1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs: The Election That Changed the Country

June 16, 2004

1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs: The Election That Changed the Country


JOEL ROSENTHAL: I would like to introduce a very good friend of mine and friend of the Council, James Chace. James is somebody that I admire for many virtues, and it's appropriate that we appear under the word "ethics." James is a very virtuous character. I'll share a couple of those virtues with you, although the list could be much longer.

One of the first virtues is hard work. I used to think that I was a very hard-working person—coming from New England, I had that Puritan Ethic—until I had the occasion to travel with James. I will leave you with the image of hotel clerks coming to his room in the evening with faxes of work for him to do and then him delivering the faxes back in the morning, working all night.

But being a very prudent fellow, he balances that capacity and that virtue. He is not so earnest a person as to not enjoy a good time. I remember being in Shanghai looking for a jazz club late one evening.

The other virtue that comes to mind is a generosity of spirit. When I was a young, obscure program officer here at the Carnegie Council, I remember getting a phone call from a gentleman named James Chace, who I only knew by reputation. The reason for that call was that James was organizing a conference on realism and somebody had told him that this young man named Joel Rosenthal had written something on realism that might be interesting. With incredible open-mindedness and fair-mindedness and decency, he said, "I'm going to invite you to this conference to hear what you have to say about realism." It always struck me that you had a certain open-mindedness to new ideas and to new people, which is an important virtue and something that I hope that the Council furthers.

And finally, there is another virtue that James represents, and you see it in his writing. It is what I would call aesthetic sensibility, a certain artful way of looking at the world. When I read your biography of Acheson, it made me think that Acheson was fortunate indeed to have a biographer who could match wits with his intellect and with his experience in the world.

James brings that kind of artful sensibility to this book, 1912. It is a book of history, but it is also a book of policy, and it explains to us better than many policy books we see today why American politics is the way it is. You will see great characters on a large stage—who could do better than the Warrior, the Bull Moose, the Priest, the Moralist, Wilson, and the great radical Debs?

Please give a warm welcome to James Chace.


JAMES CHACE: Joel is too kind in all of his comments about me.

I have spent my whole life writing books on foreign policy, and this election had nothing about foreign policy in it at all. Learning about the labor movement in the progressive period, for example, was a learning experience for me.

But it was because of foreign policy that I got interested in the election, and that is because of the counterfactual, the "what if's" of history. Some historians say that you should never bother with the counterfactuals. But on the contrary, one of the most interesting things about history is to know what happened but then indeed to look at what would have been the alternatives.

I asked myself, what if Roosevelt had won in 1912 and run against Taft? Had he gotten the Republican nomination, he almost surely would have won.

So what would have happened if he had won in 1912? The Republican Party would have continued to be the party of reform, which is certainly what Roosevelt stood for, and his platform in 1912 was perhaps the most radical platform that any major candidate has ever run on.

But moreover, I began to think about Roosevelt as a war president. Roosevelt always believed that to achieve true greatness in the pantheon of presidents you have to have a war. In a way he is right. The three presidents almost all historians agree on, on the right or the left, were Washington, Lincoln, and FDR — all three were war presidents.

But there was no war. The fact is that if he had won in 1912, it is quite possible that when the British steamship RMS Lusitania was sunk, when the lives of American passengers were lost, Roosevelt almost surely would have tried to bring the United States into the war, and probably would have been successful.

This might very well have ended World War I earlier, because it was very difficult for the Germans. It was the Americans who turned the tide finally, because of the fresh troops. The war might have ended sooner, which would have made a tremendous difference in the kind of peace treaty we would have had and in the future.

What if TR had not challenged the Republican Party for the nomination in 1912? He was told by all the Party bosses that he almost surely would have the nomination in 1916 and been elected.

Despite Wilson's very successful first term, in the election of 1916, Charles Evans Hughes, who was a moderate reform Supreme Court Justice, almost won the election. When Wilson went to bed on election night, he was sure he had lost. But the next day, the returns came in from California, and Wilson took California because Hughes himself had messed up his relationship with the Progressive Party.

So even in 1916, after a successful first term, the Republican Party was by no means a minority party. So if Hughes almost won, Roosevelt almost surely would have won.

Finally, by 1918-1919, Theodore Roosevelt had repaired his relationship with the Republican Party. He campaigned dutifully for Charles Evans Hughes, a man he didn't like much, whom he often referred to as "the icebox." He attacked Wilson's handling of the war and now the peace. And so by 1919, most historians would agree that Theodore Roosevelt would have received the nomination in 1920 had he lived.

