Matt Lauer led off the "Today Show" this AM agreeing solemnly with Meredith Vieira that, despite rumors to the contrary, there were surprises to be had at the Democratic National Convention. Turned out by surprises he meant Ted Kennedy's "dramatic" appearance, which of course could be seen coming from a mile away by everyone but, apparently, "Today's" hosts. A surprise is defined as "something nobody expects to happen," and while there were plenty of surprises in conventions past, there are few these days. I will of course eat my words if Hillary hijacks the convention and grabs the nomination, but something tells me there will be no sentence-chewing for me.
For another in my series on great convention past, let's try the Republican funfest of 1912.
In 1912, with the exception of Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms, Republican Party candidates had occupied the White House since 1860—an astonishing 44 years. But things were about to change in an especially acrimonious election that saw the Republican Party tear itself apart.
After William Howard Taft’s 1908 victory, former president Teddy Roosevelt congratulated his old vice-president on his victory and headed off to Africa for big-game hunting—the ex-President was personally responsible for killing nine lions, eight elephants, twenty zebras, seven giraffes and six buffalo. Back home, progressive Republicans had a different kind of big game in their sights: Taft, who, naturally more conservative than Roosevelt, had begun to swing back in the direction of tariffs and right-wing Republican bosses. The progressives complained that, despite his promises to the contrary when elected, he was selling out the Party to big business interests and tariffs. Taft in turn whined in a letter to Roosevelt: “It is now a year and three months since I assumed office and I have had a hard time….”
But his former mentor was not the person in whom to confide. As soon as Roosevelt returned home in 1910, he was besieged by progressive Republicans trying to convince him to run for a second full term. It didn’t take much persuasion. Roosevelt began to criticize Taft’s policies claiming that he was a pawn of “the bosses and…the great privileged interests.” Taken aback by the violence of the attack from a former friend, Taft confided to an aide: “If only I knew what the President [he continued to call Roosevelt “the President”] wanted, I would do it.”
What Roosevelt wanted became very clear in February of 1912, when he declared his candidacy for his party’s nomination for president. “My hat is in the ring!” he roared (actually coining that phrase). He also said: “The fight is on and I am stripped to the buff!”
Taft, taking up the Roosevelt’s boxing analogy, came out swinging—well, sort of, in his own, really strange, confessional way:
”I do not want to fight Theodore Roosevelt but sometimes a man in a corner comes out swinging,” the President said. “I was a man of straw but I have been a man of straw long enough. Every man who has blood in his body…is forced to fight.”
By 1912, some states had begun holding primary elections to pick their delegates, a fairly pro forma procedure until now. In what can be considered the first ever contested presidential party primaries, Roosevelt proceeded to kick Taft’s ass, nine states to one. Roosevelt even won in Taft’s home state of Ohio. But things happened very differently at the Republican convention in Chicago in June.
It may be hard for us today, in an age of carefully-orchestrated national political conventions, to understand the mayhem that went on. The very fact that Roosevelt showed up on the first day of the convention wearing a sombrero, smoking a cigar, and referring to the sitting President as “a rat in a corner” shows you how many light years 1912 is away from 2008.
But the real action happened behind the scenes. The delegates Roosevelt won in the primary elections were in the minority—Taft’s conservative political bosses controlled the Republican National Committee and made a point of lining up Taft delegates from non-primary states. In back room wheeling and dealing, they also purchased the support of as many as 200 to 300 delegates from southern states—these states would vote Democratic in a national election, but they did have Republican delegates for sale.
Roosevelt and his men made challenge after challenge when Taft’s men tried to seat these delegates; but their challenges were denied, so much so that progressives began to cry that they were being “steamrolled” (also a new coinage in 1912). Tensions ran so high that police squads were brought in and barbed wire put around the stage. Finally, when Taft ended up with a commanding lead in delegates, 561 to Roosevelt’s 107, Roosevelt and his supporters stormed out of the convention. They formed their own independent party made up of everyone from social workers, reformers and feminists to unhappy mainstream Republicans. They called themselves the Progressive Party but were known popularly as the Bull Moose Party because Roosevelt had proclaimed: “I am fit as a bull moose!”
Thus, the most successful political party of the last half century had managed to split themselves in two, not a recipe for victory, since simple arithmetic at the time showed that Democrats had about 45% of the national vote locked up already. As one onlooker said, referring to Taft and Roosevelt, “the only question is, which corpse gets the flowers?”