Teddy Roosevelt’s Third Term, Part VIII

A crowded election

The ghost of William McKinley appeared to him in a dream, and told him to kill Theodore Roosevelt.

John Schrank was thirty-six years old, unemployed, and unhinged. During the presidential campaign of 1912, “he read in two New York newspapers that the Colonel was determined to overthrow the Constitution.” It had been eleven years since the ghost of the slain President had pointed his finger at Roosevelt in Schrank’s nightmare and said, “This is my murderer, avenge my death.”

The time had come.

***

“Of course I do not for a moment believe that we shall win,” Teddy wrote his son Kermit in August, 1912. He had addressed the convention of the new Progressive Party on the sixth and been acclaimed its presidential nominee.

His nomination battle with President William Howard Taft had split and weakened the Republican Party. Wall Street financiers, who at this point in history held the bulk of political power (and would until the crash of 1929), believed that another Roosevelt term in the White House meant “a vast system of state socialism.” They said he would fix their prices and redistribute their profits and regulate them “with a rod of iron.”

Although traditionally Republican, they knew Taft had no chance of winning either, and put their efforts into electing Woodrow Wilson. For the non-moneyed classes, the word went out that Teddy would raise up black Americans to equal status with whites, like that time he had dinner at the White House with Booker T. Washington.

Aaaand there went the South.

Three months before any votes were cast, the outcome was fairly clear to the three candidates. Wilson knew he couldn’t compete with Teddy in a popularity contest: “He is a real, vivid person,” Wilson wrote. “I am a vague, conjectural personality, more made up of opinions and academic prepossessions than human traits and red corpuscles.”

But his academic observation of Teddy had taught Wilson how to campaign. Out on the stump, he relaxed his “cerebral style” and learned how to express himself in simple terms than anyone could grasp. By contrast, Teddy’s campaign had become moral to the point of religiosity, and out on the stump he became grave and serious, more of a prophet of doom than the boisterous optimist of 1904.

Teddy said, “Wilson is a good man who has in no way shown that he possesses any special fitness for the Presidency.”

William Howard Taft “knew that he bored people, and did not much care.” As President, he kept people waiting for hours to see him, “even while he napped, and never apologized.” He gave long speeches, knowing people would not walk out on a President. When these things were pointed out to him, “he listened placidly, registering nothing.”

Taft let the Republican National Committee handle his re-election campaign while he played golf. He reached his “lifetime peak weight of 340 pounds.” The American people saw him as incompetent and useless, thanks to months of Teddy crisscrossing the country and saying so.

Not only had the country changed since Teddy was President, but so had these two men. Without the restraint the presidency imposed on him, Teddy’s opinions on a number of issues like business regulation and the role of the judiciary had veered into wild territory.

He advocated removal of judges from the bench if their decisions were “out of touch with social needs,” which was such a radical notion that it drove most Republicans back to Taft’s side. His new evangelical language — “we stand at Armageddon” and so on — lent credence to those who had always believed Teddy was a little crazy. His ostracism from the party and electoral losses where he expected wins sent him into a wild frenzy. He was faced with a steep loss of status since his triumphant return from Europe only two years earlier. His erratic behavior in the face of these setbacks revived old rumors that he was a drunk.

Presidential Safety Tip Number Two Hundred Fifty-Seven: President of the United States should always be the last job you ever have.

***

Teddy’s climb back into the ring forced people to choose a side. Popularity had always been his lifeblood, and for many reasons in 1912, it was slipping away. If he had stayed retired, he would have remained universally beloved.

Taft, an able administrator and leader as Governor-General of the Philippines and Secretary of War, was adrift without a strong personality from above to tell him what to do. Left to his own devices, he was lost. As Theodore Roosevelt’s right hand man, he could operate in the background and accomplish a lot. Without Teddy to stand as a buffer between him and the world, Taft retreated. Stuck in a job he never wanted, he got fat and lazy and just wanted to play golf.

It wasn’t just Republican infighting that handed the election to Wilson; it was these two Republicans, now a far cry from their prime, who did.

The race was in sight of the finish line.

***

Poor Nicholas Longworth was not having a good year. The Congressman from Ohio, Taft’s home state, was married to Alice Roosevelt, Teddy’s daughter. But his political fortunes were tied to Taft. The split in the Republican Party had put their marriage “on the verge of collapse.” Longworth sat in the middle between giants, trying not to support one or challenge the other. His mother in law had no sympathy for him: “I wish to goodness that Nick would come out flat footed and work for Taft, or do something!”