He died at the relatively young age of sixty in January of 1919 because his strenuous life turned out to be almost a disaster, particularly his ill-fated trip to explore the River of Doubt in the Brazilian Amazon after his defeat in 1912. He never really recovered from that.

If he had won the election, we would have had the League of Nations with the Lodge Reservations. It was Wilson's stubbornness that did not allow the Lodge Reservations to pass. To oversimplify, the Lodge Reservations were simply a way of reiterating that Congress still has the right to declare war, that the Executive cannot take that much control of involving America in backing other countries or getting automatically involved in war.

Lodge was Roosevelt's best friend, closest political colleague. Therefore, almost surely there would have been a League of Nations with the Lodge Reservations. In fact, the first president to even propose something similar to a League of Nations was Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Russo-Japanese War. And William Howard Taft had also suggested something similar, both before Wilson himself came around to that.

Not only would there have been a League of Nations, but Roosevelt, unlike Wilson, did not believe that the means of enforcement would be public opinion. On the contrary, what Roosevelt was determined to offer was a military guarantee to France and Britain.

Wilson himself had offered a guarantee to France, because that was a condition of the French going along with the Versailles Treaty with the League of Nations. The French wanted to dismember Germany, and the deal was, "We will not try to do that, but you've got to give us a military guarantee." Once the United States did not ratify the Versailles Treaty, the military guarantee went by too.

So again, Roosevelt almost surely would have gotten this guarantee, because he had the Senate Foreign Relations behind him. Think what the twentieth century would have been like. Germany would have been automatically involved in a war with France, Britain, and the United States—the German general staff would have had some very serious second thoughts.

Maybe we would have become too appeasement-minded in the 1930s, maybe we would have abrogated it; but nonetheless, if you are trying to look at the alternatives of history, you've got to recognize that we would have probably been far more internationalist in 1920.

Even Warren Harding did not come in as a so-called isolationist, a misnomer to begin with. The man he appointed as Secretary of State was in fact Charles Evans Hughes, an internationalist. So it is not quite so simple as to say the Republican Party was doomed to be absolutely isolationist in 1920.

Above all, Roosevelt was a man who grew very much in office. The Roosevelt of 1918 was not the imperialist of 1899 at all.

Let me say a few things about the election and the four men involved:

1) William Howard Taft came from a very distinguished family in Ohio and became a great friend of Theodore Roosevelt. He was Roosevelt's Secretary of War as well as the Governor General of the Philippines. Taft was an extremely decent man. His politics were moderately conservative republicanism. He was not so much against reform, but he was a person who didn't want to rock the boat too much, whereas Roosevelt was only too willing to do so.

Taft was a perfect lieutenant. When Roosevelt announced in 1904 that he would not run for a third term, his then-Secretary of State said, "Never would an alcoholic swearing off drink have more problems in keeping that promise than poor Roosevelt did." He never should have done that, but he did. He had to find someone who would carry out his reformist policies, and Taft seemed the logical man to do that.

Taft himself, however, never wanted to be president. He had always hoped someday to be on the Supreme Court. But his wife was a very ambitious woman and she very much wanted her husband to be president of the United States. Twice Taft turned down offers from Theodore Roosevelt for appointment on the Supreme Court. He finally agreed to run for president, largely to please her, and finally also because Roosevelt put pressure on him as well to do so.

Taft couldn't manage things the way that Roosevelt was able to. Roosevelt could handle arch conservatives, which Taft was unable to do. One of the most difficult men of all was Senator Nelson Aldrich of Rhode Island, who was known informally as "the manager of the United States," so powerful was he as a senator. Taft wasn't a good politician.

The problem was that, as Taft seemed to capitulate, particularly on issues of tariff reform and on environmental issues, Roosevelt felt that the policies that he had urged were not being carried out the way he had hoped for. So there became a deep split, which became increasingly bitter.

A little more on Taft as a man, a more humorous look at him. First of all, there is no way you can ever think about William Howard Taft without remembering that he weighed 350 pounds. He got stuck in a bathtub once and had to be pried out.

