Many presidents have insulted fellow chief executives throughout American history, both in poetry and prose. But no one among them launched as many salvos of aspersions toward several of his predecessors and successors as had Theodore Roosevelt. One of the most effective leaders to serve in the White House? Absolutely! But the Rough Rider who authored more books than any other president; the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize; the “Trust-Buster” who instituted regulatory antitrust policies against large corporations; the strenuous one who spent nearly a year hunting big game on an African safari; the candidate who delivered a long speech with a would-be assassin’s bullet lodged near his heart; and the man who urged one and all to “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was anything but soft whenever the mood struck Teddy to ridicule others.
In 1890 Roosevelt pronounced incumbent President Benjamin Harrison “a cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.”
Of William McKinley, under whom TR would eventually serve as vice president, he insisted the man possessed "no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”
Nor was William Howard Taft, his hand-picked White House successor and one-time beloved friend, immune to Teddy’s digs. According to Archie Butt, a trusted Taft aide who eventually perished aboard the Titanic, Roosevelt’s frequent personal and public ridicules were said to have brought Taft to tears. “. . . it is hard, very hard, Archie, to see a devoted friendship go to pieces like a rope of sand," the rotund Taft dismally admitted.
Woodrow Wilson became Roosevelt’s special target: “He hasn’t a touch of idealism in him . . . a silly doctrinaire at times and an utterly selfish and cold-blooded politician always.”
But if Theodore Roosevelt’s observations were biting, those frequently uttered by his eldest daughter and lifelong protector of his legacy, Alice, were especially filled with degradation. While some in the media dubbed her “Princess Alice,” a more appropriate characterization would have been the “Queen of Verbal Venom." Samples of Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s vituperative brouhahas about various presidents include the following:
Averse to President Woodrow Wilson’s proposed League of Nations in 1918, Alice once positioned herself on a curb outside the White House and blasphemously shouted, “A murrain on him, a murrain on him!” using the old Latin word for animal pestilence, dire disease, and death. Only two months later, Wilson suffered a stroke on his left side from which he never fully recovered.
Of Warren G. Harding: “Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob.”
And as for Calvin Coolidge: “Poor Coolidge was a lethargic pantywaist.” and “He looks as though he’s been weaned on a pickle.”
Even Alice’s cousins, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, were not exempt from her stinging insolence. She brazenly portrayed FDR a “mollycoddle” and, following his death, negatively insulted the homely former First Lady with the statement, “Franklin deserved a good time. He was married to Eleanor.”
Yet of all the documented phraseology Alice Roosevelt uttered about presidents other than her father, perhaps the most disturbing encompassed her reaction to President McKinley’s shooting in 1901. Seventeen years old at the time and well aware that her dad, as McKinley’s VP, was merely a heartbeat away from occupying the White House (then called the Executive Mansion), Alice openly celebrated the tragic news that the president has been seriously wounded. McKinley’s death eight days later, she admitted in a 1969 Yorkshire Television interview, brought “sheer rapture.”
By comparison, the reactions of Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s daughters to the shocking news of President John Kennedy’s assassination, six decades later, were exactly the opposite. Lynda Bird and Luci Baines Johnson, both in their latter teens, recall being saddened upon learning of JFK’s death. Lynda Bird was especially mature in rushing from her University of Texas classroom to the Governor’s Mansion to comfort John Connally’s children after hearing that their father had been seriously wounded in the motorcade with President Kennedy.