Miller Center

Riding The Tiger

“I discovered that being a President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.” Harry S. Truman

What Would TR Have Done in Fiscal Cliff Negotiations?

Anthracite Coal Strike Commission Appointed 1902 by President Roosevelt.

Anthracite Coal Strike Commission Appointed 1902 by President Roosevelt, a stereo card of the commission appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to resolve the Coal Strike of 1902. Photo by William H. Rau and courtesy of the Library of Congress. PD.

In politics, appearances often matter more than reality. Theodore Roosevelt understood this point well. Edmund Morris relates the fact particularly well in a chapter of his acclaimed book, Theodore Rex.

In 1902, the 26th President brought together John Mitchell, President of the United Mine Workers, and members of the business community for talks at the White House. The goal: an end to the Anthracite Coal Strike that had endured for over five months. The struggle had not only led to the loss of seven lives, but also had become a serious drag on the nation’s economy.

Roosevelt’s subsequent performance showed a mastery of negotiation. It rested on two pillars. First, he let both sides posture and talk themselves hoarse. Second, and most importantly, he crafted a genius compromise.

Both parties in question needed some form of arbitration. However, both had stuck their respective necks out so far publicly that they could not appear to capitulate at this point.

Roosevelt worked around the problem with the creation of an independent commission to solve the matter. In essence, the agreement allowed both sides to settle without appearing to do so.

After wrangling over nominal titles and membership within the commission, both parties agreed. The President summed up the entire issues as follows:

I shall never forget the mixture of relief and amusement I felt when I thoroughly grasped the fact that while they would heroically submit to anarchy rather than have Tweedledum, yet if I would call it Tweedledee they would accept it with rapture.

In short, Roosevelt realized that the secret to mediation was the placation of vanity.