The most wonderful story is that when he was Governor General of the Philippines, he rode his horse about twenty-five miles up into the hills and cabled then-Secretary of State Elihu Root that he had never felt better. Root responded by cable laconically, "How's the horse?" He was a very jovial, decent man, as someone one said, surrounded by determined men, like Senator Aldrich, who knew exactly what they wanted.

2) Woodrow Wilson was a conservative Southern Democrat. He was born in Virginia, spent much of his life in the South, where his father was a clergyman in Georgia and South Carolina.

He became the very reformist president of Princeton University. He tried unsuccessfully to rid Princeton of its eating clubs, or at least strip their power from them. Wilson tended to bludgeon his way into these things, and he antagonized the alumni of these clubs. Finally, there was another issue of where the new graduate school would be, and he got in a fight with the dean. The graduate school lost the fight.

So by 1910 Wilson was no longer the successful president of Princeton he had been, and he was bitter, as Wilson often became, whenever he was crossed. He wasn't good at compromise.

This was the period where the spirit of reform, of progressives, had been sweeping the United States. But the political bosses of New Jersey were hardly that. They needed someone who was honest and had a lot of integrity, and that man they thought could be Woodrow Wilson. Also, Wilson was a conservative Democrat. So they got him the nomination as governor.

When he turned on them in the campaign and embraced a very progressive program, a reverse of almost everything else Wilson stood for earlier, they thought: "This is just rhetoric. Don't worry. Once he's elected, he owes us." He did get elected and he felt that didn't owe them, and turned on them and finally destroyed them.

As a consequence, he became very likely for the nomination in 1912 because he was adopting many of the reforms, some of which had been Roosevelt's, although not as radical as Roosevelt.

There was an incredibly tense Convention when they went for forty-six ballots in Baltimore. The heat was like it is today, only worse, because they didn't have anything remotely like air conditioning.

At one point, Wilson had to try to withdraw his name. He telephoned his campaign manager, and said, "Look, I'll withdraw my name." It looked as if Champ Clark, who had been the Speaker of the House, a moderate reformer but a middle-of-the-roader, would get the nomination.

But one of his campaign managers said, "No. Listen, Governor, it's not over yet. You're wrong." Wilson finally obtained the nomination.

One reason was the machinations of William Jennings Bryan, the big warhorse of the Democratic Party, a man who had been a nominee three times before. Jennings hoped that he would get the nomination again if he could somehow deadlock the Convention, so he tried to play both forces against the middle. It didn't finally work.

Ironically, while Wilson stood against bosses, it was the bosses of Indiana and Illinois who finally put Wilson over as the candidate.

Wilson was a tremendously complex person. His father was a preacher. He often humiliated little Tommy Wilson. He felt that he never measured up to what his father expected of him.

Wilson was a white supremacist who allowed the re-segregation of the federal bureaucracy in Washington after he became president

He was a very stubborn man. In negotiating with the French Premier Clemenceau and British Prime Minister Lloyd George at Versailles, he believed truly that he was "the personal instrument of God." By contrast, Lloyd George remarked after the peace conference when asked how things went, "I did as well as might be expected, seated as I was between Jesus Christ and the Napoleon Bonaparte."

Wilson refused to compromise with the Senate over these relatively small reservations by TR's good friend, however, and then-Senate Majority Leader and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Henry Cabot Lodge, mainly to underline that Congress was the only body who had the authority to declare war.

But Wilson didn't compromise, even though he was urged to by people in his own party as well as by friendly Republicans. Wilson said, "The Senate must take its medicine." That is not the way to get things through the U.S. Senate.

He then went across the country to try to rally the people to the cause of the League of Nations and he had a severe stroke in 1919 while barnstorming for the League. His wife then ran the United States. She didn't let anyone see him for a number of weeks. The only other person who knew about the situation was his doctor, Dr. Grayson, not a very decent example of medical ethics.

The stroke took place on December 28th and he wasn't seen by anybody until the end of October. The left side of the body was paralyzed. When people were finally brought in to see him, he was propped up on the good side so you couldn't see how paralyzed he was, in a very darkened room, with his doctor and Mrs. Wilson at the end of the bed.

So she took messages for him, and reported back what her husband had presumably said. The mail that was brought in was mail she had already opened, and one doesn't know how many letters Wilson actually read.

Eventually, he did get somewhat better. He was able to talk and he could take quiet automobile rides, but his rigidity, if anything, grew. When he left the White House, he moved to a house on S Street in Washington, where he lived until he died in 1924 and was buried in the National Cathedral.

