The Nastiest Things Mark Twain Said About Teddy Roosevelt

Yesterday, Los Angeles Review of Books published a piece I’ve been working on intermittently since the Amazon-Whole Foods merger was announced in mid-June. Please check it out.

One of the implicit theses of the essay is that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is to President Trump what Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller was to President Roosevelt. Vice President Pence endorsed at least one half of the analogy, as he explicitly compared his running mate to Roosevelt a couple weeks ago.

While Pence characterizes both presidents as “builders of boundless optimism,” seeking to “usher in a new era of shared prosperity all across this new world,” Twain doubted the sincerity of Roosevelt’s populism and was intensely critical of his imperialist agenda. Arguing on behalf of the Standard Oil Trust was one of several ways Twain publicly opposed the Roosevelt administration.

By defending Rockefeller, Twain broke from his general allegiance with the Republican Party. He also put himself at odds with numerous close friends, including his Hartford neighbor and Gilded Age co-author, Charles Dudley Warner; his longtime confidante, Joe Twichell; and his progressive protege, Brander Matthews. In private writings, he was often even more vituperate regarding Roosevelt than in his published works. Here is a selection of some of his more strongly-worded criticisms:

“Roosevelt is far and away the worst president we have ever had.” (April 3, 1906)

“[Roosevelt] is naively indifferent to the restraints of duty and even unaware of them; ready to kick the Constitution into the back yard whenever it gets in the way; and whenever he smells a vote, not only is he willing but eager to buy it, give extravagant rates for it and pay the bill not out of his own pocket or the party’s, but out of the nations, by cold pillage.” (February 16, 1905)

“The list of unpresidential things, things hitherto deemed impossible, wholly impossible, measurelessly impossible for a president of the United States to do—is much too long for invoicing here.” (May 29, 1907)

“Mr. Roosevelt is the most formidable disaster that has befallen the country since the Civil War – but the vast mass of the nation loves him, is frantically fond of him, even idolizes him. This is the simple truth. It sounds like a libel upon the intelligence of the human race, but it isn’t; there isn’t any way to libel the intelligence of the human race.” (September 13, 1907)

“A blight has fallen everywhere, and Mr. Roosevelt is the author of it.” (November 1, 1907)

“Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off, and he would go to hell for a whole one.” (December 2, 1907)

“Mr. Roosevelt is all that a president ought not to be – he covers the entire ground.” (June 26, 1908)

“Booker T. Washington, a man worth a hundred Roosevelts, a man whose shoe-latchets Mr. Roosevelt is not worthy to untie.” (July 14, 1908)

“We have never had a President before who was destitute of self-respect and of respect for his high office; we have had no President before who was not a gentleman; we have had no President before who was intended for a butcher, a dive-keeper or a bully, and missed his mission.” (January 5, 1909)

“Roosevelt is the whole argument for and against, in his own person. He represents what the American gentleman ought not to be, and does it as clearly, intelligibly, and exhaustively as he represents what the American gentleman is. We are by long odds the most ill-mannered nation, civilized or savage, that exists on the planet to-day, and our President stands for us like a colossal monument visible from all the ends of the earth.” (April 3, 1906)