Author Geoffrey Cowan

The influential USC professor and author discusses his fascinating political history book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.

Something of a Renaissance man, Geoffrey Cowan has offered his talents a wide variety of communication and public policy fields. A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, his expertise and career contributions stretch far beyond the bounds of legal training. As a member of the Board of Directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Cowan played a pivotal role in the development of NPR. He was then appointed by President Bill Clinton to serve as the director of the international broadcasting service Voice of America. In 1996, he began his term as dean of USC’s prestigious Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, and was appointed as the first president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. In addition to his work in academia, he also won an Emmy as executive producer of the TV movie Mark Twain & Me. He is the author of a number of books, including his most recent, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with author and USC professor, Geoffrey Cowan. The renowned political and communications expert is out with a new text. It’s called “Let The People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary”.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Geoffrey Cowan coming up right now.

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Tavis: Geoffrey Cowan is President of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, a USC professor and author of the new text, “Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary”. His new text tells the exhilarating story of the four-month campaign that changed American politics forever. Geoffrey, good to have you on this program, sir.

Geoffrey Cowan: It’s great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: Before I get into the text, let me just throw this out there. What most interests you regarding the presidential primary process we’re going through now as paralleled to back then?

Cowan: Well, of course, this is almost a unique moment right now that we’re having. And yet when you look back to that crazy campaign of 1912, you see that even then the kind of invective that we’re seeing now that’s so outrageous was happening then, the viciousness of a campaign, the partisanship, people going to their corners in such a dramatic way. So I think you find that, in some ways, the more things, the more they’re the same.

Tavis: Regarding the infrastructure of the way primaries are conducted these days versus what they were like in 1912, what’s the primary difference?

Cowan: Well, of course, in those days, they were just inventing them. So there were 13 of them all together that year and Roosevelt won ultimately, although it’s an incredible story of how he loses the first three. But, ultimately, he wins nine of the 13 primaries, but still can’t get the nomination even though he wins 70% of the delegates were contested.

Because of the reforms that took place later, in this year there are so many delegates being picked in primaries that, if somebody really got the overwhelming number of primary delegates, they would still get the nomination.

Tavis: What’s the story for–I want to throw them all in one group so I don’t get accused of being partisan here or bias–what’s the lesson for Trump or Cruz, Sanders or Clinton, for losing the first three primaries as Roosevelt did and then running the table?

Cowan: Well, what happened that year, and it could happen this year again, is that you suddenly find a primary that turns things around, if you can stay around that long. So you can lose the first two and it could be Trump or Cruz, but it could be Kasich or Bush or whomever…

Tavis: Or Rubio, yeah, sure.

Cowan: Or Rubio. And then they go into South Carolina or they go into Nevada and, all of a sudden, they win there so big that it changes the narrative. That’s what happened that year. It’s the first time there were primaries, but all of a sudden you found that there’s such a thing as momentum and it can shift.

Tavis: What caused Roosevelt to lose those first three, and what fundamentally happened that allowed him to find his rhythm?

Cowan: Yeah. I think the first three–actually, two of the first three he lost not to William Howard Taft who was the incumbent president, but to Bob La Follette. Because the first primaries had been sort of created by La Follette and they were in the middle west, in the north and middle west, so Wisconsin was his own state and, in North Dakota, he was really close to the people there.

I think what happened was Chicago and then the state of Illinois, it was partly that Roosevelt had a message that began to resonate as he got angrier and angrier and identified with people more. But I think it was also that he had the Chicago Tribune on his side. He had a huge newspaper that was in his corner in a way that people might think that a television network might be on somebody’s side this year.

Tavis: I want to come back to talk in more detail about the convention and about how he pulled this off and got the primary process underway that first year. But I want to back up prior to 1912 to get an understanding of what was happening, how was the process being engaged prior to these presidential primaries.

Cowan: Well, so they’re really four stages in the selection process for nominees which most people don’t know. The first was something you may remember reading about as a kid in your textbooks called “King Caucus” where the nominees of the parties were picked by the congressional delegation. So it’s as though the Republicans in Congress now could pick their nominee.

Then in 1832, for the first time there were political conventions which were created by Andrew Jackson. And after that, the conventions involved big city mayors and governors and people who were called political bosses. But not until 1912 did you, for the first time, have the public be able to directly vote on who they wanted the president to be.