3) Eugene Debs was an extraordinary figure in American history, and certainly in American labor history. He grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, the son of Alsatian immigrants, but they were rather decently educated. They were neither political refugees nor were they poor people who hadn't much education and had come to seek economic advancement. They were fairly well off. It had to do with a fight with the Czar and his mother fighting with the family that was opposed to the marriage, and so they emigrated to the United States.

Therefore, Debs himself was educated at home in French and German. His favorite novel, not surprisingly for a labor leader, was Victor Hugo's great novel Les Misérables, which he read frequently.

Eventually he left high school, which he always semi-regretted—not because he had to, but because it was a form of proving his manhood. He went to work for the railroad, finally became a major labor leader in the railroad union, and eventually joined the Socialist Party.

The greatness of Debs lay in the fact that he never lost sight of the goal that was called industrial unionism. The most powerful organization at that time was the American Federation of Labor, which was a union that excluded the unskilled laborers. What Debs felt was needed was a broad-based union with skilled and unskilled workers in one strong union.

Throughout this whole period, he became the dominant figure of the Socialist Party. He was an incredible orator, spellbinding really. He never lost sight of the fact that broad unionism was the way to help the working class. He never got bogged down in the very casuistic debates within the Socialist Party. Debs could see above this. And he was the only Socialist with a national reputation.

He was imprisoned twice, the first time in 1894, where he also made his reputation, when he led the strike against the Pullman Sleeping Car Company. Nothing like the Pullman strike had ever been seen in this country. More than 100,000 men had quit work. The strike was finally broken by federal troops sent in at the behest of the Democratic President Grover Cleveland. It was in jail in Illinois where Debs first became a Socialist, but at the same time a national celebrity.

The second time he was jailed by a federal court was in 1918 for speaking out against the First World War under the provision of the new Espionage and Sedition Act. Although many prominent citizens who were not necessarily Socialists petitioned President Wilson to pardon him, Wilson said Debs was a traitor to his country and would never be pardoned during his administration.

Ironically, it was Warren Harding in 1921 who released Debs from prison in Georgia, asking him to drop by the White House on the way home. When Debs stepped into Harding's office, Harding strode over to shake his hand and said, "I've heard so damn much about you, Mr. Debs, and I'm very glad to meet you personally." Debs wouldn't say what they said between them, but when he was asked how things had gone, Debs said, "We understood each other perfectly."

I have always had a slight soft spot for Harding, because not only did he pardon Debs, but he gave William Howard Taft what he always wanted, which was to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

4) Theodore Roosevelt sought the nomination in 1912 for two reasons: first, because Taft had betrayed his promises to follow the reformist policies he had begun in his presidency; and second, he missed power—he was only fifty years old, younger than Bill Clinton, when he left the White House—and there was that habit-forming drug of public life.

He was nonetheless unable to secure the Republican nomination, despite having won more primaries than Taft, including taking Taft's home state of Ohio. This period was just when direct primaries were just beginning. Ironically, his former Secretary of State, Elihu Root, who was a Republican regular, didn't want to see the party split, was Chairman of the Convention, and he disqualified some eighty of Roosevelt's delegates. In short, Roosevelt had the nomination stolen from him. He had enough delegates almost surely to get the nomination.

Undaunted, he formed the new Progressive Party, known as the Bull Moose party. This was a party made up of middle-class reformers, school teachers, well-meaning intellectuals, some populists, people supporting women's suffrage, municipal reformers fed up with bossism, and Roosevelt was their standard bearer. In his opening speech to the Progressive Party, he said, "We stand at Armageddon to do battle for the Lord." It was probably the most dynamic campaign in American history.

TR was a man who grew in office. When he was president from 1901 to 1909 he evolved in many respects. Coming in after the assassination of President McKinley, he was at that time a patrician reformer. That is to say he had been police commissioner of New York City and governor of New York. He had always wanted to curb the excesses of the trusts, which he called "those malefactors of great wealth," by regulating them, not destroying them, as he believed that big business was here to stay. What he wanted above all was to have people rise above what he thought were their own sectarian interests.

Initially he was an imperialist—the Spanish-American War, the Rough Riders, which included Ivy League graduates and Wild West cowboys. The British Ambassador once said of TR that, "You must remember that Theodore is always at heart a six-year-old boy."

