"Americans have not been energized"

Historian James Chace talks about the presidential campaign of 1912 and how its spirit of progressive reform could energize the 2004 election.

By Mark Lytle

Published May 5, 2004 9:33PM (EDT)

James Chace's "1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs -- The Election That Changed the Country," to be published by Simon and Schuster next week, is an account of the election that defined the Progressive era, crystallized the agenda of reform that had been largely thwarted by reactionary forces for decades, and changed the political parties, especially the Republican Party, in such a way that its impact is still felt in the election of 2004.

Chace is best known for his brilliant biography "Acheson," about Dean Acheson, the secretary of state who was the ultimate "wise man" in the foreign policy of the American century. Chace is an incisive and original analyst of international affairs, author of numerous books on the subject and former managing editor of Foreign Affairs. He was also an editor at the New York Times Book Review and editor of World Policy Journal. Chace is currently professor of government and public law and administration at Bard College. In "1912," he exercises his skill as a historian to bring to life the most important campaign of the early 20th century. Salon spoke to Chace this week on the personalities and underlying currents of that contest and their continuing influence on today's politics.

There are a number of critical elections in the 20th century -- 1932, 1960, 2000 come to mind. What drew you to 1912?

Interestingly enough, what drew me to 1912 was the "what if" of history. I've spent my whole life writing articles and books on foreign policy, and yet this election had nothing whatsoever to do with foreign policy. It was almost completely on domestic issues of the Progressive period. But the implications for foreign policy were profound. Had Theodore Roosevelt been nominated by the Republican Party -- and he would have been had he not been cheated out of the votes he had gained in the primaries -- he would have been president in 1912 and Woodrow Wilson would have lost. This would have meant that Roosevelt would have continued to make the Republican Party a party of reform, which is what he stood for at the time, indeed, almost radical reform. In terms of foreign policy he might very well have brought the United States into the First World War after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, in which case the war might have ended far sooner and certainly with a less drastic peace than the one imposed on Germany. This might well have changed the course of the 20th century.

I gather from your comments that you have a somewhat more charitable view of Roosevelt than historians had once upon a time. By and large it seems that you take a more jaundiced view of Wilson and a more charitable view of Roosevelt. What brought you to that kind of favorable opinion?

I think that Roosevelt was a man who really grew in office. When he was president from 1901 to 1909, he changed in many respects. He came in as president after the assassination of President McKinley, whose vice president he had been. At that time he was what I would call a patrician reformer; that is to say, he'd been police commissioner of New York City, he'd been governor of New York State and he'd always been for certain kinds of reforms because of the greedy behavior of the great trusts and the very bad state that most workers found themselves in. Roosevelt wanted to make things better. He also wanted people to rise above their own sort of sectarian interests.

What do you mean by that?

He saw America as a country that should have both the businessmen and the workers working together in a kind of community and so to rise above the factionalism and to end the terrible treatment that many of the unions received at the hands of the capitalists of that period. Nonetheless, he was not someone at that time who understood the importance of such issues as women's suffrage. But he grew in office to the extent that he dropped to a certain degree his imperialist longings. He regretted that America had taken the Philippine Islands. In his foreign policy as president he became a mediator in some very important disputes in the world. For example, he received a Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation in 1907 of the Russo-Japanese war. Later he also acted as mediator in the so-called Tangier crisis, when France and Germany might have come to blows over Morocco. He wanted the United States, above all, to play the role of a great power in the world, to make America's growing economic strength give America a military and naval power and a diplomatic role to play.

He grew in other respects, too. By 1912 he had embraced women's suffrage; he called for broad health insurance for everybody; he spoke out very strongly to get rid of child labor, to get decent working conditions. His views toward black Americans became more pronounced. He realized they must be allowed to vote, and he wanted to use the authority of the federal government to make sure that they were able to vote. So, in many ways, he grew as a man. The boisterous, brash Roosevelt, who was a fiery imperialist, and the man who was for reform, but very modest reform, became radicalized through those years.

Well, we know that Roosevelt was capable of the kind of cynical maneuvers that politicians use. Let's reconsider the notion of getting votes for the blacks. In the South those blacks who were able to vote generally voted Republican. So his aim in this was to make sure more of them could vote. But this meant continuing to cede the white South to the Democrats.

It was definitely a problem in 1912. The South was very much a Democratic stronghold. Blacks did traditionally vote for Republicans, the heritage of Lincoln. What Roosevelt wanted to do was retain the black vote, which would normally go to Republicans, but also get whites, who had traditionally voted for Democrats, to vote for radical Republicanism. And that he was not able to accomplish. For one thing, the Southern whites never forgave Roosevelt for having had a very distinguished black American for dinner in the White House shortly after he became president. Booker T. Washington dined in the White House, and the Southerners never let him forget that.

Of course, your book actually focuses not just on personalities but on the election of 1912, and I suspect that after spending a long time studying that election there are certain features that must have struck you. Would you like to share with us some of the more, shall we say, amusing or interesting facets of the election?