Tavis: How much influence did the bosses really lose just because the public had a say-so? I ask that because the public has a say-so now and yet you and I will talk, I’m sure, later in this conversation about how the bosses still tend to have a say-so. The elite, the establishment, have a say-so, maybe not this year, but how much clout authority did they lose when the public started to have its say?

Cowan: Yeah. They really lost a lot.

Tavis: They did?

Cowan: They really lost a lot. If there had been two or three more primaries which Roosevelt would almost certainly have won, then he would have gotten the nomination. But Taft was able to hold on to the bosses, as we call them, especially in the south which were states where the Republicans never won.

But they were controlled by postmasters and people who had federal contracts and so forth. So the president had so much control in the south that he was able to get virtually all those delegates.

Tavis: So the bosses didn’t lose enough power to change the game.

Cowan: Not that year. The game changes later, but in 1912, it still hadn’t changed.

Tavis: What do you say, then–I’m just bouncing back and forth because these parallels are so interesting to me. What do you say, then, about the fact that the establishment lane this year–how might I put this–there’s been an accident on the establishment lane this year as evidenced by all these outsiders who are starting to gain some traction. What do you make of that this year?

Cowan: Yeah. I think, for one thing, people always think they can game the system. You know, people are trying to figure out how you make the primary rules ones that are going to work for one candidate or another for the establishment.

So the Republican Party changed its rules in a way that was designed to help the establishment lane and to have a clean decision, but it didn’t work, as you know, the way the system is working this year. So now you have an angry electorate and the electorate is really going to get to make its choices.

Nobody ever expected 17 candidates, splitting the establishment support and so forth. So we have a very unusual year.

Tavis: Speaking of gaming the system, if one believes what one reads, so the Clinton campaign now is rethinking their strategy of trying to limit the number of these debates. You recall the hue and cry when the list comes out of the DNC debates. There are only going to be six. Republicans have had, seems like, too many.

The Republicans had too many debates, Democrats had too few. But if you read and you believe what you read, the Clinton campaign is having second thoughts now because the place that Hillary Clinton does best is in these debates. When she’s under pressure, when she’s in a tete-a-tete, she does extremely well.

And now they wish they had settled for, had agreed to, more debates to give them that face to face to make that stark contrast with Bernie Sanders who’s gaining steam by the day. So they’re rethinking, I’m told, the mistake they might have made by limiting the number of debates. What role did debates play back in the day?

Cowan: Well, there were no head-to-head debates of this kind. The head-to-head debates, as you know, are a relatively new phenomenon. In 1960, there was a debate between Kennedy and Nixon because of a change in the law, but we didn’t really start to have debates until recent years in primaries.

That year, there were no head-to-head debates. But the most interesting moment was in Massachusetts where they would go–the two of them were campaigning on the same day in the same state for the same delegates.

And what happened was, every time they spoke, they would get wires about what the other one had to say and they’d rebut it. And the news media that day would publish those rebuttals, but they weren’t on a stage together. That’s a new phenomenon.

Tavis: So Taft and Roosevelt never went at it?

Cowan: Not in a room together.

Tavis: Wow.

Cowan: There was no such moment. There wasn’t a Lincoln-Douglas type debate that year.

Tavis: Is there a reason for that? Or it just didn’t happen?

Cowan: Primaries were so new. Nobody even expected this kind of thing to happen. It would have been fascinating because Roosevelt was so articulate and so colorful and so angry, and probably Taft wouldn’t have agreed to up against him. And, of course, La Follette, a third sort of Bernie Sanders type figure on the left, would have wanted to be in those debates too.

Tavis: There’s some fascinating stuff in here about Theodore Roosevelt and his–how might I put this–his dissing, disrespecting, that is, Black delegates. I’ll let you tell the story.

Cowan: Well, I think the surprising thing is this. He goes to the convention which is in Chicago in June of 1912. And he’s about 50 delegates short of winning and he tries to fight in the credentials committee, but he’s going to lose there.

So he has one last hope of winning and that is, if he can getthere are 68 Black delegates from the deep south, that he can get them to change, then he has a chance of winning. So he runs a campaign to try to get those 68 delegates to change, including one of them who he asked to nominate him, to make the seconding speech for his nomination.

He doesn’t get enough of them to change, so when he walks out of the convention, announces he’s starting a new party, those who were supporting him walk out with him, and they assume that they’re going to be part of the new party. They go back to their states in the deep south, try to help to start the new party and they are told, “You’re not wanted. You can’t be part of the new Bull Moose Party.”

