TERRE HAUTE —
Three presidents and a rebel.
As Americans live through the 2012 presidential campaign, historians are looking back a century at “the election that changed the country.”
Indeed, the words “reform,” “progressive” and “change” resonated deeply in 1912. The personalities of the four iconic candidates influenced voters as greatly as their messages. The field included three men who, at one time or another, occupied the Oval Office — the incumbent William Howard Taft, former president Theodore Roosevelt, and future commander-in-chief Woodrow Wilson — along with the nation’s most celebrated radical, Terre Haute’s Eugene Debs.
“Four extraordinary men,” wrote the late James Chace, author of “1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs — The Election That Changed the Country,” which was published in 2004.
Each advocated significant social and economic measures, in varying degrees. They responded to America’s mood for change, with Roosevelt and Debs pushing the broadest reforms, nudging Wilson and, to a lesser extent, Taft toward progressivism. Four years after his presidency ended, Roosevelt returned with plans more dramatic than those he’d executed as president. Debs, running atop the Socialist Party ticket for the fourth time, drew tens of thousands of listeners as he railed against social injustice and the plight of the common man.
The issues included the role of organized labor, protection of the needy, governmental regulations, and the power of Wall Street.
“In some ways, we’re still arguing over some of the same issues,” Michael Kazin, author and Georgetown University history professor, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Though Debs had long worn the “radical” label, Roosevelt had grown to embody that description, too.
Still popular, “Teddy” was calling for broad health care for Americans, women’s voting rights, improved conditions for workers and sound child-labor laws — all causes dear to Debs’ heart. Roosevelt sought the Republican Party nomination against Taft, because Taft hadn’t continued the reforms of Roosevelt, his predecessor. When the GOP conservative wing prevailed at the convention, Roosevelt launched a third-party campaign, leading the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party.
Roosevelt split the Republicans and altered history. Republicans, Chace wrote in 2004, remain divided between conservatives and progressives.
Wilson, the Democrat, benefited from the GOP division, winning the presidency with 42 percent of the vote. With 4.1 million votes, Roosevelt actually outpolled Taft’s 3.4 million, won six states and 88 votes in the Electoral College. Debs attracted 901,873 popular votes, more than doubling his total in the 1908 election. Facing opposition from a trio of presidents, Debs still accounted for 6 percent of the 1912 votes — the largest slice of the presidential balloting ever by the Socialist Party.
“Wilson won almost by default because he was the most moderate of the progressives,” said Charles King, secretary of the Debs Foundation and a retired Indiana State University professor.
Still, the country’s reformist atmosphere drove Wilson to adopt many of those “radical” ideas in his first term, such as the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank, the federal income tax, and improved hours for workers, Chace explained.
The national mood also provided the perfect fuel for a dynamic cluster of candidates.
“All three — Roosevelt, Debs and Wilson — were wonderful speakers,” Kazin said. “Taft, not so much.”
In a pre-television era, the speeches from balconies above streets, or from a train caboose, often lasted one or two hours. If fact, loquacity saved Roosevelt’s life in a definitive moment in the 1912 campaign. A 50-page speech in Roosevelt’s breast pocket slowed an assassin’s bullet enough that the projectile lodged in his rib cage, missing his heart. Wounded, with blood on his shirt, Roosevelt went ahead with a planned speech, lecturing for 45 minutes.
“It takes more than one bullet to kill a bull moose,” Roosevelt said. Then he went to the hospital.
It was vintage Roosevelt.
“Teddy Roosevelt could really show excitement, and hop up and down, and use all those theatrics,” King said.
Debs captivated crowds differently. “Debs, the man, came through as he spoke,” King said. Chace called Debs’ campaign style “electrifying.”
As Kazin put it, “[Debs] used to bend over the crowds, as if he were pulling the people to his breast.”
A fellow famed Terre Hautean, the late poet Max Ehrmann, once described witnessing an appearance by Debs during Ehrmann’s days as a Harvard University student. Debs, billed in advance by Harvard critics as “a monster,” entered the room to silence, no applause. As usual, Debs spoke for two hours, and afterward the students and faculty crowded around to greet him. “They who had come to scorn hovered around him for more than an hour, and went away his friends,” Ehrmann wrote.
That reaction was common in the 1912 campaign, too.
Debs surprised many
Speaking to a crowd of 15,000 at Madison Square Garden in New York, Debs jabbed all three of his presidential rivals. In his comments about Roosevelt, Debs acknowledged the progressive transformation in the man whose face would later occupy Mount Rushmore. “He is today the champion of the oppressed and the downtrodden of the nation,” Debs said of Roosevelt, as quoted in Chace’s book. “Just think of it. Theodore Roosevelt, who stands on a platform that four years ago he denounced as anarchist.”
Debs had predicted his 1912 candidacy would be “a surprise to the country.” He won his largest percentages of the vote in rural states such as Oklahoma, Nebraska and Nevada, where 16 percent of the residents backed him — places “we don’t normally think of today as hotbeds of radicalism,” Kazin said.
Debs suspected Roosevelt would draw votes from him, as well as from Taft. Likewise, Roosevelt (along with Wilson) would not participate in a debate with Debs, Chace’s book states, because TR “did not want to draw voters’ attention to the fact that many of Debs’ proposals resembled his own.”
It was, though, Debs’ personality that heightened his likeability among Americans a century ago, rather than his Socialist Party’s platform. “A lot of people heard him and cheered him who did not vote for him,” Kazin said.
Debs did not run for president in 1916, and the Socialists’ vote total dipped by 300,000 that year. In 1920, Debs ran his fifth and final campaign from an Georgia prison cell, jailed by the Wilson administration for criticizing the U.S. involvement in World War I. Debs received more than 1 million votes, but the electorate had grown significantly from 1912. He was released by President Harding in 1921, and died in Terre Haute five years later.
Also in 1921, Harding appointed Taft chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the former president served until 1930, when he died.
Ever adventurous, Roosevelt stayed active after 1912, and died in 1919. Wilson served two terms, but ended his presidency in ill health, and died in 1921.
In 1912, though, Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft and Debs were at a peak. “The 1912 presidential election was the first since the days of Jefferson and Hamilton in which the great question of America’s exceptional destiny was debated,” Chace wrote. “1912 changed America.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@