The Americanization of Edward Bok/Chapter 24
WHILE Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States, Bok was sitting one evening talking with him, when suddenly Mr. Roosevelt turned to him and said with his usual emphasis: “Bok, I envy you your power with your public.”
The editor was frankly puzzled.
“That is a strange remark from the President of the United States,” he replied.
“You may think so,” was the rejoinder. “But listen. When do I get the ear of the public? In its busiest moments. My messages are printed in the newspapers and read hurriedly, mostly by men in trolleys or railroad-cars. Women hardly ever read them, I should judge. Now you are read in the evening by the fireside or under the lamp, when the day’s work is over and the mind is at rest from other things and receptive to what you offer. Don’t you see where you have it on me?”
This diagnosis was keenly interesting, and while the President talked during the balance of the evening, Bok was thinking. Finally, he said: “Mr. President, I should like to share my power with you.”
“How?” asked Mr. Roosevelt.
“You recognize that women do not read your messages; and yet no President’s messages ever discussed more ethical questions that women should know about and get straight in their minds. As it is, some of your ideas are not at all understood by them; your strenuouslife theory, for instance, your factory-law ideas, and particularly your race-suicide arguments. Men don’t fully understand them, for that matter; women certainly do not.”
“I am aware of all that,” said the President. “What is your plan to remedy it?”
“Have a department in my magazine, and explain your ideas,” suggested Bok.
“Haven’t time for another thing. You know that,” snapped back the President. “Wish I had.”
“Not to write it, perhaps, yourself,” returned Bok.
“But why couldn’t you find time to do this: select the writer here in Washington in whose accuracy you have the most implicit faith; let him talk with you for one hour each month on one of those subjects; let him write out your views, and submit the manuscript to you; and we will have a department stating exactly how the material is obtained and how far it represents your own work. In that way, with only an hour’s work each month, you can get your views, correctly stated, before this vast audience when it is not in trolleys or railroadcars.”
“But I haven’t the hour,” answered Roosevelt, impressed, however, as Bok saw. “I have only half an hour, when I am awake, when I am really idle, and that is when I am being shaved.”
“Well,” calmly suggested the editor, “why not two of those half-hours a month, or perhaps one?”
“What?” answered the President, sitting upright, his teeth flashing but his smile broadening. “You Dutchman, you’d make me work while I’m getting shaved, too?”
“Well,” was the answer, “isn’t the result worth the effort?”
“Bok, you are absolutely relentless,” said the President. “But you’re right. The result would be worth the effort. What writer have you in mind? You seem to have thought this thing through.”
“How about O’Brien? You think well of him?”
(Robert L. O’Brien, now editor of the Boston Herald, was then Washington correspondent for the Boston Transcript and thoroughly in the President’s confidence.)
“Fine,” said the President. “I trust O’Brien implicitly. All right, if you can get O’Brien to add it on, I’ll try it.”
And so the “shaving interviews” were begun; and early in 1906 there appeared in The Ladies’ Home Journal a department called “The President,” with the subtitle: “A Department in which will be presented the attitude of the President on those national questions which affect the vital interests of the home, by a writer intimately acquainted and in close touch with him.”
O’Brien talked with Mr. Roosevelt once a month, wrote out the results, the President went over the proofs carefully, and the department was conducted with great success for a year.
But Theodore Roosevelt was again to be the editor of a department in The Ladies’ Home Journal; this time to be written by himself under the strictest possible anonymity, so closely adhered to that, until this revelation, only five persons have known the authorship.
Feeling that it would be an interesting experiment to see how far Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas could stand unsupported by the authority of his vibrant personality, Bok suggested the plan to the colonel. It was just after he had returned from his South American trip. He was immediately interested.
“But how can we keep the authorship really anonymous?” he asked.