There were, of course, four people running. It is very important to understand that this book is not just about Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson -- the two most prominent men -- but also William Howard Taft, who was president after Roosevelt's first two terms; in fact, he was put in as president because Roosevelt really wanted him to carry on with Roosevelt's work. Then there was Eugene V. Debs. Debs ran a number of times for president as a candidate of the Socialist Party. In 1912 he received the greatest percentage of votes that the Socialist Party ever had in this county, almost a million votes. That was almost solely due to the power and personality of Debs. And finally, of course, there's Wilson, who won because Roosevelt and Taft split the vote of the Republican Party.

Let me say a few more words if I may about the other men. William Howard Taft came from a very distinguished family in Ohio, and became a great friend of Theodore Roosevelt's when he served as Roosevelt's secretary of war and as governor-general of the Philippines. He was a very decent man. His politics were moderately conservative Republicanism; he was not against reform, but he was not a person who wanted to rock the boat too much, whereas Roosevelt was only too willing to rock the boat. Basically, Taft was a perfect lieutenant. When Roosevelt announced in 1904 that he would not run for a third term, he tried to find someone who he believed would carry on the policies of reform he had started, and Taft seemed to him finally the logical man to do that.

Taft himself never wanted to be president. He had always hoped to someday be on the Supreme Court, but his wife was an ambitious woman and she very much wanted her husband to become the president of the United States. Twice Taft turned down offers by Roosevelt for nomination to the Supreme Court and finally agreed to run for president. What happened was that Taft was not able to manage things the way Roosevelt was. Roosevelt was able to handle the archconservatives, which Taft was unable to do. Roosevelt found that the policies he urged were not being carried out the way he had hoped for.

So there was a deep split between them that got increasingly bitter. I might also add that Roosevelt liked power. He was only 50 years old when he left the presidency, the youngest man ever to serve, and he missed the power that he had had as the president of the United States. That definitely added to the bitterness he felt at betrayal by Taft.

Woodrow Wilson was a conservative Southern Democrat. He had been president of Princeton University and was picked by the political bosses of New Jersey as the perfect person to run for governor of the state. They thought he was reliable, he was reasonably conservative, but he was honest and moderately reformist. Wilson therefore was elected governor, but then turned on the bosses and put through a highly reformist program in New Jersey. He became increasingly one of the most likely candidates for the nomination by the Democratic Party in 1912 because, as I say, he adopted many of the reforms, some of which had been Roosevelt's reforms, although not as radical as Roosevelt's. And after an incredibly tense convention that went to 46 ballots in Baltimore, where at one point he tried to withdraw his name, thinking he would not get the nomination, he finally secured it through the machinations of Democratic war horse William Jennings Bryan, who had been the Democratic nominee three times before.

Roosevelt now sought the Republican nomination in 1912. It was the first time the primary system became really important, and he won a number of the primaries with enough delegates behind him to secure the nomination. But at the Republican Convention in Chicago the party regulars managed to disqualify something like 80 delegates -- voting delegates for Roosevelt -- and hand the nomination to Taft.

Roosevelt then helped to form a new party, the Progressive Party, known in history as the Bull Moose Party. This was a party made up of middle-class reformers, schoolteachers, well-meaning intellectuals, some populists, a lot of people supporting women's suffrage like Jane Addams, and municipal reformers, particularly those who were fed up with the bossism that reigned in the great cities of the United States. Roosevelt became their standard-bearer. In his opening speech he declaimed, "We stand at Armageddon to do battle for the Lord." Roosevelt was invigorated in this campaign, and it was a very, very lively and strong campaign that he ran.

The fourth man was Eugene Debs, an extraordinary figure in history -- American labor history, certainly. He grew up in Terre Haute, Ind.; he worked on a railroad as a fireman, but was a decently well-educated man, read French and German. Eventually he joined the Socialist Party, but the greatness of Debs lay in the fact that he never lost sight of the goal of what was called industrial unionism. The only powerful organization when Debs came around was the American Federation of Labor, but that was a craft union. You had to be a skilled worker with a skilled craft to be in that union. The ordinary, unskilled worker was excluded from the union. Debs saw that what was needed was a broad-based unionism, a unionism where the skilled craftsman would join with the unskilled laborer in one great strong union. Throughout all of that period he himself was the dominant national figure of the Socialist Party and of organized labor.

It seems clear that 1912 as an election with major issues and colorful candidates would tell us something about the quality of electioneering. Could you just talk about some of the election strategies and the quality of public presentations that the candidates made?

This was the period before television and radio, so what you had in this period were orators. You would speak for an hour -- two hours was not at all unusual. People came out in droves to see the candidates, but they expected to be entertained. It was also really the beginning of whistle-stopping campaigns, where you get on a railroad and just go from town to town with the candidate speaking from the rear platform of the train. The two most gifted orators were Debs and Roosevelt.

