Fighting Others' Fights
Mr. Harriman's “don't-give-a-damnitiveness” has been worse since the insurance investigation began than ever before. He has delighted in offending public sentiment. … His arrogance toward the public is beyond belief and rather emphasizes my opinion that to be really effective in this world a man must have the elements of stupidity in his make-up no matter how strong he may be.
—American Magazine, April 1907
“The history of Harriman,” proclaimed one of an endless procession of Harriman watchers, “is a history of battle.” Given his combative nature, this was hardly a revelation. What is surprising is the number of fights that came to him rather than emanating from him. “If there was any fighting going on within earshot, however little it might concern him,” mused Otto Kahn, “he was tempted to take a hand in the fray, and the greater the odds against his side, the better.” Three bitter, highly publicized struggles did much to blacken Harriman's name between 1905 and 1907. All were forced on him by circumstances or the actions of others. 1
A peculiar flavor of irony hangs over these episodes. Although Harriman never backed down from a fight once drawn into it, he would have given much to avoid these clashes. They consumed enormous amounts of time and energy he could no longer spare. In different ways all were “no-win” situations that hurt the victor as much as the loser, with repercussions that extended far beyond the immediate issues. Finally, and most painful, all three fights pitted Harriman against men who had once been friends: James Hazen Hyde of Equitable Life, Stuyvesant Fish, and President Theodore Roosevelt.
The Equitable fight was an accident waiting to happen, and it was Harriman's misfortune to be in the right place at the wrong time. “Mr. Harriman had nothing whatever to do with the original trouble,” sighed Kahn. “There was no earthly reason why he should have been drawn into the fierce and bitter contest which followed, but in he jumped with both feet and laid about with such vigor that in the end he became almost the principal and probably the most attacked figure of the conflict, both the warring factions pausing in their fight against each other to pour their fire of abuse and innuendo upon him.” 2