He was by far the most intellectual of any president we have had since the Founders, certainly in the twentieth century—and the twenty-first. On his expedition to shoot wild beasts in Africa in 1909, which he did to keep out of Taft's way initially, he took eighty books with him to read. His energy was awesome. He would read almost a book a day. And he would write lengthy letters too.

As well, he liked to have a "a romp with the boys," Ted, Archie, Kermit, and Quentin. All the boys served in the First World War. The death of his youngest son, Quentin, who was shot down as a pilot over Germany, was such a severe blow that he never recovered from it.

He had one daughter, the outspoken, acid-tongued Alice. He once said when someone complained over Alice's behavior, "I can be president of the United States or try to control Alice. I can't do both." She was the opposite of TR and his first wife, Alice Lee, who died only a few years after their marriage, on the same day, interestingly enough, as his mother, and in the same house.

His second marriage to Edith Carow was a happy one. Edith, who had adored him since childhood, understood his need to tone down his boyish behavior, but she also understood and supported his need for adventure, the roughhousing days of the West among cowboys and trappers, his safari in Africa, and his almost-fatal exploration of the River of Doubt in Brazil.

The most famous example of his phenomenal energy, however, may have occurred during the 1912 campaign. This was the period before radio and television. People would normally speak for an hour or two. It was entertainment. People came out in droves to see candidates. Roosevelt was enormously popular in 1912. Even those who didn't vote for him wanted to see him. He was a charismatic figure.

The two most gifted orators by far were Debs and Roosevelt. Even though Wilson was quite eloquent, he wasn't good at delivering speeches the way that Debs and Roosevelt were.

In the late stages in October, Roosevelt was campaigning in the Midwest. He came out of his hotel and got into the car to be driven to the auditorium where he was going to give his speech. A man picked up a pistol and shot him. Roosevelt's life was only saved because he had a fifty-page speech in his breast pocket. Nonetheless, it went through the speech and the bullet lodged in the ribs of his chest.

Nonetheless, against the doctor's orders, he insisted on going on to make his speech. He got up and walked to the platform, in front of about 10,000 people, opened his coat and, seeing he was still bleeding, said, "It takes more than one bullet to kill a bull moose." He spoke for the next forty-five minutes with the bullet in him. He then went to the hospital, where he spent the next couple of weeks, and all the other candidates stopped campaigning, except for Wilson, who gave a couple of speeches.

What was the importance of the election?

1) With Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic Party was brought into being an internationalist party. It had not been known for its internationalism beforehand.

2) There was the split in the Republican Party between conservative values and progressive idealism. The split in the Republican Party has never been healed between the reformers and the more conservatives, to this day.

It was the high tide of reformism. All the parties, even Taft, even had to espouse a moderate reformism, and the other three parties were highly reformist.

3) Roosevelt was particularly an apostle of progressive idealism, which he called "the new nationalism" and described as "using the executive power as a steward of public welfare." Roosevelt really, and later Wilson, invented the modern presidency, because between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt the Congress was by far the strongest part of government. Roosevelt used all the wiles of executive power and agreements and orders.

All of the parks and the millions of acres which Roosevelt saved from the loggers were done not through acts of Congress but through executive agreements and orders.

By 1912, he stood on a radical platform which called for women's suffrage, graduated income tax, an estate tax, an inheritance tax, a comprehensive workmen's compensation, prohibition of child labor, downward revision of tariffs, the Interstate Commerce Commission to supervise all corporations involved in interstate business, and even a national health care—"to fulfill the promise of American life," which is the title of a man named Herbert Croly's book based very much on Roosevelt's actions.

Roosevelt believed the country needed what he called "Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends." TR thought that the Jeffersonians' error was not their devotion to equality but "their inability to see the degree to which they were sacrificing a desirable liberty with undesirable equality."

Jefferson believed there should be as little government as possible and the good things of life, which had been formerly held by the few, were now to be distributed among the many. Hamilton, while too eager to attach to the government the support of the well-to-do people and the elites, was nonetheless more clear-thinking than Jefferson. He knew that genuine liberty could be protected only by the energetic and clear-sighted central government. Hence, Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends.

Wilson in his campaign echoed the need to restore competition as the best way of destroying the trusts. Roosevelt wanted to regulate trusts. Wilson was very much influenced in his thinking by Louis Brandeis, then a brilliant lawyer from Boston, via Louisville, who very much preferred small business, small towns. Brandeis was later appointed by Wilson to the Supreme Court and was its first Jewish member.