These incredible men–and maybe we’ll talk a little about who they are–they were extraordinary. Their children are extraordinary. Their great-grandsons and daughters are incredible. But they say, “We don’t believe this.”

So in Mississippi, they ran their own parallel campaign, went to the National Convention, the Bull Moose convention, and the final decision about whether they can seat. There are two challenged delegations, one all white, one mixed.

The final decision is made by the credentials committee at 3:00 in the morning of the day the convention’s going to open. And the 17-16 vote with one contested proxy, the credentials committee says, “We’re seating the all-white delegates.” There were people around America who never forgave the Progressive Party or Roosevelt for that decision.

Tavis: Tell me who these delegates were that didn’t get the respect they deserved.

Cowan: They were so extraordinary. They were, for example, one of them, the man who would have organized the party if things had gone like they were supposed to, was a Harvard trained doctor named Sidney Redmond who also was a lawyer. These were polymaths and also a major real estate owner. In fact, people in Jackson, there’s still a Redmond Avenue there.

Another one was Samuel Alfred Beadle who was both a lawyer and a poet. Another one, Willis Mollison who was a lawyer from Vicksburg who was brilliant. Part of what’s so interesting–and then Perry Howard who, by the way, came back to the Republican Party and became the Republican National Committeeman from Mississippi, went to every convention until 1960 after that.

So what happened to these men? Well, most of them left the south as so many people did during the Great Migration and went to Chicago. But their children and grandchildren, Tavis, who I came to know and learn about, showed not only were these men impressive themselves, but their children and grandchildren have made a mark on American society.

Tavis: What does it say about Roosevelt, though, that–just to be blunt about it–he used these Negroes when he needed them and, when he left to start his own party, they were shunned? What does that say about him?

Cowan: Well, I think it says a couple of things, but one, I think he was politically opportunistic. Two, if you want to think a little better of him, he also had Black delegates for the first time from outside the south. So he tried to balance it that way. He had them from outside the south.

By the way, no Blacks could vote in the south anymore practically, but he didn’t have them from the south. I think it says, and asks the question, what wouldn’t you do to win? In his case, it doesn’t seem like much.

Tavis: So you get this first primary process in 1912. What did they not get right when they put this process in place?

Cowan: Well, of course, those are issues we’re still struggling with today.

Tavis: Precisely.

Cowan: It’s so interesting to wonder what would be the perfect primary process. But, first of all, in my view, they didn’t get right that there should have been more primaries.

Another thing that they didn’t get right was that they didn’t really understand in states how you could vote for the nominee, the person you wanted to be the president, and vote for the delegate that you wanted to represent that person. They didn’t run slates in quite the same way, which led to a lot of confusion. And that process, as you know, remained a very split process until 1968.

In 1952, just to give you an example of how the process remained in the hands of the bosses despite the primaries, in 1952, Estes Kefauver beat Harry Truman in New Hampshire. Truman decided not to seek re-nomination.

Kefauver won virtually all of the remaining primaries, but Adlai Stevensonwho, by the way, is a hero of minebut Adlai Stevenson didn’t run a single primary. He became the nominee of the party that year. That showed that the bosses or party leaders could continue to control the process up until 1968.

Tavis: I want to move forward, but I don’t want to do that without asking you why Stevenson is a hero of yours. Adlai?

Cowan: Well, because I think he was such an internationalist. I think he was a person who had a real grasp of the world. I think maybe in some way, if we’re looking at, for example, race issues which we’re talking about now, he wasn’t so good.

But those weren’t as much at the top of peoples’ agenda at that point. So by the standard of that moment, he seemed like a person who, let’s say, that was the period of Joe McCarthy. He was the anti-Joe McCarthy figure.

Tavis: Let me just detour right quick because your mind is so fertile all the time, I’m curious as to what your take on this would be. Because Roosevelt now has been mentioned, Stevenson’s been mentioned. They’ve made great contributions, great men in other ways, but not so good on the race question.

Yet we live in an era now where we’re starting to rethink and revisit where these heretofore “American heroes and icons” stood on the race question. And around the country, you see names coming off the buildings, you see monuments coming down. You know what I’m getting at here.

Cowan: Yes, of course.

Tavis: What’s your sense of how we navigate that particular journey with these guys back in the day?