“Easily enough,” answered Bok, “if you’re willing to do the work. Our letters about it must be written in long hand addressed to each other’s homes; you must write your manuscript in your own hand; I will copy it in mine, and it will go to the printer in that way. I will personally send you the proofs; you mark your corrections in pencil, and I will copy them in ink; the company will pay me for each article, and I will send you my personal check each month. By this means, the identity of the author will be concealed.”
Colonel Roosevelt was never averse to hard work if it was necessary to achieve a result that he felt was worth while.
“All right,” wrote the colonel finally. “I’ll try—with you!—the experiment for a year: 12 articles… . I don’t know that I can give your readers satisfaction, but I shall try my very best. I am very glad to be associated with you, anyway. At first I doubted the wisdom of the plan, merely because I doubted whether I could give you just that you wished. I never know what an audience wants: I know what it ought to want: and sometimes I can give it, or make it accept what I think it needs—and sometimes I cannot. But the more I thought over your proposal, the more I liked it… . Whether the wine will be good enough to attract without any bush I don’t know; and besides, in such cases the fault is not in the wine, but in the fact that the consumers decline to have their attention attracted unless there is a bush!”
In the latter part of 1916 an anonymous department called “Men” was begun in the magazine.
The physical work was great. The colonel punctiliously held to the conditions, and wrote manuscript and letters with his own hand, and Bok carried out his part of the agreement. Nor was this simple, for Colonel Roosevelt’s manuscript—particularly when, as in this case, it was written on yellow paper with a soft pencil and generously interlined—was anything but legible. Month after month the two men worked each at his own task. To throw the public off the scent, during the conduct of the department, an article or two by Colonel Roosevelt was published in another part of the magazine under his own name, and in the department itself the anonymous author would occasionally quote himself.
It was natural that the appearance of a department devoted to men in a woman’s magazine should attract immediate attention. The department took up the various interests of a man’s life, such as real efficiency; his duties as an employer and his usefulness to his employees; the employee’s attitude toward his employer; the relations of men and women; a father’s relations to his sons and daughters; a man’s duty to his community; the public-school system; a man’s relation to his church, and kindred topics.
The anonymity of the articles soon took on interest from the positiveness of the opinions discussed; but so thoroughly had Colonel Roosevelt covered his tracks that, although he wrote in his usual style, in not a single instance was his name connected with the department. Lyman Abbott was the favorite “guess” at first; then after various other public men had been suggested, the newspapers finally decided upon former President Eliot of Harvard University as the writer.
All this intensely interested and amused Colonel Roosevelt and he fairly itched with the desire to write a series of criticisms of his own articles to Doctor Eliot. Bok, however, persuaded the colonel not to spend more physical effort than he was already doing on the articles; for, in addition, he was notating answers on the numerous letters received, and those Bok answered “on behalf of the author.”
For a year, the department continued. During all that time the secret of the authorship was known to only one man, besides the colonel and Bok, and their respective wives!
When the colonel sent his last article in the series to Bok, he wrote: Now that the work is over, I wish most cordially to thank you, my dear fellow, for your unvarying courtesy and kindness. I have not been satisfied with my work. This is the first time I ever tried to write precisely to order, and I am not one of those gifted men who can do so to advantage. Generally I find that the 3,000 words is not the right length and that I wish to use 2,000 or 4,000! And in consequence feel as if I had either padded or mutilated the article. And I am not always able to feel that every month I have something worth saying on a given subject.
But I hope that you have not been too much disappointed.
Bok had not been, and neither had his public!
In the meanwhile, Bok had arranged with Colonel Roosevelt for his reading and advising upon manuscripts of special significance for the magazine. In this work, Colonel Roosevelt showed his customary promptness and thoroughness. A manuscript, no matter how long it might be, was in his hands scarcely forty-eight hours, more generally twenty-four, before it was read, a report thereon written, and the article on its way back. His reports were always comprehensive and invariably interesting. There was none of the cut-and-dried flavor of the opinion of the average “reader”; he always put himself into the report, and, of course, that meant a warm personal touch. If he could not encourage the publication of a manuscript, his reasons were always fully given, and invariably without personal bias.
