replied. They then shook hands cordially and Senator Hanna withdrew.

Hanna believed he had a commitment from Roosevelt, but in a statement that afternoon, the New Yorker again avoided a flat refusal to run. He said he thought his "best usefulness" would be to serve a second term as governor--but he called the vice presidency "well worthy of the ambition of any man." That was taken to mean he would accept the vice-presidential nomination.

Hanna still insisted to reporters that he had "a perfect understanding" with Roosevelt. But he added--perhaps sensing the way things were going--"If the convention insists on nominating Mr. Roosevelt, I shall not oppose it."

Privately Hanna was still trying to stop Roosevelt. But his political enemies delivered a decisive blow, offering an amendment to the convention rules on delegate apportionment that would cut the number from the southern states that was Hanna's power base in the party.

Hanna could count; he knew he would lose a vote on the resolution so he called in the reporters and, with a perfectly straight face, read a statement he had scrawled in pencil on hotel stationery.

The Administration has had no candidate for Vice President...It has desired that the Convention should make the candidate and that has been my position throughout. It has been a free field for all...I may now say that on behalf of all of these candidates, and I except no one, I have within the last twelve hours been asked to give my advice. After consulting with as many delegates as possible in the time at my disposal, I have concluded to accept the responsibility involved in this request. In the present situation, with the strong and earnest sentiment of the delegates from all parts of the country for Governor Roosevelt, and since President McKinley is to be nominated without a dissenting voice, it is my judgment that Governor Roosevelt should be nominated for Vice President with the same unanimity.
This face-saving piece of fiction signaled Hanna's surrender. Roosevelt was swept onto the ticket, and the convention adjourned in an outburst of cheering celebration. Hanna, embarrassed by friend and foe alike, went home to Cleveland, where he found waiting for him a handwritten note from McKinley, praising him for displaying "the courage and sagacity of true leadership" at the convention. Hanna in reply thanked McKinley for the "nice things you say about me," adding that "my principal food is �taffy' nowadays which accounts for my good health." He continued: "Well it was a nice little scrap at Philadelphia; not exactly to my liking with my hands tied behind me. However, we got through in good shape and the ticket is all right."

But if the ticket was "all right," the same could hardly be said for Hanna, who could only regard this embarrassing personal defeat as a harbinger of more trouble to come. Such a foreboding may have inspired the sentence with which Hanna ended his letter to McKinley. He underlined the key words for emphasis:

"Your duty to the country is to live for four years from next March."

Hanna might have been elected President himself in 1904 except for a capricious fate. In 1900, he was being increasingly discussed by Republican regulars as the logical successor to McKinley. He pooh-poohed the idea--but he kept a file in his office labeled "1904" in which the growing number of letters urging him to run were saved.

Then on September 6, 1901 an assassin's bullet rescued Roosevelt from the frustrating obscurity of the vice presidency. From that moment, Hanna knew that he would almost certainly never be president. But even after McKinley's death Hanna retained great political influence. He played a key part in smoothing the traumatic transition from one president to the next, but his on-again-off-again relationship with Roosevelt eventually led to an intense struggle between them. Hanna's relations with the new president began auspiciously, with Hanna and Roosevelt meeting within minutes of Roosevelt's taking the oath of office in Buffalo. "Mr. President, I wish you success and a prosperous administration," the grieving Hanna said. "I trust that you will command me if I can be of any service." They met again that same evening and two days later had a long private talk on the funeral train carrying McKinley's body back to Washington. The new president at once proclaimed Hanna his trusted advisor on political matters; but in fact he began immediately to undercut him, particularly in the critical area of patronage. Roosevelt feared that Hanna would contest the nomination in 1904, and there was more than paranoia behind his concern: Republican conservatives and Wall Street financiers--most of whom despised and feared Roosevelt--kept importuning the senator to run. Hanna, aging and in poor health, kept saying ��no'', but neither would he endorse Roosevelt; and the president came to consider him his political enemy. This struggle continued unabated almost to the moment of Hanna's death.

However, through all of it the two men managed to cooperate in a number of large matters. Hanna was a key supporter of the Panama Canal, one of Roosevelt's top priorities. Hanna also played a large role in obtaining passage in 1902 of the Newlands Act, which established the great federal reclamation program in the western states and was a key part of Roosevelt's conservation program.

