In honor of President’s Day, David Frum plays Scott Bakula in “Quantum Leap” and imagines alternate histories in which, for example, Charles Evans Hughes beats Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Theodore Roosevelt in 1920 becomes the first president to serve a third term. Based on my readings of Edmund Morris’ Teddy bios and John Milton Cooper’s account of the fight over the League of Nations in Breaking the Heart of the World, I’d say he’s right that only death, hastened by malaria and the killing of son Quentin over the airfields of France, kept Roosevelt from receiving the GOP nomination and probably beating a demoralized, fractious Democratic Party. Although his party was more isolationist and less beholden to Progressive orthodoxy at the end of the Great War, so hungry for a victory were the Republicans that they would have adopted Roosevelt’s platform, shrunken enough at that point to resemble handpicked successor William Howard Taft’s in 1908.
Hughes is an interesting case. I’ve long maintained that he’s the most forgotten major figure in early twentieth century American history. Reform governor of New York, associate justice of the Supreme Court, and secretary of state to Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, he came within double digits of beating Wilson (in his memoir Palimpsest Gore Vidal claims Wilson got his necessary victory in California thanks to the machinations of grandfather Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma, who told him by how many votes he would win). We would probably have lost the chief justice of the Supreme Court he became in the thirties; he’s famous now for being the swing vote during FDR’s epic court battles and, as the consummate politician, the eventual consolidator of the liberal legacy that later chief justices would protect despite mild tinkering until William Rehnquist’s ascension in 1986. Certainly he would have been a better wartime president than Woodrow Wilson, the most reactionary and thin-skinned chief executive of the last hundred years.