Destroying monopolies to Wilson and Brandeis was the best way to restore competition. He called this the "new freedom." As Wilson put it, "What has created these monopolies? Unregulated competition." Therefore, what Wilson tried to do was to appeal to TR's constituency without offending the states' rights tradition of the Democratic Party's white Southern base.

Debs simply inveighed against those who confused reform with revolution. He wanted the state to have basic ownership of monopolies that he believed controlled the American working people. His Utopian program, however, included very much of the reform legislation that TR, and even Wilson, embraced.

Taft's conservatism saw reform as embedded in law; corporations that violated the law should be prosecuted. Taft brought more suits against the trusts than TR had during his own term of office. But Taft also believed that the progressive project would simulate unfulfillable expectations.

Wilson in his first term, however, was able to pass more progressive legislation than any other president until Franklin D. Roosevelt with the New Deal. Encouraged by a Democratic Congress, Wilson reduced tariffs, achieved the passage of a graduated income tax, the Federal Trade Commission, the Antitrust Act, popular election of U.S. senators, and perhaps most important of all, the Federal Reserve Act, which reformed the banking system by creating a European-style central bank which could monitor the nation's money supply by smoothing out these dangerous fluctuations. The problem was that while J.P. Morgan saved the monetary problems of the United States, by 1920 we could never let private bankers run the financial monetary policy of the United States.

TR's and Wilson's approaches, regulation or competition, are still out there. In a way they are central issues of government: how government should promote the commerce and welfare of the American people. The Taft and Roosevelt argument over the role of the Executive—limited in Taft's view, expansive in Roosevelt's and Wilson's view—still marks the quarrel between the two mainstream parties. Together, TR and Wilson invented the modern presidency, the use of centralized power to create a stronger democracy.

And FDR finally was their greatest inheritor. In foreign policy FDR learned from them both. He became what he called himself a "practical idealist," the best combination of the realism of TR with the idealism of Wilson.

As for Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, their splintered friendship was finally repaired just before Roosevelt died. The last man to leave Roosevelt's graveside after the funeral was William Howard Taft, in tears.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you, James, for bringing the election to life.

You had mentioned that Roosevelt was a great progressive and a great reformer, and perhaps if he had been elected in 1912 we would have had the League earlier. But would he have brought those progressive ideals to the international world? The League that we eventually see is based on Wilson's fourteen points, on making the world safe for democracy and all this Democratic rhetoric and idealism. Would Roosevelt have brought this progressive reformist approach to the international world by a League as early as 1913 or 1914?

JAMES CHACE: I don't think so. Let's talk about the general way in which he saw thing—not as the imperialist, but in his more mature foreign policy, which was during his presidency, particularly his second term.

Roosevelt was very much in the realist tradition, although he also espoused very strong moral values. He saw that America should play a global role in the world, but he didn't expect this to be a hegemonic role. He was trying to assert that the United States was a great power now and that it would play a role as a great power. It was, after all, already the largest economic power in the world, and, with Germany, France, England, and Japan, they would play this role.

He believed that that meant balances of power. In his mediation of the Russo-Japanese War, he wanted to make sure that neither Japan nor Russia became too powerful in Northeast Asia. He thought it was very important that these be balanced out.

So his view was that you had to have balances of power, and regional balances of power, and that the U.S. should help to achieve that end. He was not of the neo-Wilsonian belief that American values should be imposed on the world or should be what the world must adopt.

If in 1920 he had become president, he would have gotten a stronger League. But, ironically, he might have been more successful in foreign policy in 1920 than he would have been in domestic reformism.

In 1912, yes, the Republican Party was very reformist. By the end of the war, that kind of reformism was no longer sweeping the country the way it had earlier. He would have had a tougher time with the Republican Congress in 1920 with domestic reform than he would have for the most internationalist foreign policy.

Questions and Answers

JOEL ROSENTHAL: We will open the floor to questions now.

QUESTION: When he announced that he would not run again, I remember reading how upset his wife was. In effect, he became a lame duck. How did it affect his performance and his ability to govern?

JAMES CHACE: The lame duck wasn't as severe in those days as it is thought of today. He was still a very popular president. His second term was reasonably successful on many issues.

She so shuddered because, after all, there was no prohibition against a third term, and his cousin did run for four terms and won four.

