Geoffrey Cowan Discusses Presidential Primaries at Writers Festival

Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Geoffrey Cowan takes a question from U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer

In 1968, Geoffrey Cowan was a Yale University law student whose research into the way the Democratic Party chose its candidates for president ultimately gave voters a greater say in the process. His efforts were even lauded on the ABC Network Evening News in 1972 (see video below).

So, when he set out to write a book about Theodore Roosevelt’s push for voters to take part in presidential primaries in the election of 1912, Cowan was intent on recounting the tale of one of his heroes, a historical figure who had inspired his work to make the Democratic Party nominating process more inclusive.

That was until Cowan, president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands (2010-2016), discovered something new. Roosevelt, then a former U.S. president seeking to return to the glory of the Oval Office, had chosen to exclude African Americans in the South from joining the Bull Moose Party, which he had created to challenge incumbent President William Taft. Roosevelt spurned his African American admirers after courting them in a failed attempt to win the Republican Party nomination for president, Cowan found.

“I had this clash of feelings,” Cowan told a crowd of more than 300 people who came to hear him discuss his new book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary, at the third annual Rancho Mirage Writers Festival on Jan. 22. Cowan, who had participated in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi in 1964, said he decided to dedicate his book to those who “fought to expand the [voting] franchise in 1912 and those who fought to expand the franchise today.”

Former Governor Gray Davis, Masha Gessen, Diane Deshong, Geoffrey Cowan, Aileen Adams, and Sharon Davis

The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands is a partner of the writers festival. The day before Cowan spoke at the Rancho Mirage Public Library, Sunnylands hosted a writers roundtable at the Retreat Pavilion for festival authors. Masha Green, the Russian and American journalist whose book Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot chronicled the Pussy Riot protest movement in Russia, and Michael Dobbs, who penned the book upon which the television series House of Cards is based, were among the authors in attendance. The following evening, a reception for the authors at Sunnylands Center attracted more than 200 guests.

Cowan’s talk on presidential primaries at the library drew a pair of political heavyweights – California U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer and former Governor Gray Davis. It was one of a number of in-person and media appearances Cowan has made to discuss his book, which chronicles the rise of presidential primaries, as candidates in today’s race for the White House fight for support among voters in early-primary states.

Why did Roosevelt exclude African Americans in the South from his new party? “That’s a question I’ve struggled with in the last several years,” Cowan said, though he has found no concrete answers.

“When I started my research I expected to be able to tell the story of a great American hero. Instead the book includes a disgraceful story of political self-interest and racism,” Cowan said to his audience in Rancho Mirage. “And, looking at today’s primary campaigns inevitably raises the question: ‘Is there anything a candidate wouldn’t do in order to win the presidency?’”


“Geoffrey Cowan” Comment by Howard K. Smith, ABC Network Evening News, July 10, 1972