One of the most noteworthy things that happened in that campaign occurred in the late stages in October, when Roosevelt was campaigning in the Middle West. He came out of his hotel and went to get in his car and a man tried to assassinate him. A man picked up a pistol and shot at him, and Roosevelt's life was saved only because he had a 50-page speech in the pocket of his coat. He was bleeding and the bullet went through the speech into his chest. Nonetheless, he insisted on going on to make his speech, against the advice of the doctors. No one could stop Roosevelt: He got up and walked onto the platform in front of about 5,000 to 10,000 people, opened his coat where he was still bleeding and said, "It takes more then a bullet to kill a Bull Moose." And he spoke for another 45 minutes with a bullet in his chest. It was one of the most extraordinary performances in American electoral history. He then went to a hospital, where he spent the next couple of weeks. All the other candidates stopped campaigning until he was able to recover.

One reason that 1912 was so important was that it was the beginning of the idea of the direct primary system. States -- not all of them, but many states -- were beginning to have primaries, so the parties couldn't simply be left solely in the hands of the political bosses, although they nonetheless remained powerful. So you had to really get to the people in a way you might not have had to in an earlier period. You had to get out, get to the people and get them to vote for you.

I'm a little bit surprised. Maybe it was just an oversight, but you mentioned Debs and Roosevelt as orators. I would have thought that Wilson was a better speechmaker. Maybe Roosevelt was a better stump speaker?

The point about Wilson is that he was extremely eloquent in his speeches. He wasn't, however, a stemwinder kind of speaker. In other words, if you read the speeches, or if you listened carefully to them, there was no question he was extremely eloquent. Wilson's father was a preacher. As a boy Wilson would sometimes spend time in front of a mirror practicing speaking well. But Debs and Roosevelt would whip up the crowd. Taft, by the way, made almost no speeches whatsoever during the campaign. He used the organization of the Republican Party to get the nomination. But that he ran at all was because he was so angry at Roosevelt for the things that Roosevelt had said about him and their then broken friendship.

Perhaps you could say a little something about the legacies of the election. What happened because of the election? What would you highlight as significant changes either in public policy, or in the parties, or in the strategies of campaigning?

Between them Roosevelt and Wilson really invented the modern presidency. By this I mean the strong use of executive power to get their programs through. From roughly right after the Civil War to the McKinley presidency, the presidency as a whole was really a weak presidency. The presidents themselves believed that Congress should play a dominant role, and it certainly did so. But when Roosevelt came in, he had to find ways in which he could assert executive power legally. And he found various loopholes, and executive orders, where he could do certain things. Most of the lands that he saved from destruction by loggers or others were done by executive orders, rather then votes by Congress. So this was a strong assertion of executive power -- and that has been the dominant role of presidencies in the United States in the 20th and 21st century. Wilson himself also used executive power strongly when he became president.

The other thing is that because the spirit of reform was so strong in the Progressive period, Wilson adopted many of Roosevelt's radical ideas. The result was that the first two years of Wilson's first term resulted in a great deal of very important legislation: the income tax, the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, better hours for workers. He pursued a number of policies that probably never would have passed had they not been prepared for by the strength of progressivism that Roosevelt and Debs espoused.

The other reason why this election changed the country was the split in the Republican Party. Of course, there had always been people who were more liberal or more conservative in the Republican Party, as there are in all parties. The difference in 1912 was that the split between Taft and Roosevelt polarized the party very, very deeply. And that split has never really been healed. With the coming of Ronald Reagan to the White House, and now of course with George W. Bush, it seems that the conservative wing is now in control of the party.

As for the inheritor of the policies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, it was, of course, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal in 1933 picked up the programs that Theodore Roosevelt espoused -- the use of strong executive power to curb corporate excesses and promote social justice. Theodore Roosevelt used to say he wanted to use "Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends." What he meant was that Alexander Hamilton believed in strong use of executive power, and that it should be used to make a stronger democracy throughout the country. That was certainly what Franklin Roosevelt felt. And Franklin Roosevelt had served with Wilson as his assistant secretary of the Navy and had married the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, so he had learned from both men. Wilson, however, was a kind of warning to him because Wilson had been unable to get the League of Nations approved, largely because he had refused to compromise with some of the reservations that the Senate wanted to put on the Treaty of Versailles, which were not all that serious. There was a deep stubborn streak in Wilson, which was finally very self-defeating.

Any last thoughts you have about this election and its import for those of us in this election year who turn to "1912" in hope that there is a lesson for us?

I think the most important lesson is the need for reform. The masses of Americans today have not been energized toward the kind of reformers that they had in 1912. You need dynamic candidates to articulate the issues, to stir up the people -- just as these men at the beginning of the 20th century were trying to deal with the inequities of industrial capitalism and, in Roosevelt's case, to regulate the thing. In Wilson's case he wanted to break the trusts so there would be more competition. We now are facing monopolies and a need for universal healthcare and better education -- progressive policies -- a century later. Masses of people were mobilized and energized in 1912 to create an America committed to social justice and economic opportunity for everybody.

Mark Lytle

Mark Lytle is a history professor at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

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