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Where It Began


Imagine that John McCain challenges George W. Bush in the primaries for the Republican presidential nomination—and on being defeated by the Old Guard bosses launches his own political party. On the campaign trail he electrifies his followers by declaring that the federal government is “the steward of public welfare” and—in a deliberate slap to the big-money interests dominating the Republican Party—that “labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Imagine, too, that Ralph Nader, backed by 450 elected Socialist government officials, including the mayors of fifty-six American cities, runs on a platform calling for the collective ownership of land, transportation, communication, and banking, along with the abolition of the US Senate and the president’s veto power over legislation. Then insert George W. Bush as William Howard Taft and John Kerry as Woodrow Wilson running on more or less the political platforms we are all too familiar with today. And there you have an updated, rough equivalent of the election of 1912, with McCain sitting in for Theodore Roosevelt, and Nader for Eugene Debs—one of the most tumultuous and arguably the most important in American history. In his illuminating and absorbing study of that pregnant event James Chace dramatically describes how powerful political forces clashed in that last fateful election before the Great War shattered the nineteenth-century world. And he shows how the four-cornered race of 1912 casts its shadow today over the presidential election that is approaching.

Consider the contenders. First, dominating all others, was Theodore Roosevelt, champing at the bit after four years out of office and eager to return to the public arena. Roosevelt had been president for nearly eight years, after taking over from the assassinated William McKinley in 1901, and had been elected on the Republican ticket in his own right in 1904. He would have run again in 1908, and probably been elected, had it not been for the third-term taboo. Now in 1912 he thought he had waited long enough.

Second was Woodrow Wilson, the relatively unknown governor of New Jersey, a former professor and president of Princeton University. To a Democratic Party desperate for a candidate who would appeal to conservative Southerners and to mild reformers, but would not frighten the big city bosses, the moralizing political newcomer from Trenton represented a stab at respectability.

Third was William Howard Taft, the Republican incumbent, who had taken over the job in 1908 when Roosevelt told him it was his duty to succeed him as president. Decent, well-meaning, eager to please his mentor as well as his wife and the big-money party bosses, Taft shouldered the burdens of the presidency but did not enjoy it much; he wanted nothing more than to retire to the Supreme Court—which he eventually did to his great satisfaction.

All three of these candidates fit—each in his own way—in the American political tradition. The fourth, Debs, a labor leader, pacifist, political agitator, and socialist, was an anomaly then and would be a virtually unthinkable candidate today. Such a person would have to combine Noam Chomsky’s politics with Ralph Nader’s crusading doggedness and Bill Clinton’s political charisma. Debs did not have a chance of winning the presidency, but he had a cause to trumpet and a passionate conviction that the voice of the people must be heard.

It was a remarkable campaign. There had never been anything like it in American history, and there likely never will be again. For Chace it was “a defining moment in American history.” Had Roosevelt snatched the Republican nomination from the financiers and industrialists who controlled it, he might have made the party into an agent of domestic reform and enlightened internationalism: the kind of party that such Republican reformers as Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay later hoped, and failed, to build. TR mapped out, in Chace’s words, “the road not taken by American conservatism.” The defeat of his effort brought us a party defined by Warren Harding and Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

During his nearly eight years in the White House TR had won public acclaim for his efforts to regulate giant businesses and financial trusts, to reduce tariffs, and to protect the wilderness. But the party bosses could not tolerate a president who had ordered a successful antitrust suit against J.P. Morgan’s multitentacled holding company, forced mine owners to accept arbitration of their employees’ grievances, authorized government control of railroad rates, limited injunctions against labor unions, and called for the imposition of income and inheritance taxes, the eight-hour day, and control over campaign contributions. They rejoiced when, under pressure not to push the third-term taboo, he decided not to run again in 1908 to make room for the amiable Taft, and they did not want him back.

The irony was that the rotund, good-natured Taft was Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor—the man he believed would carry forward his program of moderate reform through the government’s stewardship. But Taft, however much he admired TR, was not a reformer. Under pressure from industry he raised tariffs and abandoned the environmental conservation measures dear to TR’s heart. Roosevelt had been prepared to back Taft’s reelection bid. Indeed he felt he had little choice, for the good of the Republican Party, and for his own personal future. But he had never given up the hope of one day returning to the White House.

By the summer of 1910 Roosevelt moved back into the political arena. On a three-week tour of western states his rhetoric—despite a pledge to unite the party—became increasingly radical. In Colorado he branded the Supreme Court a barrier to social justice, and at Osawotamie, Kansas, where in 1857 the abolitionist John Brown had launched his crusade to end slavery, he gave one of the most radical speeches of his life. Espousing a “New Nationalism” of strong government and domestic reform, he called for a graduated income tax and an inheritance tax, a comprehensive workman’s compensation act, prohibition of child labor, downward revision of tariffs, and supervision of corporations.

