A Presidential Free-For-All


Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs --

The Election That Changed the Country

By James Chace

Simon & Schuster -- 323pp -- $25.95

He had become President without winning a majority of the popular vote, a big-state governor who ran as a reformer with results. A devout Christian, he was a moral absolutist with little patience for shades of gray -- or for dissent. And before coming to Washington, he had little knowledge of -- or interest in -- the world beyond America's shores. "It would be an irony of fate if my Administration had to deal chiefly with foreign matters, for all my preparation has been in domestic matters," he remarked shortly before taking the oath of office.

Sound familiar? Well, the President in question does have a middle name starting with a "W" -- but it's Woodrow, not Walker. And just as George Walker Bush has become enmeshed in a series of overseas crises, Thomas Woodrow Wilson faced a Presidency dominated by global troubles, from the invasion of Mexico to the "Great War" that engulfed Europe and drew America into the fray.

Bush isn't mentioned in James Chace's engrossing historical work, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs -- The Election That Changed the Country, but the most raucous election contest of the 20th century is particularly pertinent today. And you thought Ralph Nader and John McCain gave headaches to Al Gore and George Bush in 2000. Imagine a four-way race for President in which the conservative Republican incumbent (William Howard Taft) is eclipsed by a third-party candidate (Theodore Roosevelt) -- who happens to be his White House predecessor and former best friend. Meanwhile, the reformist Democrat (Wilson) has to contend with a charismatic left-winger (Eugene V. Debs) who's exploiting the growing public sentiment against economic dislocation and concentration of wealth.

With the possible exception of the Truman-Dewey-Thurmond-Wallace free-for-all in 1948, it's hard to recall another American Presidential drama with such compelling characters. Three of the 1912 foes are larger-than-life figures: Democrat Wilson, "Bull Moose" Progressive Roosevelt, and Socialist Debs. The fourth, Taft, was just plain large. As Chace points out, the fattest President in American history once got stuck in the White House bathtub, leading to the installation of a bathing behemoth seven feet long and four feet wide.

Taft "had never wanted to be President," writes Chace, but he was pushed into the job by an ambitious wife. The Ohioan was ill-equipped to be President and was overshadowed by the Big Business Republicans on Capitol Hill and the legendary man he had replaced. As Roosevelt made headlines, hunting in Africa and hobnobbing with royalty, Taft struggled. TR's return was met with ticker-tape parades and speculation about a third term in the White House.

The core of Chace's book is the major parties' nomination battles. For the GOP, the fix was in. TR trounced Taft in the few primaries, but the incumbent controlled the party machinery. That led to his victory at a Chicago convention showdown brought vividly to life by Chace, a former managing editor of Foreign Affairs and author of the acclaimed biography, Acheson. Roosevelt's fervent backers were part tent revivalists, part street mob. Thousands of handbills announced that at 3 p.m. on the convention's opening day, the hero of San Juan Hill would "walk on the waters of Lake Michigan." When a rigged credentials committee refused to seat some key Roosevelt delegates, fistfights broke out in the hall and, for 20 minutes, police were unable to restore order.

Wilson's 46th-ballot nomination wasn't quite so colorful, but it was the product of months of behind-the-scenes machinations by a brilliant Texas operative named Colonel Edward Mandell House. The Colonel managed to cast Wilson, who grew up in the South, as a Northern reformer who sympathized with segregationist Dixie. That helped Wilson outmaneuver rivals including populist champion William Jennings Bryan and House Speaker Champ Clark.

The biggest problem with 1912 is that its drama ends when the general election campaign begins. With the Republican Party torn asunder, a Wilson victory is assured. But the final result is not without significance: 1912 was a pivotal year in reshaping the major parties. The GOP, long the home of big government and reform, became strongly identified with corporate interests instead. Many Bull Moose progressives eventually moved into the Democratic Party of TR's cousin Franklin. And President Wilson's regulation of business and his enactment of workers' rights legislation and a graduated income tax turned many Socialists into Democrats.

For Wilson himself, there was no happy ending. His moral certainty and unyielding fervor -- waging war to make the world safe for democracy -- was ridiculed by Republicans and rejected by the nation at the polls in 1918 and 1920. He left office an unpopular President and a broken man.

The 1912 campaign is more than a good story. For an election held nearly a century ago, it's surprisingly relevant today.

By Richard S. Dunham

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