Where It Began

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt; drawing by David Levine


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…

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