1912 by James Chace

1912Although many people might have lost track of this event in the 14 hours of the Ken Burns documentary on the Roosevelts, the 1912 Presidential Election was one of the most important in the history of the United States. Which could be why James Chace, a Bard College professor, subtitled this book “Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs – The Election That Changed the Country.” This particular book tries to dig into the reasons for why this election was so pivotal, but it seems a little thin in parts.

The driving figure in the 1912 election was former President Theodore Roosevelt, who, after two years out of office, realized that his hand-picked successor, William Taft, wasn’t cutting it. Taft had proven to be more conservative than Roosevelt anticipated, too easily cowed by Wall Street, and not committed to Roosevelt’s policies on conservation. (And that was just the start of it.)

In 1911, Taft had the Justice Department investigate U.S. Steel for antitrust violations. Roosevelt had well-known for being a “trust-buster”, but Roosevelt actually helped form that corporation. Roosevelt felt betrayed. It was time to run.

Roosevelt’s plan was to make a good showing in the 13 states with primaries (New Hampshire didn’t have one at the time) and then the Republican party leaders would have to give him the nomination. And Roosevelt succeeded in that regard by winning 9 of the last 10 primaries. Taft won just one, with Wisconsin senator Robert La Follette winning two others.

However, Taft’s supporters still controlled the Republican party machinery. Taft dominated delegate selection in state caucuses and controlled the convention. Roosevelt’s supporters walked out when they realized that the deck was stacked against them. They formed their own party, which was officially dubbed the Progressive Party, although it is better known as the Bull Moose Party. (Hiram Johnson of California was Roosevelt’s running mate.)

On the Democratic side, the party, tiring of the vapid populism of William Jennings Bryan (who lost three times), had taken a shine to a former Princeton University president, Woodrow Wilson, who had been elected Governor of New Jersey in 1910. Speaker of the House Champ Clark was the favorite candidate of the Washington crowd.

The Democratic convention took 46 ballots to nominate Wilson, who trailed Clark most of the time, until Bryan threw his support to Wilson late in the game. Thomas Marshall of Indiana was nominated for Vice President.

Chace gives a lot of space to Socialist candidate Eugene Debs, almost writing more about him than Wilson, and certainly more than Taft. Labor tensions were very high at the time and socialism was not yet anathema to the American political scene.

Roosevelt campaigned on a platform which he dubbed “the New Nationalism.” Roosevelt’s plan would be considered bold even today. Roosevelt wanted to establish a national health insurance plan (mostly for the elderly), set up a plan for the recall of judges (but not Supreme Court justices) who handed down decisions the people disagreed with, as well as increasing government regulation of business.

Wilson countered Roosevelt with a plan known as “the New Freedom.”  Wilson’s plan was somewhat progressive, although not as much as Roosevelt’s. The centerpiece of The New Freedom was the establishment of a national banking system, which would ultimately become the Federal Reserve System. Wilson tried to present himself as an intellectual and progressive, while trying to make people forget that he espoused segregation and in a recent book described Eastern European immigrants as inferior to others.

Taft didn’t campaign much, figuring that he was doomed. But, he knew that as long as he was in the race, it would be nearly impossible for Roosevelt to win. So, he had that. Taft’s Vice President, James Sherman, died in late October, and he was replaced by a different Ivy League president, Columbia’s Nicholas Murray Butler.

Roosevelt almost didn’t make it through the campaign as he was shot by a potential assassin in Milwaukee. Fortunately for Roosevelt, the wound was not serious nor did it cause a serious infection.

The election was not particularly close. Wilson won the popular vote with a little over 6 million votes, although it was only 41% of the total because of the three-way race. Roosevelt won 27% of the vote and Taft won 21%. Wilson won 40 of the 48 states, Roosevelt won 6, and Taft won just 2 (Vermont and Utah). Taft holds the distinction of having the worst showing of any incumbent President in terms of Electoral Vote totals and Popular Vote percentage.

The Progressive Era is one of the most fascinating times in American History. Nearly everything in America changed. Women’s suffrage was on its way in. Support for Prohibition was growing. Immigration from Eastern Europe was transforming American cities. If you just want a brief overview, this book will suffice, but it seems that there could have been much more.

32A 1912 cartoon

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Making of the President, 1964 by Theodore H. White

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter winning a Pulitzer Prize with his groundbreaking, dramatic, psychologically intense depiction of the 1960 presidential campaign, Theodore White tried it again in 1964. But, this election lacked the drama of 1960 (most elections have) and instead, White came up with a somewhat confused narrative that paints the winning candidate, Lyndon Johnson, as both a saint and sinner, and the loser, Barry Goldwater, as a man with crazed followers with only a passing grip on reality.