Cowan: Yeah. Obviously, it’s a hugely contested question we were talking about. I just have to start by saying that one of the places it was first contested was the University of Missouri, as you know, where they got rid of the president of the University of Missouri.

The new president of the University of Missouri just installed a couple of months ago, Mike Middleton, is the great-grandson of one of those eight men in my book.

Tavis: In the book.

Cowan: In the book.

Tavis: Wow.

Cowan: Just in illustration of how great these men were and how great their progeny became. I think that it’s more important to understand people in context. There were probably people who were so bad you wouldn’t give them any due, but I’ve been thinking about Mount Rushmore.

Do you take Washington’s face down because he was a slave owner? What about Jefferson who was a slave owner? And we know a lot of other things about Jefferson that aren’t so attractive.

It’s a terrible stain in American history, the way these races were treated, terrible stain. But I think, in the end, these are incredible educational moments. There were people, if they did enough other good, do you try to put it in some context?

Tavis: You mentioned New Hampshire. Let me throw Iowa in for the obvious reason. I was in Iowa some days ago giving the big King speech for the King celebration in Des Moines on the holiday. Had a great time in Iowa. Thank you, people, for showing up. It was a great time.

What I did not say on the stage that day, which I can say safely back here in the confines of my studio [laugh], is I am still troubled by the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire get to go first, these two tiny little states. Sorry, Iowans. They get to go first and they do not represent or reflect the breadth and depth of what America looks like.

Cowan: Yeah, they don’t.

Tavis: Again, I ain’t mad at them. They got to go first, okay. It is what it is. But what do we make of all these years later that Iowa and New Hampshire in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever still get to go first? And in many ways, while it’s not determinative, it does set the race on a particular course.

Cowan: Yeah. But let me say a word both for and against the Iowa thing.

Tavis: Please.

Cowan: There are other problems with Iowa in that it’s got a caucus system, but only party members can participate. Caucuses, you have to be able to have an evening free to do it. So if you’re a firefighter or you’re a nurse or you have to take care of your kids, you can’t go the way the way you can vote normally. Plus, it’s not a secret ballot.

So there are a lot of problems with caucuses. But eight years ago, it was Iowa as a white state that proved that an African American could win. If the first state in which Barack Obama had won had been a more plural state, as you’re talking about, people might not have had the same confidence in the ability of somebody to win in a state where they weren’t expected to.

So it’s a more complicated thing than that. And one of the things about Iowa and New Hampshire is, as small states, it doesn’t cost that much to run. If you had to start, for example, the regional primary, that’s one alternative. A national primary, another alternative. Big state primaries might be prohibitive for people who were the less well financed, but perhaps the more exciting candidate.

Tavis: So let me pick up on your next point here about caucuses. So even if Iowa and New Hampshire should be first in line, I’m okay with that if that’s the way it’s going to be. But the structure of these caucuses does in fact concern me in Iowa and beyond. So all these years later, why are we still using caucuses?

Cowan: Yeah. Well, I think it’s historic and the states are allowed to do it. But an important point that people often don’t realize is the rules of the parties are written by the parties so that the Republican or Democratic Party could establish a rule that would say that only delegates picked in primaries will be allowed to come here.

So they could do that even without a federal law. They could say we’ll only accept delegates picked in primaries. I think caucuses present a problem, as you’re suggesting. I really do, because I don’t think they let people participate in the same way they could if it’s a secret ballot and the day-long election.

Tavis: You’re a modest guy, so I put this on my blue card because I wanted to get this quote just right. I want to move now in this conversation to talk about the critical role that you played in 1968 as a student at Yale. And I want to quote from Howard K. Smith, great journalist.

Howard K. Smith says this of you in 1972. “Around the hall are hanging huge pictures of men who made the Democratic Party what it is. One  is oddly missing. That of young Geoffrey Cowan, who did more to change Democratic conventions than anyone since Andrew Jackson first started them.” And that would have been in 1832.

Cowan: Correct.

Tavis: So Howard K. Smith gives you a lot of credit and I respect his journalistic integrity. Tell me about 1968 and what a young Geoffrey Cowan–you’re still young–what a younger Geoffrey Cowan did.

Cowan: Okay. So let me first of all start with the disclaimer that Howard K. Smith’s statement is an uncharacteristic overstatement for a journalist like that. But what I did was, like many people, I was upset in 1968 when the nominee of the party–this had been a hotly contested which maybe you remember. You were maybe a kid at the time, but you have some memory…

Tavis: I read about it, yeah, yeah.