Hanna had long argued that businessmen must recognize labor unions and he practiced what he preached. He was decades ahead of his contemporaries, whose backwardness and arrogance toward their workers he scorned. In his later years, he regarded the improvement of labor-management relations as his most important work.

Cooperation between Hanna and Roosevelt peaked in their efforts in 1902 to settle the greatest industrial dispute of the period--a five-month strike by anthracite coal miners that seemed certain to leave the nation with almost no coal as winter approached. Two years earlier Hanna had intervened with J. P. Morgan to settle a coal strike. Roosevelt asked him to try again. But in 1902 McKinley was dead, Hanna's influence was diminished, and the companies not only rejected his attempts at mediation but refused even to meet with the miners' union. Roosevelt, enraged by the owners' obduracy and their contemptuous behavior toward him at a White House meeting, forced a settlement by threatening to seize the mines and operate them with federal troops. When it was over Roosevelt lavished praise on Hanna, but the struggle demonstrated his diminished standing while enhancing Roosevelt's stature and greatly expanding the power of the presidency.

Throughout their relationship fundamental differences continued. Hanna had no use for Roosevelt's trustbusting and was outraged when, in February 1902, the president brought an antitrust suit against the Northern Securities company, the huge railroad holding company of Hanna's old friend James J. Hill. Indeed, it seems clear that Hanna's reluctance to endorse Roosevelt for 1904 stemmed in large measure from his hope that withholding his support would curb Roosevelt's anti-business impulses at least until after the next election.

In 1903 relations between Hanna and Roosevelt took a final adversarial turn. By spring Roosevelt was obsessed with the idea that Hanna was trying to deny him the 1904 presidential nomination. Nothing could convince Roosevelt that the senator meant it when he said he was too old and sick to be a candidate. Mischief-makers in both camps carried gossipy reports across Lafayette Square between the White House and Hanna's apartment in the Arlington Hotel. Finally, in a speech in Spokane on May 22, Roosevelt made his first public attack on Hanna, linking him with "the Wall Street crowd."

Two days later Roosevelt went after Hanna in his own back yard--at the Ohio Republican convention. Joining forces with Hanna's home state enemies, Roosevelt trapped Hanna into a position where he was forced to endorse Roosevelt's nomination. It was a humiliating defeat for Hanna. But the two men remained personally friendly. The senator picked himself up, dusted himself off and less than a fortnight later welcomed the president as the guest of honor at the lavish wedding of his daughter Ruth. Hanna, every inch the genial father of the bride, lavished attention on the president, who in turn made clear his affection for the senator.

Despite sickness that disabled him for several weeks, Hanna campaigned hard for his own re-election and won in a landslide. Then, late in the year, Hanna's health collapsed. His final illness began in mid-January 1904; and though he insisted on attending the Gridiron Club's dinner on January 29, he was clearly sicker than ever before. His illness was diagnosed as typhoid fever. On February 5 Roosevelt walked across Lafayette Square from the White House to inquire after Hanna's health. Hanna, later informed of the visit, scrawled a penciled note to the president.

My dear Mr. President:
You touched a tender spot, old man, when you called personally to inquire after [me] this a.m. I may be worse before I can be better but all the same such "drops of kindness" are good for a fellow.

Sincerely yours,
M. A. Hanna

The next day Roosevelt replied:

Feb. 6, 1904
Dear Senator:
Indeed it is your letter from your sick bed which is touching, not my visit. May you soon be with us again, old fellow, as strong in body and as vigorous in your leadership as ever.

Faithfully yours,
Theodore Roosevelt

Hanna never saw the reply. He grew weaker and died nine days later.

CHARLES W. BAILEY ('93) began his journalism career as a reporter on the Minneapolis Tribune in 1950. He served as Washington correspondent and from 1972 to 1982 as Editor of the Tribune. He was a director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and chaired its Freedom of Information Committee. In his second career as a writer he has several books to his credit, including Seven Days In May (with Fletcher Knebel) and The Land Was Ours, a historical novel of the Great Plains.


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