For months, as the U.S. had edged toward war with Germany, Roosevelt had been trying to form a new version of his Rough Riders, the all-volunteer division that he’d led in the Spanish-American War. Now, on April 10, 1917, the pugnacious ex-president had the chance to sell the idea of a reconstituted Riders to Wilson, the cautious academic who’d defeated him in the 1912 presidential election.
Wilson greeted Roosevelt warily. Their rivalry, cooled by a friendly White House chat over lemonade three years prior, had flared up the previous fall. Campaigning for Wilson’s opponent, Republican Charles Evans Hughes, in November 1916, Roosevelt blasted Wilson as cowardly for not going to war over the German sinking of the Lusitania
. Privately, in the months since the election, he’d kept it up. On March 1, the day news of the Zimmermann Telegram broke, he’d sniped to his son Kermit about “the lily-livered skunk in the White House.” But now that Wilson had chosen war
, Roosevelt tried to reconcile.
“Mr. President, what I have said and thought, and what others have said and thought, is all dust in a windy street if now we can make your [war] message good,” Roosevelt said.
Even the reserved Wilson couldn’t resist Roosevelt’s effusive charm. “The president doesn’t like Theodore Roosevelt and he was not one bit effusive in his greeting,” White House staffer Thomas Brahany wrote in his diary. But soon, Brahany added, “the President had ‘thawed out’ and was laughing and ‘talking back.’ They had a real good visit.” Roosevelt promised to support Wilson’s proposal for a military draft, then hit him up with his request to return to the Army as a division commander. “I told Wilson that I would die on the field of battle,” Roosevelt said later, “that I would never return if only he would let me go!”