But Roosevelt didn't know how to go back on it. He was a very moral man personally, a rather Victorian man too.

All of these men were men of the nineteenth century, and they were confronted with a world which was quite different from what they had grown up in. How do you handle industrial capitalism or technological advances?

And so even Debs, even with his desire for a centralized government, his ideal, though, was a small-town Terre Haute. He identified with Lincoln, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn.

Most of these people, perhaps with the exception of Roosevelt, idealized the small-town society. So for Roosevelt, it was not a question of being a lame duck. It was more that it was a rash promise that he didn't know how to go back on.

QUESTION: You told the story of the Republican Convention of 1912, where Elihu Root outrageously disqualified Roosevelt's candidates.

William Allen White, the great Kansas journalist, pointed out that they had discovered that Elihu Root's podium was ringed with barbed wire and they were expecting a violent eruption from the Roosevelt candidates at the Convention. He said there was no such thing, even after it was discovered that the barbed wire was in place.

White said: "Had this been the Democratic Party, of course there would have been violence. The Southern blood would boil or the Irish temper crack."

Granted those are generalizations that you couldn't possibly use in 2004—today we have red-states/blue-states, not only geographical differences, but clearly a spiritual difference between the majority on both sides. Do you agree with White's reflection in 1912; and secondly, what is its applicability in the situation now?

JAMES CHACE: There are often split segments, and certainly in that period as well. You had, first of all, the Southern Democrats. We forget it was the "solid South." The solid South was Democratic. It was racist and it was Democratic. So that was one very deep difference.

What is most interesting is not that there were these fissures, the arch conservatives of the Republican Party in particular, as well as the Southern Democrats of the Democratic Party, but the degree to which progressives and reformism was sweeping the country. If it had been Taft versus Wilson — no Roosevelt — Wilson would have won, even though the Republican Party was the more popular party, because you had to have a reformist president.

One thing I neglected to mention about Debs at the election is that he won the highest vote that any Socialist Party has ever won in this country. He won 6 percent of the vote, almost a million votes, a lot of votes for that period.

I see it as a period where there was a lot of strife—labor strife, the arch capitalists—but it was nonetheless heartening to see the extraordinary feeling that the middle class had, that you had to change things.

QUESTION: Another question inspired by William Allen White, who seems to fit into your writing quite well: could you be more specific on the role of populism in Roosevelt's campaign?

JAMES CHACE: Populism's home was in the Democratic Party much more than anyplace else. William Jennings Bryan, the great standard bearer, came out of populist people: farming people, small businessmen, mostly located in the west and parts of the South. This was the constituency that was very dominant in the Democratic Party and which allowed him to become a candidate so many times. But when the Progressive Party was formed by Roosevelt, it siphoned off some of the populists to a certain degree, just as it had these other reformists.

I hadn't mentioned the role of American blacks, which is also very interesting, because in the South they were virtually disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws, mainly the poll tax law, so poor blacks who didn't have the money for the poll tax effectively couldn't vote.

Roosevelt's first act as president of the United States in 1901 was to invite the most prominent American black to Washington for dinner in the White House. He got tremendous flak for that from Congress.

He straddled it in 1912. He tried to break the solid South. But at the same time, he was himself becoming very much more sympathetic to blacks than Wilson was, who remained a white supremacist and racist throughout.

There was a certain amount of racism in Roosevelt as well, but nonetheless by no comparison to Wilson or others, or even to Debs. Roosevelt evolved.

The last public speech he made was to go to a hall in New York City, about two weeks before he died, and speak to black veterans as a favor to W.E.B. DuBois. That shows an interesting evolution, just as in women's suffrage, which he wasn't so much interested in earlier on, but by 1912 the person who seconded his nomination was the most famous woman suffragette and leader of the women's moment of that period, Jane Adams.

QUESTION: Would you talk about the division between progressivism and the populist movement? The progressive movement was based primarily in New England and among the Scandinavians of North Dakota, South Dakota, right across through Washington State and then into Oregon, and they did make their mark in the Republican Party. But the populist movement came out of the Plains States. Indeed, William Jennings Bryan dealt with money in a very different way. One was looking for social reform. The other was monetary reform with some of the small farmers.

Some of that is also reflected in contemporary politics. I'm thinking of the new book, The Guardians, that deals with Kingman Brewster. They are the new generation that came out of the progressive movement within the various parties.