On one occasion Bok sent him a manuscript which he was sure was, in its views, at variance with the colonel’s beliefs. The colonel, he knew, felt strongly on the subject, and Bok wondered what would be his criticism. The report came back promptly. He reviewed the article carefully and ended: “Of course, this is all at variance with my own views. I believe thoroughly and completely that this writer is all wrong. And yet, from his side of the case, I am free to say that he makes out the best case I have read anywhere. I think a magazine should present both sides of all questions; and if you want to present this side, I should strongly recommend that you do so with this article.” [figure]
Not long after, Bok decided to induce Colonel Roosevelt to embark upon an entirely new activity, and negotiations were begun (alas, too late! for it was in the autumn of 1918), which, owing to their tentative character, were never made public. Bok told Colonel Roosevelt that he wanted to invest twenty-five thousand dollars a year in American boyhood—the boyhood that he felt twenty years hence would be the manhood of America, and that would actually solve the problems with which we were now grappling.
Although, all too apparently, he was not in his usual vigorous health, Colonel Roosevelt was alert in a moment.
“Fine!” he said, with his teeth gleaming. “Couldn’t invest better anywhere. How are you going to do it?”
“By asking you to assume the active headship of the National Boy Scouts of America, and paying you that amount each year as a fixed salary.”
The colonel looked steadily ahead for a moment, without a word, and then with the old Roosevelt smile wreathing his face and his teeth fairly gleaming, he turned to his “tempter,” as he called him, and said:
“Do you know that was very well put? Yes, sir, very well put.”
“Yes?” answered Bok. “Glad you think so. But how about your acceptance of the idea?”
“That’s another matter; quite another matter. How about the organization itself? There are men in it that don’t approve of me at all, you know,” he said.
Bok explained that the organization knew nothing of his offer; that it was entirely unofficial. It was purely a personal thought. He believed the Boy Scouts of America needed a leader; that the colonel was the one man in the United States fitted by every natural quality to be that leader; that the Scouts would rally around him, and that, at his call, instead of four hundred thousand Scouts, as there were then, the organization would grow into a million and more. Bok further explained that he believed his connection with the national organization was sufficient, if Colonel Roosevelt would favorably consider such a leadership, to warrant him in presenting it to the national officers; and he was inclined to believe they would welcome the opportunity. He could not assure the colonel of this! He had no authority for saying they would; but was Colonel Roosevelt receptive to the idea?
At first, the colonel could not see it. But he went over the ground as thoroughly as a half-hour talk permitted; and finally the opportunity for doing a piece of constructive work that might prove second to none that he had ever done, made its appeal.
“You mean for me to be the active head?” asked the colonel.
“Could you be anything else, colonel?” answered Bok.
“Quite so,” said the colonel. “That’s about right. Do you know,” he pondered, “I think Edie (Mrs. Roosevelt) might like me to do something like that. She would figure it would keep me out of mischief in 1920,” and the colonel’s smile spread over his face.
“Bok,” he at last concluded, “do you know, after all, I think you’ve said something! Let’s think it over. Let’s see how I get along with this trouble of mine. I am not sure, you know, how far I can go in the future. Not at all sure, you know—not at all. That last trip of mine to South America was a bit too much. Shouldn’t have done it, you know. I know it now. Well, as I say, let’s both think it over and through; I will, gladly and most carefully. There’s much in what you say; it’s a great chance; I’d love doing it. By Jove! it would be wonderful to rally a million boys for real Americanism, as you say. It looms up as I think it over. Suppose we let it simmer for a month or two.”
And so it was left—for “a month or two.” It was to be forever—unfortunately. Edward Bok has always felt that the most worth-while idea that ever came to him had, for some reason he never could understand, come too late. He felt, as he will always feel, that the boys of America had lost a national leader that might have led them—where would have been the limit?