Geoffrey Cowan

University Professor, Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership, and Dean Emeritus of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California

Let the People Rule

Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary

“Cowan has brought to life a fascinating part of TR’s story usually left out of the history books. He tells it with verve and suspense, warts and all, his insights deepened by his own impressive background as a democracy activist.”

Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars

Professor Cowan in the News

Reviews & Endorsements for Let the People Rule

Geoffrey Cowan’s new book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary, has been reviewed by many of the country’s top newspapers and notable individuals. Here are a sampling:


“Dazzling…. Cowan brings fresh depth and breadth to this sordid tale. Thus do we see, through his research and deft storytelling, how reform movements are often encased in self-interested cant.”


“[Cowan’s] excellent new book…is so replete with historical echoes that it reminds one that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it sometimes does rhyme.”
Andrew roberts, THE TELEGRAPH


“Timely and enjoyable.”


“Cowan tells his story with great verve.”H.w. Brands, WASHINGTON POST


“Admirably nuanced.”
Ari Berman, THE NEW YORK TIMES Book Review




“The best new discussion of the primary system.”

Jill lepore, the new yorker



“A lively, relevant primer in the sausage-making of candidate selection….Few historians have given this shameful chapter in the Progressive Party the attention that it deserves, and Cowan’s documentation, drawn mostly from newspaper accounts from the summer of 1912, is compelling.”



“Cowan’s recounting of [Roosevelt and Taft] competing in several primaries is a great read.”UNION LEADER


“[The start of the primary system] is a complicated story that Cowan keeps lively…Cowan renders [Theodore Roosevelt’s] charisma palpable.”TIME MAGAZINE

natl bookr eview

“In Let the People Rule, Geoffrey Cowan provides a riveting account of the birth of primaries during the 1912 GOP race. With the shelves of books that have been written on Roosevelt, Cowan deserves praise for unearthing new – and sometimes unsavory – details about TR’s political career.”NATIONAL BOOK REVIEW


“Brings to life the wheeler-dealers, back-alley shenanigans, and political intrigue embedded within this legislative saga…. Political junkies will delight in this rollicking history containing lessons applicable to our contemporary political landscape.”KIRKUS REVIEWS


Both general readers and historians will enjoy the book’s you-are-there feel because of Cowan’s excellent use of primary documents.”LIBRARY JOURNAL


“The January release date of the book, which tells of Roosevelt’s unsuccessful 1912 presidential campaign and role in initiating state primaries, turned out to be perfectly timed, given the political atmosphere in the run up to the 2016 presidential election.”USC ANNENBERG NEWS




“Highly engaging, with a host of compelling characters engaged in great political drama….This book should appeal to scholars of the presidency, American political development, and elections and voting, as well as to those with a casual interest in political history.

presidential studies quarterly


“Cowan writes…this timely, engaging story…with a Rooseveltian verve.”PUBLISHERS WEEKLY


“[A] powerful new book…[that] paints a colorful and complex, yet ultimately ignominious portrait of the Rough Rider.”PASADENA WEEKLY




“Lively and detailed history….Besides the sheer action afforded by the vivid narrative and larger-than-life personalities, this book offers obvious parallels with current political fights and illuminates their origins.”

martha minow, dean, harvard law school 

“A suspenseful narrative, replete with larger-than-life personalities, and a must-read backstory for anyone concerned with the history and fate of a democracy that, at its best, aims to ‘Let the People Rule.’”


“A fascinating tale…. I found this book revelatory.”

janet Napolitano, President, University of California

“A rich, eye-popping political history. Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive hero, but he could play as rough as today’s most cynically expedient politicians.”EVAN THOMAS, AUTHOR OF BEING NIXON AND ROBERT KENNEDY

“Rips the lid off of the 1912 presidential election. Cowan brilliantly illuminates everything from the birth of the political primary system to the disenfranchisement of African Americans to egos writ large. The narrative has a marvelous flow and the research is superb.”DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AT RICE UNIVERSITY AND AUTHOR OF THE WILDERNESS WARRIOR: THEODORE ROOSEVELT AND THE CRUSADE FOR AMERICA

“Cowan has brilliantly re-created a pivotal moment in American political history…brought vividly to life through dogged and creative research and graceful storytelling. Political junkies across America are buckling in for another tumultuous primary season in 2016—and they couldn’t find a better way to prepare than to devour this rollicking and remarkably current tale of how it all began, over a century ago.”RONALD BROWNSTEIN, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR FOR STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS, ATLANTIC MEDIA

“A fresh and perceptive look… Based on extensive research in original sources,Let the People Rule laces striking information on TR’s race against President Taft with new insights and a fresh and important analysis. Let the People Rule is the book to read on Roosevelt’s pivotal year.”LEWIS L. GOULD, AUTHOR OF THE REPUBLICANS: A HISTORY OF THE GRAND OLD PARTY

“For those of us who believe that modern American politics began at the turn of the twentieth and not the twenty-first century, Geoff Cowan has produced a fresh contribution to the argument. The modern mechanics of presidential selection, the rise of candidacies largely independent of party, and the mobilization of autonomous supporters: all come to life in Let the People Rule.”BYRON E. SHAFER, HAWKINS CHAIR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN

“Not only is this a great book but also it could not be more relevant to what is going on politically.”

Tweed roosevelt, president, theodore roosevelt association

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Cowan interviewed in Trojan Family Magazine

Geoffrey Cowan was interviewed by USC News’ Marc Ballon for Trojan Family Magazine’s Summer 2016 issue. He discussed how primaries have shaped American presidential elections, including drawbacks to the current system and the difficulty in creating third parties in American politics.