Could you speak to how this populism and progressivism is playing out in contemporary politics?

JAMES CHACE: That's a big leap, from 1912 to the present, because the progressive movement had problems. Certainly if you think of the Progressive Party at its heart, leaving aside the populists for a moment, the Progressive Party was very much a middle-class party. It was almost the school teachers. So that you see the natural habitat for that today certainly far more obviously in the Democratic Party by and large.

People have asked me if Naderism would be an analog with Debs—and I don't see that at all. It's hard to put a finger on Naderism. It's not quite populism and it's not quite progressivism. I find it hard to wrap my thinking around exactly what it is.

It is a protest movement against people, particularly in the Democratic Party, who feel that the Democrats themselves have compromised too often. When Bill Clinton said, "The era of big government is over," that would be the sort of thing that Naderites said, "That's exactly what it shouldn't be." But a certain number of the Naderites would be progressives.

QUESTION: At the beginning of Roosevelt's first term, he made a lot of reforms. But by the middle of his presidency, he had to go to Rhode Island to Nelson Aldrich's house, his tail between his legs almost, and he described the formal dress that they wore. So would he have had to do that if he had gotten elected in 1912?

Secondly, they picked Roosevelt as Vice President, Mark Hanna and all the crew there, to keep him hushed up. Did the ghost of Mark Hanna reappear in the 1912 Convention? Was that why the Taft people were able to manipulate against the popular will?

JAMES CHACE: Not exactly. First of all, as far as Roosevelt is concerned in the early days, sure. By 1912 he ran on a far more radical platform. When Roosevelt came into office, he was much more of a patrician reformer. He was able to handle Nelson Aldrich and these people certainly.

But, for example, he didn't challenge Aldrich face-on with tariff reduction, which was a big issue, because big business wanted to keep tariffs high, and there was pressure, particularly from farmers and small businessmen, to lower the tariff. Roosevelt was somewhat sympathetic, but he didn't want to take on Aldrich on the tariff question. Yet, he was quite critical of Taft when he caved in to Aldrich. Part of that was his own politics.

Also, when I said that one of the reasons he ran again was because he felt that Taft was not carrying out his reformist policies, that was particularly more in environmental issues than anything else. But also he wanted power. Taft didn't take on the tariff issue too strongly, and neither did Roosevelt. Much of that had to do with power, the people with whom he was dealing.

After 1912, more and more senators in the Republican Party were progressives, or moderately progressive. So as time passed, Aldrich's power was still strong, but it wasn't quite as strong as it had been. And he also died a year or so later, which would have been helpful to Roosevelt certainly.

There was already a shift going on within the Republican Party, that the arch conservatives were not as strong by 1912-1914 as they had been earlier on.

QUESTION: He enthusiastically endorsed the Spanish-American War. Is that a lot different than, say, our going into Iraq? They weren't attacking us or endangering us.

JAMES CHACE: I don't want to make too many comparisons between the Spanish-American War and the Iraq war. There are other comparisons that are much more interesting in terms of Iraq, which has much to do with preemption and other questions, which wasn't the issue in the Spanish-American War.

There was the feeling that the United States often had of being threatened. For example, there was a plan in existence that we would go into the Philippines first if we had a war with Spain. One of the reasons was that it was the only plan around.

But the idea was that in the Philippines we would attack the Spaniards as a bargaining chip over Cuba. We weren't interested in the Philippines initially. That wasn't the plan at all. It was all about Cuba.

Why therefore after the end of the war when we took Cuba, didn't we give the Philippines back? One of the main reasons was that the fear by Roosevelt and others in the government of that time was that the Philippines were not able to defend themselves, and that the German fleet, which was very active in Manila Bay itself, and the growing Japanese power, might take over the Philippines. There was the fear that this was a threat to the United States. We were now trying to have a very forward naval strategy in the Far Pacific.

Our behavior in the Philippines was one of the worst acts of American history. Roosevelt himself said later on that he very much regretted it. When he was president, he said that we never should have taken the Philippines. He retreated from his imperialism.

QUESTION: What would have happened had he been elected president in 1916 or in 1920 in terms of expanding the American empire?

JAMES CHACE: I don't think that was in his head at that time. I don't see him trying to expand the American empire. First of all, he wasn't that naïve. There wasn't much of an American empire. You still had major powers—Britain was still a major power; that had the empire; France was still a major power.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you very much for being with us.

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