When America Wood-Rowed Wilson

An American postcard of 1912 depicting that year’s three main candidates for President. Uncle Sam is rowing Thomas Woodrow Wilson, the predicted and eventual winner, to the White House. Swimming behind and attempting to keep up is ‘TR’, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, while slowly slipping under the water far behind is William Howard Taft. All had – or would – serve as President.

11 March 2020

By Tim Koch

As we wonder which white, male septuagenarian will win November’s American Presidential Election, Tim Koch finds that three is a crowd.

The old postcard reproduced above contains three things that I like: rowing, a terrible pun and a progressive intellectual winning the U.S. Presidency. The story behind it has influenced many subsequent Presidential Elections – including the present one.

A postcard from a time when American Presidents had noble aspirations. Thomas Woodrow Wilson, President 1913 – 1921, oversaw progressive legislative policies at home and an activist foreign policy abroad – including support for the establishment of the League of Nations.

Teddy Roosevelt was Republican President for two terms from 1901 to 1909. He did not want a third period of office (when such things were possible) and he picked his friend and fellow Republican, WH Taft as his successor. Taft easily won the 1908 election allowing Roosevelt to go on a year-long safari in Africa. On his return (and after he and his party had killed 500 big game animals) Teddy decided that he did not approve of the job that Taft was doing and that he would like the Presidency back. However, the 1912 Republican Convention chose Taft, not Roosevelt, as their candidate. With three months to go before the election, Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party. It became better known as the ‘Bull Moose Party’ after Teddy told reporters that he was ‘as fit as a bull moose’. He hoped that a radical platform and his own political celebrity would carry the day.

Yale Alumnus, WH Taft, President 1909 – 1913, spectating at the 1908 Harvard – Yale Boat Race.

The Republican split led to an easy victory by Democrat, Woodrow Wilson who got 42 percent of the vote and 435 out of 531 Electoral College votes. However, Roosevelt came in second with 27 percent, the highest percentage ever obtained by any candidate who was not a Democrat or a Republican. No third-party candidate has performed close to Roosevelt at the national level since. Taft got 23 percent of the vote.

Teddy Roosevelt called rowing ‘a great and permanent amusement’. He developed a lifelong dedication to exercise after using it to overcome childhood asthma. Unlike some Presidents, his toughness was not an act or a pathetic fantasy. In 1912, he was shot in the chest at close range just before a campaign rally, the bullet lodging against a rib. Bleeding, he insisted on addressing the crowd as planned, telling them ‘The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best’.

The failure of third parties in Presidential Elections is part of the reason that Bernie Sanders, an independent and a so-called ‘democratic socialist’, a man out of step with the Democratic Party establishment, is seeking the Democratic nomination. Had he stood under the nomination of the party he left in 1977, the Liberty Union Party of Vermont, his chances would be smaller than the state itself. Similarly, Michael Bloomberg is rich enough to start his own party but did not do so in 2016, fearing he would divert support from Hilary Clinton (as Roosevelt did from Taft), and this year, Bloomberg, the former Republican and later independent Mayor of New York, unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for President.

“Harper’s Weekly” on the three party 1912 Presidential Election, held five days after Halloween. American political parties are really loose coalitions with individual members adopting varying positions on many issues.

The American consumer demands a very wide selection when choosing things such as ice cream, but, when it comes to political parties, the choice seems to be binary. Some cynics would say it’s between tutti frutti and vanilla, but all of us are wondering who will be licked in November?

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