About the unexpected nominations of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, Cowan said:

“Primaries have sometimes proved that candidates can get popular support, even if there are substantial doubts about their viability. By winning West Virginia, a Protestant state, Kennedy proved that a Catholic could win. That forced the hand of party leaders, including Catholic bosses who had doubted that JFK could be elected. In Reagan’s case, many argued that he was too old to serve as president. Then he ran an extremely vigorous primary campaign that made his age less of an issue. There are a lot of analogies between John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama in 2008. Even many African-Americans didn’t think Obama could win and didn’t rally to him until he won the caucuses in Iowa, a heavily white state.”

Read more.

Harvard Law School Dean Reviews “Let the People Rule”

On the eve of major primary contests in California, New Jersey and other states, Harvard Law Dean Martha Minow published a review of Let the People Rule in The New Rambler. The review begins by connecting the contests of 1912 to the 2016 primaries:

An internal and nasty fight within the Republican Party; conflict between establishment leaders and populist opinions; unprecedented importance of potential support from African-American voters; raucous and bruising primary fights: The year was 1912, the focus of Geoffrey Cowan’s lively and detailed history of Theodore Roosevelt’s insurgent effort to reclaim the White House. With the benefit of newly identified archival materials, Cowan traces conflicts over the innovative idea of presidential primaries, and details deal-making, corruption, name-calling and betrayals as Roosevelt battled William Howard Taft, his one-time hand-picked successor and old friend. Besides the sheer action afforded by the vivid narrative and larger-than-life personalities, this book offers obvious parallels with current political fights and illuminates their origins.

Most tellingly, it highlights a key chapter in the ongoing debate: how significant should popular voting be in the selection of presidential candidates and presidents themselves?….

Read more.


Cowan interviewed in SF Chronicle for Bay Area Book Festival

Geoffrey Cowan was interviewed by SF Chronicle’s, Jeanne Cooper, on Sunday, May 29th.  He discussed his upcoming interview for his book Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary at the Bay Area Book Festival. The festival is scheduled for June 5th, a mere two days in advance of California’s primary.

In response to a book reviewers comment stating that Donald Trump may want to send Cowan “a thank you note” in assisting his potential win of the Republican nomination due to his role in increasing the number of primaries in 1968, Cowan replied:

“When that note arrives, I will let you know,” joked Cowan, who will be interviewed by author Adam Hochschild (“Spain in Our Hearts”) at 3:15 p.m. Sunday at Dharma College.

Read the full article here.

Cowan interviewed by Tweed Roosevelt for Theodore Roosevelt Association podcast

Cowan was interviewed by the president of the Theodore Roosevelt Association (and TR’s grandson), Tweed Roosevelt, for the inaugural episode of Tweed’s Pods.

In the most recent TR Association newsletter, Tweed described the interview and an upcoming meeting in October for TRA members and those who might like to join:

Our first interview is with Geoffrey Cowan, the author of an exciting new book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. Not only is this a great book but also it could not be more relevant to what is going on politically. Click on the YouTube link below and listen. Geoff will be part of our extraordinary Symposium line-up during our Annual Meeting to be held in Oyster Bay on Saturday, October 29. A very special Annual Dinner will take place that evening at Sagamore Hill to honor the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service and will feature keynote speakers Jon Jarvis, Director of the Park Service, and U.S. Congressman Steve Israel of New York’s 2nd District, which includes Oyster Bay.


Cowan talks presidential primaries on MSNBC’s Morning Joe

Geoffrey Cowan appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Monday, April 25. He discussed the importance of unbound delegates in the 2016 presidential nomination process as well as the impact of his new book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. Watch a video of the discussion on MSNBC’s website.

Cowan discusses history of presidential primaries and the 2016 election on C-SPAN

Geoffrey Cowan was interviewed on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal call-in program this Sunday, April 24th, at 8:30am ET. He discussed the history of presidential primaries and the 2016 election in the context of his new book, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. 

Watch a video of the interview on C-SPAN’s website.

Cowan pens article for The Atlantic about parallels between 1912 and 2016

Geoffrey Cowan recently published an article titled “Riots, Guns, Bribes: TR’s Contested Convention” in The Atlantic.  The article explores the 2016 election, the upcoming conventions and the parallels to 1912.

As Americans prepare for the possibility of another contested convention, it is at least comforting to know that the nation has lived through – and triumphed – during some equally rough-and-tumble times.

Cowan interviewed in the Christian Science Monitor

Christian Science Monitor reporter Randy Dotinga interviewed Geoffrey Cowan about his book Let the People Rule and the connections between the primaries in 2016 and 1912.

Cowan is the right person to write this book since he himself played a major role in the evolution of presidential politics. As a young activist in 1968, he helped rewrite the Democratic Party’s rules to allow more direct democracy and less influence by party bosses. (Cowan, dean emeritus of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and former director of Voice of America, is now president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands.)

In a Monitor interview, Cowan talks about Roosevelt’s self-interested change of heart, his legacy on the election front, and Cowan’s own perspective on this year’s wild campaign.

Read More

Listen: Cowan talks Roosevelt on KABC Radio


Geoffrey Cowan was interviewed about his new book on 790 KABC’s McIntyre in the Morning radio show. Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary is now available.

Listen to the full interview below:

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© Geoffrey Cowan 2017