White’s book was published in 1965 and it came out before the United States started to come apart at the seams because of the Vietnam War and race relations, taking down Johnson’s presidency. Goldwater, who is presented as one of the least mainstream candidates ever, could have become the Conservative movement’s icon, if only the people of California hadn’t elected Ronald Reagan as governor in 1966, changing the course of American politics.

The book opens with the assassination of Kennedy and the reactions to it by Johnson, the Cabinet, and the leading Republican contenders of the era: Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon. White, who had authored a long, laudatory piece for Life Magazine on the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, almost wants you to get on a plane to ask the Pope to make Kennedy a saint.

Fortunately, the rhetoric dies down a bit. Most of the book is dedicated to the Republican campaign, which was the only contested one as Johnson opted to run in his own right.

There were just 16 state primaries in 1964 (along with one for the District of Columbia for the first time). Then, as now, New Hampshire started things off. Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge won that primary, mostly because of name recognition from his time as a Massachusetts senator. Goldwater and Rockefeller decided to duke it out in the last two major primaries: Oregon and California.

Rockefeller won in Oregon, but Goldwater won decisively in California. Goldwater was hurt by a recent divorce and, even worse, by fathering a child from his second wife during the campaign. (Two years later, the divorced and remarried Reagan would be elected governor of California.) Goldwater was then able to out organize Rockefeller in the state caucuses to sew up the nomination.

Before the convention, Pennsylvania governor William Scranton tried to enter the race, hoping for a draft from liberal Republican delegates. Scranton planned to make an appearance at a governors’ conference in Cleveland with Dwight Eisenhower, but the former President would not make a public appearance with Scranton, whose candidacy quickly died.

The Republican Convention in San Francisco turned out to be a contentious affair. Goldwater supporters openly heckled and booed Rockefeller when he addressed the delegates. The Republican Party, long controlled by Eastern financial interests, was now in the hands of a much different type of Republican. These Republicans wanted smaller government. They wanted a strong defense. They wanted law and order. The Republican power base had now shifted to the west and to the south. (Representative William Miller of New York was Goldwater’s running mate.)

Goldwater famously said during his acceptance speech,

 I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Johnson’s biggest problem during his campaign was finding a running mate. Some assumed that Robert Kennedy would be a logical and/or sentimental choice. But, the two men never got along (a bit of an understatement) and Johnson turned to two Minnesota Senators: Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Since Humphrey had helped passed the Civil Rights Bill earlier in 1964, Johnson owed him the favor. Ahh, but how would have things been different if McCarthy had won the job.

Goldwater had many obstacles to overcome in the election. In one early campaign speech, he spoke about giving NATO “commanders” the option to use nuclear weapons on their own accord. This was interpreted as meaning that Goldwater wanted to remove command and control of nuclear weapons from the White House and entrust them to potentially unknown generals. The term “commanders” actually referred to the head of NATO, but the damage was done. Goldwater was painted as a guy who wanted to nuke everything. (You can find many other ads here.)

Johnson and the Democrats also claimed that Goldwater wished to make Social Security a voluntary system, something which Goldwater hadn’t quite staked out. But, it was the start of a Democratic tradition of blaming Republican candidates for wanting to gut Social Security. (50 years later, it’s still around. And the accusations still get made.)

Goldwater also voted against the Civil Rights Bill, although he said he did so on Constitutional grounds. Goldwater refused to play his version of the race card against Johnson by playing to the fears of white Americans, but he had those voters sewn up already.

White pointed out that Johnson ran as an almost nonpartisan, apolitical candidate who would unite the country. This was in spite of the fact that Johnson was one of the most partisan politicians ever elected President.

The book hints at future problems. There is a chapter on “the Negro Revolution” as well as some discussion about the foreign policy problems facing the country, namely in Southeast Asia. And those situations ended up playing out even worse than White feared. (White briefly discusses one of the first big protests of the time, the 1964 Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. But, he misses the point and claims that Berkeley students were hypocritical because they didn’t pass a free housing measure. White was likely not aware that the vast majority of students were registered to vote outside of the Berkeley city limits. Or they couldn’t vote because they weren’t 21. The permanent residents of Berkeley in 1964 were still fairly conservative.)

The election was not close. Johnson took home 61.1% of the popular vote, a record at the time. He won 446 electoral votes to 52 for Goldwater, who won five states in the Deep South as well as Arizona.

Johnson came back to the White House figuring that he would be the most popular President since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. He could only dream of that.

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