Mr. Hughes had complicated work to do last Monday at Carnegie Hall. There was the usual task of the candidate, which is to be all things to sufficiently many men, and added to it the inner necessity, more imperative to Mr. Hughes than to most, of being true to his own instincts. He had to represent the Roosevelt propaganda, the Republican party's desire to win, and his personal relations to American politics. He managed with considerable skill to find the least common denominator of all three.
Mr. Roosevelt sat in a box, and scattered through the hall were many who still wanted Teddy. The clan was there. They had the vision of a powerful government, an active nationalism, an heroic mood, universal service, open sympathy for the Allies. They waited to be thrilled, they wished to taste of glory, they felt aggressive and red-blooded and very male. On the platform and elsewhere was the substance of the Republican party—Senator Harding, sleek, genial and meaningless, Senator Warren of the Wyoming army post, a strange apostle of preparedness. Reed Smoot, tall and stolid and near-sighted, Prendergast, a perpetual peroration, Murray Crane, benevolent and approving. To them Mr. Hughes was not the restorer of American honor. He was the nominee of the Republican party in convention assembled. Then there was Mr. Hughes himself, dominated by a powerful instinct of workmanship, and a moral passion for a job well done; by temperament no partisan in the Harding sense, and no hero in the Roosevelt sense.
To speak out, to harmonize these three political impulses and produce something which would go in a campaign where there are to be won women's votes, workingmen's votes, business men's votes, pro-Ally votes, pro-German votes, was Mr. Hughes's task. No amount of belief in his candor can obscure the fact that Mr. Hughes wrote his speech with all these elements in mind, that he spoke not merely as his heart dictated, but as he imagined the Republican candidate for President of the United States was expected to speak. It was a sincere, carefully planned compromise between conviction and necessity.
The basis of the compromise was obvious. Mr. Hughes made anti-Wilsonism the issue. It was the easiest and most natural thing to do. Anti-Wilsonism is the only common factor of the Roosevelt following, the Republican machine, the active pro-Ally sympathizers, the pro-Germans, and Mr. Hughes's own passion for efficiency. Hammer Mr. Wilson and you satisfy Mr. Roosevelt, or at least you prevent him from hammering you; you satisfy the machine which wishes to control the government; you satisfy the war parties who don't like the President though for opposite reasons; and you satisfy your own integrity by pointing out the administrative weakness, the vacillation and the poor technique of the Wilson diplomacy. Anti-Wilsonism is of necessity the Republican issue. Not only is it the one way of uniting all the discontented; it is also the way of avoiding any dangerous commitment on any issue which will seriously divide the Republican vote. Thus Mr. Hughes by making his attack very vigorous could ignore Mr. Roosevelt's wishes about Belgium and universal service, could avoid the ultimate desires of the pro-Ally voters by coupling the maintenance of trade rights against Great Britain with rights in Mexico and against Germany, could ignore the need of stating a positive policy in Mexico by stating with great force the grievances of those who wanted Huerta, those who want intervention, those who are distressed at the plight of the National Guard on the Texas border.
Above all, anti-Wilsonism is a splendid outlet for Mr. Hughes's genuine and noble passion for administration. He could speak from his deepest convictions and with damaging effect when he dwelt upon Mr. Wilson's general record of appointments. The best promise, the most direct insight of Mr. Hughes's whole equipment was revealed here. He spoke with the passion of a man who knows that all laws and all policies depend on the quality of the men who execute them, and the splendid Hughes tradition reinforced his words.
But when he looked forward into the future he fell into pious words and utter vagueness. Though he devoted thirty minutes of his speech to Mexico, no one knows to-day what his Mexican policy would be. It would be firm and friendly, he said, but we are none the wiser. He devoted about ten minutes to the European war, said our isolation was ended, and never indicated in even the barest outline the nature of the foreign policy which is to supplant isolation. He spoke of the economic struggle after the war, and the only specific item he offered was a good old-fashioned protective tariff. The real economic problem which peace will bring, the problem of a world divided into economic alliances, the most portentous problem of our own and the world’s future, he, the man who would have to deal with it, never even mentioned. Great is efficiency, and firmness is a necessary virtue, but others have been both efficient and firm—yet they have not necessarily been wise. A statesman asking us to place with him the great trust of the Presidency must do more than tell us he would do well whatever he did. He must give some hint at least of what he would do so well.
This avoidance of any dangerous commitment for the future is due not only to Mr. Hughes’s difficult task of uniting the anti-Wilson vote. It is due in part to a native quality of his mind, which the speech revealed impressively. Go behind any one of the subjects he treated, with the exception perhaps of woman suffrage, and you find a commonplace set of assumptions. He assumed, for example, that our foreign policy rests on the maintenance of legal rights “everywhere.” A little reflection will show this to be a hollow position, for not all “rights” are of equal values, nor can all of them be maintained at the same time. No practical statesman has ever upheld all national rights. Every statesman has dealt with something greater than rights, that is to say with his conception of national policy and interest. He has subordinated the rights of individual citizens to the future of his country’s international relations. It is mere legal dogmatism and diplomatic naivete to talk of rights as if they were absolute. To approach the delicate Mexican question with such ramshackle intellectual ideas is to do just what Mr. Wilson has done with his legal fiction about Mexican sovereignty. To approach the problems of European politics with an infatuation for rights is to do worse than Mr. Wilson has done, for in his action, if not in his words, the President has practiced a differential neutrality. Mr. Wilson has seen that our rights against Germany and against the Allies are of unequal value, not only because one involves lives and the other property, but because America’s future is bound up with the issues of the war.
Mr. Hughes has not yet justified the faith of liberals. Dominant Americanism, whatever that maybe, remains a phrase and a hand-me-down from Mr. Roosevelt. No policy for the nation’s future gives content to it. The serious question of the relations between labor and capital, a question which peace will exasperate, Mr. Hughes left in the complete darkness of mere goodwill. All that stands out is an able indictment, not always imaginative, and a demonstration that Mr. Hughes understands the meaning of administration.
It is not enough. The vote for President has become so significant under our system of government that it amounts almost to the election of a dictator for four years. We trust our future to the President practically without effective check or criticism upon him. For that reason the American people cannot be satisfied with an exhibition of honesty and a bend toward efficiency. They have to know the main lines of policy which inspire the arbiter of their destiny. They cannot take even Mr. Hughes on faith. They cannot take even Mr. Hughes on faith. They cannot trust him merely because he builds up a strong indictment in cool deliberation after the facts. For if he becomes President he will be dealing with the present and the future.
This article originally ran in the August 5, 1916 issue of the magazine.