Cowan: You read about it. You know, you had Bobby Kennedy and you had Eugene McCarthy winning all the primaries. Hubert Humphrey didn’t win a single primary and yet he was picked as the nominee of the party. A lot of us were very upset about that.

So I put together a commission that year which was chaired by then Governor, later Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa. And that commission recommended to the floor of the Democratic Convention that, for future conventions, delegates should have to be picked through a system that was open to full public participation.

It was a minority report going to the floor of the convention. My guess is a lot of people didn’t really know what they were voting for, but they voted for the minority report and it became the law of the convention going into ’72.

Tavis: When you reflect upon the role that you played in that process, set your humility aside for a second. What do you think the impact of that was or is to this day?

Cowan: Well, I think that both parties wound up seeing that as the fourth dividing point in the way process works.

I mean, I think everybody now recognizes who looks at the system that the result of those reforms–where I played some role–the result of those reforms was that we have so many delegates picked through the primary process that, unless something very strange happens like there’s a three or four-way true split, that the choice is made by the people.

And I think it was a good change, although there are times it’s very frustrating, Tavis, because you may say how in the world did the electorate pick that person?

Tavis: I think about another parallel, as you speak. So 1912, which we’ve been talking about tonight, the year and the subject of your text about Roosevelt, Roosevelt ultimately has his own issues with Black delegates. In 1964, we have the same issue, just four years before you show up with your piece. Race and presidential politics still a strange mix.

Cowan: A strange mix. And I was actually part of the Mississippi–I was a volunteer working for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in Mississippi and at the convention that year in Atlantic City, the ’64 convention. And I think one reason I became so fascinated in the story and the role of these African Americans who turned out to be so heroic in this book was my own experience as a civil rights worker.

I think, Tavis, we may be destined to have race always be an issue in America, but it’s one that we always have to be candid about and struggle to have an arc of justice that goes in the right direction.

Tavis: What do you make of the attack over the last few years on voting rights?

Cowan: Horrible. And I dedicate this book to the people who fought in 1912 to extend the franchise and those who were fighting to extend the franchise today. And Roosevelt gets a part of some support for having extended the franchise and some criticism for not doing it in his own Bull Moose Party. But I think today there is an effort to game the system once again.

First of all, to try to make it much harder to vote, to require all kinds of credentials that are hard to get. You know, you let a gun license count, but not a student ID card count for being able to get to vote. There are states where students are not allowed to vote, even though that’s really where they live.

I think it’s not a good thing and I think it’s being done again to game the system. And I think it’s something we tremendously have to fight against. It is so enraging to see people being denied the most fundamental right that they have in this society.

Tavis: What then, to your mind, is the abiding legacy of what happened in 1912?

Cowan: Yeah. Well, I think the abiding legacy in part is that struggles continue, that some of it we found in 1912, the same struggles are here today, that some of the incredibly interesting stories of 1912 and the colorful characters remain there today.

But I think the most important story from this is that it is important that, ultimately, the people have the right to rule. You’ve raised the question that they have the right to vote in order to have the right to rule, but I think people should have the right to vote, and I think it’s absolutely important in this democracy that they have a right to rule.

Tavis: As long as money is the mother’s milk of politics, as was once said, as long as Washington is bought and bossed by big money and big business, is that really true?

Cowan: Well, I think it’s a huge problem too. Interestingly in this book, and it’s part of the more things change thing, it turns out that Roosevelt had two big backers, and those two backers were both connected with United States Steel.

So even though he was running partly an anti-corporate campaign, he was also a corporate–you know, Taft people all thought that U.S. Steel was paying for his campaign. So it was true then. When he started his new party, those two men were the men who made it possible.

But I personally, totally, disagree with the Citizens United case. I think it’s vital that we have campaign finance reform and I agree with you that it’s something that has perverted our politics. Interestingly, you find people on both sides of the political aisle today saying that, but they’re not changing it.

Tavis: Well, it takes courage to do that.

Cowan: It does.

Tavis: “Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary”. I’ve just scratched the surface on what is a brilliantly written text, but everything that Geoffrey Cowan touches turns to gold. He’s just a brilliant thinker and I’m always honored to be in his presence. Geoffrey, congrats on the book. Good to have you on.

Cowan: Thanks, Tavis. It was great.

Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: January 29, 2016 at 1:38 pm