At the time, and even for today, when the political pendulum has moved sharply to the right, it was a bold position. Roosevelt had been greatly influenced by the leaders of the Progressive movement, and particularly by Herbert Croly, whose book, The Promise of American Life, had boldly attacked the Jeffersonian strain of progressivism, with its emphasis on free competition and a weak central government. In its place Croly favored a strong central government that would address the problem of growing inequality in America. The traditional confidence in “individual freedom has resulted in a morally and socially undesirable distribution of wealth…in the hands of a few men,” Croly had written.

Whereas Jefferson had failed to foresee how individualism had been corrupted by great concentrations of wealth and power, Alexander Hamilton had argued that only strong government under elite leadership could ensure the national welfare. Croly’s bold stroke was to combine the two traditions into a politics for the new industrial age. Big capital, he argued in his book and in the pages of the lively journal he founded, The New Republic, could be tamed only by a strong central government. The two traditions had to be combined: Jefferson’s egalitarianism and Hamilton’s countervailing government power. Hamiltonian means were required to achieve Jeffersonian ends. Thus was born the New Nationalism.

Naturally the magazine’s editors, among whom was the young Walter Lippmann, were attracted to TR. For all his bombast and obsession with shooting animals,1 Roosevelt was a reformer and an intellectual—a man who wrote history books, defied convention by inviting a black man to the White House and appointing a Jew to his cabinet, laid the groundwork for the welfare state, set up the national park system, and shocked conservatives by declaring that private property was “subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public may require it.”

Although he later fell out with TR, Lippmann never got over his admiration for this man who had, for a time, transformed the presidency and even the nation’s vision of its possibilities. Roosevelt, he wrote many years later,

was the first president who knew that the United States had come of age—that not only were they no longer colonies of Europe, and no longer an immature nation on the periphery of western civilization, but that they had become a world power. He was the first to realize what that means, its responsibility and its dangers and its implication, and the first to prepare the country spiritually and physically for this inescapable destiny…. The first president who realized clearly that national stability and social justice had to be sought deliberately and consciously to be maintained…that once the period of settlement and easy expansion had come to an end, the promise of American life could be realized only by a national effort…. Theodore Roosevelt began the work of turning the American mind in the direction which it had to go in the twentieth century.

When he turned over the presidency to Taft in 1909 Roosevelt believed that his successor, the man whom he had persuaded to run for office, would carry on his policies. But his disillusionment with Taft, combined with his own restless energies, overwhelmed his restraint. When the candidacy of Robert LaFollette, the insurgent progressive challenger to Taft for the Republican nomination, imploded early in 1912, Roosevelt threw his own hat in the ring. The fight for the nomination was on between the Old Guard party regulars who had persuaded Taft to run for a second term, and the Roosevelt insurgency. One by one TR took crucial states in the primaries, even beating Taft in his native Ohio. Roosevelt was clearly riding the tide as the showdown battle moved into the convention.

Although TR had outpolled Taft in the primaries by a ratio of ten to seven he was at a grave disadvantage at a convention controlled by the party bosses. Stealing Roosevelt’s delegates, they awarded 235 to Taft and left only nineteen to the challenger. TR was buried by their parliamentary maneuvers. Defiant, he declared that he was “feeling like a bull moose,” and led the break-away delegates, with the financial backing of several millionaire supporters, out of the convention hall and down the street to form a new political party pledged to progressive values. There, as he seized the challenge, he told the ecstatic delegates, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” Two months later he was back in Chicago for the Progressive Party officially to offer him its dubious crown. Under a huge bull moose banner the delegates sang revivalist hymns, condemned the “special interests” that dominated both major parties, and thrilled to TR’s declaration that “our cause is based on the eternal principle of righteousness.”

Only a man of TR’s pride and stubborn determination would have taken the huge gamble of running as a third party candidate. Had he chosen to stand aside and let Taft run again he would almost certainly have been nominated by the Republicans in 1916. By splitting the Republican vote he would be blamed for the likely defeat of the party and lose his chance to run again.2 But he was a risk-taker, and he was angry that the nomination had so cynically and brazenly been seized from him by the party’s power brokers. What he ended up doing was to open the White House door to a man whom he detested as a political opportunist and a hypocrite: Woodrow Wilson.

  1. 1

    On his trip to Africa with his son, he killed 512 animals, including seventeen lions, eleven elephants, twenty rhinoceroses, and nine giraffes.

  2. 2

    Which is exactly what happened in 1916 when the Old Guard took its revenge on TR and nominated the colorless Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Walter Lippmann, who covered that convention for The New Republic, described it with withering scorn as

    a witches’ dance of idiocy and adult hypocrisy. DuPont, for instance, and his wonderful grandfather, and the grand old state of Ohio, and the golden state of Iowa, and the flag, red, white and blue, all its stripes, all its stars, and the flag a thousand times over, and Americanism till your ears ached, and the slaves and the tariff, and Abraham Lincoln, mauled and dragged about and his name taken in vain, and his spirit degraded, prostituted to every insincerity and used as window-dressing for every cheap politician. The incredible sordidness of that convention passes all description. It was a gathering of unsanitary callous men who blasphemed patriotism, made a mockery of Republican government and filled the air with sodden and scheming stupidity.

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