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Teddy at Tempe Normal

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Theodore Roosevelt had left office in 1909 after nearly two full terms as president. (He had succeeded the assassinated William McKinley in September of 1901). By the time of this photo, he and his handpicked successor, the 300-pound William Howard Taft, were fast becoming political enemies.

Within a year, Roosevelt would challenge Taft for the Republican presidential nomination, mounting a third-party effort, the Bull Moose campaign, which divided the Republicans and threw the election to the Democrat – Woodrow Wilson.

Arizona, which became a state on Feb. 4, 1912, was a minor political battleground in the war between Roosevelt and Taft.

Roosevelt had a long association with the West. Many of the famous Rough Riders, who made his reputation at the battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish American War, were recruited from Arizona and New Mexico. Despite his New York upbringing, he cultivated a Wild West image, wrote a four-volume book titled the “Winning of the West,” and lived the strenuous outdoor life.

Roosevelt Dam was named for him because it was one of the triumphs of his administration. In 1903, central Arizona farmers formed the Salt River Valley Water Users Association (now the Salt River Project) to encourage federal investment in water storage and power generation. Roosevelt favored the plan and work began in 1905. Surveying it in 1911, Roosevelt made the seemingly visionary announcement that in the future the Valley would support “75,000, maybe 100,000 people.”

Yet Taft also had support in Arizona. In 1909, he visited Tempe and from the back of his train promised support for Arizona statehood. As president, he signed the Arizona Enabling Act, authorizing a state constitutional convention to be held in Phoenix in 1910. After vetoing the first constitution (it supported the recall of judges) he approved the second and, on Feb. 4, 1912, officially announced Arizona statehood. One week later, saying “my hat is in the ring” Roosevelt formally declared political war on his former friend.

Roosevelt’s decision not to run for a third term in 1908 was voluntary. Every president had observed Washington’s two-term precedent, but Roosevelt, because of McKinley’s death, had served a few months short of two terms. Technically he was not bound by the tradition and, with his robust personal style and ability to get popular legislation through Congress, was a national hero who easily could have won re-election.

He was, however, an intensely moral man who believed that he should not press a technicality. Certain that Taft, his vice president, would follow the path he had blazed in conservation and trust busting, he left office.

Friends tried to stir his passion by accusing Taft of abandoning the administration’s conservation policies, and when Taft decided to prosecute a trust (monopoly) that Roosevelt had approved, Teddy took it as a personal insult and vowed to regain the presidency.

Roosevelt hoped that his vast popularity would gain him the nomination, but delegates were not elected directly then, and, at the convention, Taft’s forces ruled against seating some Roosevelt supporters. Fuming that the nomination had been stolen, Roosevelt led his followers out of the party, telling them that “we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” Asked how he felt, he replied, “I’m strong as a bull moose.”

The result was a disaster for Taft; though the solid Democratic South kept Roosevelt from winning the election he easily outdistanced his Republican rival. In Arizona, he beat Taft two to one. But the Democrats carried the state just as they won the presidency.

For Taft, the future still held considerable promise. He served as chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930. But Roosevelt’s health weakened, and he died in 1919, still considering another run for office.

— Photo courtesy Tempe Historical Museum; research by Gary Weiand. ©Arizona Capitol Times.

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