Presidential politics in one crucial year of the Progressive Era—before TV, polls, and consultants: not a horse race so much as a contact sport.
Veteran journalist and editor Chace (Govt. and International Affairs/Bard Coll.; Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World, 1998, etc.) does not present a fresh interpretation of the 1912 election, but he offers a lively recounting of this pivotal, bitter contest that hinged on how to overcome economic inequality and featured significant third-party involvement. The rivals included conservative Republican President William Howard Taft; his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, who broke with his old friend over conservation and trust-busting issues, then bolted the GOP to form the Progressive Party; New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, whose brilliant oratory called for more stringent antitrust legislation; and fiery socialist Eugene Debs, who preached trade unionism to audiences as large as 100,000. Chace captures the way that rivals’ egos could shade into substantive quarrels over the use of presidential power. He conveys a pre–photo-op era of candidates’ barnstorming coast to coast by train with messianic zeal, with Roosevelt even delivering one speech after being wounded by a would-be assassin. The nation depicted here seems more divided than the ballyhooed “red” and “blue” America of 2000. Debs took six percent of the vote—the highest proportion ever given to a Socialist candidate. TR split the GOP vote with Taft, helping to usher in the eight-year Wilson administration. With perfectly chosen anecdotes, Chace moves nimbly among the candidates, their advisers, and diehard supporters (at a Michigan GOP meeting, a Taft supporter threw a body block at a Roosevelt speaker). At the same time, he underscores the race’s larger, often enduring, issues (far ahead of their time, the Progressive platform called for limits on campaign spending). Twenty years later, the New Deal incorporated elements of Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism” with Wilson’s “New Freedom” programs. Yet another consequence of the race was more fateful, Chace notes: TR’s loss meant that for the next century, the GOP would be riven between “reform and reaction.”
Entertaining, insightful history about a defining moment in 20th-century politics.