Book review: “1912” by James Chace
Here’s one of those comfortable reads that folds an intriguing blurt of history into one narrative without rattling any notions or proposing any radical theories. You won’t put this book down and realize that Eugene Debs was right all along. What you will get is a series of thrills followed by a letdown.
The thrills come because the 1912 presidential election was one of the most bizzare and important in American history. As Chace lays out, the contest saw numerous long-delayed social movements bubble up and break the two-party system. Sixteen years earlier, William McKinley had trounced the Democrats and Populists to initiate an era of total Republican dominance. Unions, suffrage movements, and especially civil rights agitators were made irrelevant, along with a Democratic party that was mostly confined to the South and the Great Plains. And the disenchanted barely had a reason to back the Democrats – the last Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, had okayed the most brutal repression of unions in history. The Republicans were the only game in town, and under the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) there were the first fissures between the conservative senators and congressmen and the increasingly progressive president and his allies.
Roosevelt retired hopefully when Taft won the White House, and tried at first to cross his fingers and hope his replacement would … well, govern exactly like Roosevelt. But Taft, as Chace portrays him, was the worst possible man to run the party and the country. He was politically lazy and easy run by party insiders and conservatives in the House and Senate. When Roosevelt returned to public life in 1910, he was a firebreathing progressive who endorsed pretty much every policy proposal right of Socialism. He took over parts of the Republican national committee (it’s interesting to read how easily such things were done in those days), lost by playing close to the White House, and began navigating toward taking the party’s nomination for himself. The nomination was basically stolen from him, so Roosevelt and a sizable coterie of Republicans (including his running mate, the governor of California) formed the Progressive “Bull Moose” party and hit the hastings.
Meanwhile (Chace tells these stories in alternating chapters), Woodrow Wilson was falling upward into Democratic leadership via a few powerful jobs. Chace lays out the case that Wilson was a racist, conservative Jacksonian before he got into politics. And that’s true – in the 1912 primary campaign, opponents excerpted parts of his books that bashed European immigrants as “sordid and hapless.” As president of Princeton, Wilson picked the wrong fights and was basically ousted just in time to worm his way into New Jersey’s Democratic party machinery. He promised a great raft of things to the party hacks, and then he won the nomination and broke all his promises to become a progressive. As governor he pushed through some very progressive legislation before Republicans won seats and overrode his vetos. So Wilson left New Jersey to campaign for president, and eventually got the nomination on the forty-sixth ballot.
The accountings of these nomination fights and the following campaign are packed with fun anecdotes and quotes, although they aren’t brought to life the way, say, William Manchester brings to life similiar events in his books about Winston Churchill. Chace includes a fairly breezy history of the Debs campaign and unionism, but it doesn’t mesh as naturally with the stories of the big three candidates.
As I said, the book is mostly thrilling. What’s the letdown? Reading stuff like this:
On September 9, Wilson gave his opponent an opening when he declared in New York: “The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it.”
Quoting the damning sentence, [Roosevelt] called it “the key to Mr. Wilson’s position” and labeled it “a bit of outworn academic doctrine which was kept in the schoolroom and the professional study for a generation after it had been abandoned by all who had experience of actual life. It is simply the laissez-faire doctrine of English political economists three-quarters of a century ago.”
From this to “Global test!” and “Hope is on the way!” in 92 years. Sigh.