Remarks to the Gridiron Club
At the Gridiron Club,
New Willard Hotel
Mr. President and Gentlemen:
This is my first night out since I came to Washington, and I want to say that I have profoundly enjoyed it. I have lived among good fellows all my life and I have found another bunch.
You have paid me a very deep compliment tonight, perhaps without being aware of it. You have interpreted, for I have gleaned that you have understood, my conception of the part that I have to play. The Presidency of the United States, gentlemen, is a very great office. We hope and believe that it is an immortal office, which may be lifted higher and higher for the guidance of a people and the guidance of free men throughout the world. But pray do not confound the man who occupies it with the office itself. The fundamental feeling that I have is that I am not identified with that office. I am the person for the time being allotted to administer it; and the only way in which I can administer it is by constantly feeling the grip of other men fastened upon my hand, not only to guide me, but to accompany me in the great task that is assigned me.
That is perhaps the reason why I have done some very unconventional things in this very conventional town! As I was saying to a large group of friends the other day, I get a very singular impression of what has been the rule in the District of Columbia, because whenever I do a perfectly natural thing, I am told I have done something unprecedented. I am trying to get at the job by all the natural short cuts that I can think of, for the job is to understand and to be understood. It is not to stand off and imagine myself identified with the dignity and the immortality of a great office, but to think myself identified with the men with whom I am trying to cooperate, so that we may think common thoughts, for if we do not, we cannot have common purposes. Surely that is the reason why some of the men present have honored me with a peculiar confidence. They have paid me the compliment of not believing that I was fool enough to think that I knew the whole thing. They have paid me the compliment of recognizing that I was going about trying to learn from others, not trying to instruct those who have been longer in the game than I have. And there is one thing, and only one, that we have in common. That is our connection with the great impulses of the people to which we belong.
I have experienced in the last month a certain sense of isolation. One reason that I went up to the Capitol the other day is that it is lonely down at my end of the Avenue. I wanted to see some of the fellows, and see what they looked like; and I had a curious impression on Tuesday last that I was the only person present who was not embarrassed. The gentlemen in front of me all sat and looked at me as if I were a specimen at a horse show, as if wondering what this singular person was going to do, wondering if he had a bomb under his coat,--saying that he had come there, the President of the United States, to deliver his message, --not knowing that there is no living being whose pride would not be hurt by having his message read by a reading clerk, particularly when most of the members during that reading were quite excusably in the cloakroom, or that it was very interesting to the President of the United States, or at least to the person who was administering that office, to see what was going on among the bunch at the other end of the Avenue. Because what goes on there determines what is going to happen. Unless something is done on the Hill, nothing will be done anywhere. And unless I understand their minds, I cannot be of any service to them, and if I cannot be of any service to the,m, I cannot be of any service to the country itself. This business of the division of powers, carried to the point of punctilio to which it has been carried, amounts to a permanent misunderstanding, to a permanent incapacity to get together.
A singular thing about you newspaper men is that you are taking it for granted every day that it is incredible that there is not a fight on somewhere. You announced the interesting fact that when I met the Democratic members of the Finance Committee of the Senate, it was for the purpose of having them tell me where to get off. One of the papers said that. Now, I do not remember being told where to get off. I distinctly remember that the result of the conference was a general understanding as to how we were all to stay on. Every morning I pick up the paper and see that there are all sorts of friction, if not already in existence, just about to be created. I must be exquisitely lubricated! I do not feel any friction. And I have not found any man who did. The fact of the matter is that the friction has been such a common excitement in Washington that it is incredible that it should not exist. Now, I want you gentlemen of the Press to believe in the incredible. There “ain’t no” friction. And there “ain’t goin’ to be no” friction. The parts of this machine are so nicely assembled that they will not even need any Standard oil to lubricate them. There may be a fight, but it will be a orthodox, proper fight, the kind of fight that is set down in the bill, the kind of fight that always occurs between men who honestly differ with each other. It will not be a knock-down and drag-out fight, but it will be a fight to the finish; and at the finish everybody will stand up and smile serenely, and say, “Well, it was a bully fight and we got the job done.” This is get-together business; that is all I can say now. Because this is not a speech, this is just a preliminary skirmiash. I am going to make a speech presently, but it will be in New Jersey. My warpaint is at the White House, but I am going to carry it in my bag and not put it on until I get in the proper jurisdiction, where there is a fight going on. Then I will put it on, and I shall feel very much at home again.
There is not much fun standing up and making a speech when there is no business being transacted; but when there is business on the boards, then there is a lot of fun in making a speech. To make particular remarks about particular individuals, named by name, Christian name and all, as for example “Jim this and Jim that”, gives spice and directness to discourse which is not set down in the books of rhetoric, but which is exceedingly serviceable for accomplishing the end in view, which is the concentration of public opinion upon certain gentlemen who have not very handsome wares to exhibit. The function of public speakers now is largely the function of swinging the searchlight. And the great fun in swinging the searchlight is to see the fellows who dodge and to see the fellows who stand up and face the light.
For the image is not an idle one, gentlemen; we are facing the light. I want to express in this public way the profound appreciation I feel for what Senator Root said this evening. Speeches like that make me feel that we are facing the light. You know it is easy to be discouraged about things. John Morley once said that anything will look black if you hold it up against the light that blazes in Utopia, but you do not have to hold it up that way. You have to let the light shine upon its face, and then the gleam will be returned by the shining surface you expose to it. And when I see men doing what they are doing now, forgetting party prejudices, turning to one another with honest disagreements and honest differences of opinion and trying to work out a common purpose by undersanding each other, then I know that we are facing the light, and all we have to do is to move forward together in order to fulfill the hopes of a great people that waits upon us.