Edith Roosevelt had clearly spent a long time with Teddy. She had no use for a man of inaction.

In the electoral debacle of 1912, Nicholas Longworth would lose his seat in Congress, and very nearly his wife.

***

Teddy was campaigning hard, in person, all across the country, and he was sick of it. “I am hoarse and dirty and filled with a bored loathing of myself whenever I get up to speak,” he wrote his son.

He was facing a Senate probe for accepting improper campaign contributions in his 1904 campaign, something that likely wouldn’t have happened had he simply retired to Oyster Bay. A Michigan newspaper libeled him with the line, “Roosevelt lies and curses in a most disgusting way; he gets drunk too, and all his intimates know it.”

Politics is a dirty business.

***

Teddy was getting ready to address a crowded auditorium in Milwaukee on October 14th, 1912. He had written his speech and folded it into his right jacket pocket. He left his hotel and went out to his open car and got seated. A crowd gathered, and he stood up to bow, waving his hat.

John Schrank, who had followed Teddy from New Orleans to Milwaukee, fired one shot, striking Teddy in the chest. One of Roosevelt’s bodyguards, Elbert Martin, an ex-football player, tackled Schrank right when he fired, having seen the gun and rushed over.

Teddy had “dropped without a sound,” and was feared dead, but he pulled himself up. He seemed unhurt, and asked Martin to bring the would-be assassin to the side of the car. “Don’t hurt him,” Teddy ordered. “Bring him here.” Teddy took Schrank’s head in both hands to see if he recognized him. All he saw was “the dull-eyed, unmistakable expressionlessness of insanity.” He asked Schrank, “What did you do it for?” then, getting no answer, ordered his guards to turn Schrank over to the police.

Teddy told his guards that Schrank had “plinked” him. They tried to get him to go to the hospital. Teddy rasped, “You get me to that speech.”

***

The entire right side of his body had turned black. There was a small hole in his chest, but no sign of the bullet. He told his doctor that it didn’t hurt to breathe, so he was going to go on with the speech.

The crowd was told that Teddy had been the victim of an assassination attempt. Half of them didn’t believe it. The other half cried out to ask if Teddy was okay. Teddy stepped forward and told them it was true, opened his vest to show the bloodstain, and said, “But it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”

The show was back on.

Teddy went on to speak for nearly an hour and half, tossing the sheets of his speech down as he reached the end of a page, as had always been his practice when giving speeches. (These pages were snapped up by the crowd as souvenirs. These were even better, as each page had a bullet hole in it). His aides stood waiting below to catch him if he passed out.

His face was white after eighty minutes, but he made it to the end of his speech. After that, amid the roaring and applause of the crowd, he told his doctor, “Now I am ready to go with you and do what you want.”

He made it through the crowd, many of whom wanted to shake his hand and slap him on the back as if he didn’t have a new bullet stuck in his ribs, and was checked in to Milwaukee’s Emergency Hospital. The news of the assassination attempt flashed around the country. Edith Roosevelt was pulled out of her box at a theatre during the performance to be told. She said, “Take me to where I can talk to him or hear from him at once.”

An X-ray found the bullet. After passing through Teddy’s thick overcoat, fifty pages of his speech folded in half, his steel-reinforced spectacle case, his suspender belt, shirt and undershirt, the bullet still retained enough force to crack a rib. Two things had saved his life: the glasses he had needed since he was a small boy, and his penchant for giving long speeches.

***

He left Milwaukee that same night and was in New York’s Mercy Hospital by the next morning. His doctors issued a statement that he “needed complete quiet to recover.”

Quiet was not Teddy’s thing.

Both Wilson and Taft stopped their campaigns for the week Teddy was in the hospital. Teddy made it home in time to celebrate his fifty-fourth birthday (he was actually the youngest of all the presidential candidates running in the 1912 election) and vote for himself on November fifth.

Shortly after eleven that night, he sent a telegram to Woodrow Wilson.

“The American people, by a great plurality, have conferred upon you the highest honor in their gift. I congratulate you thereon.”

***

Teddy had come in second, making Taft the only sitting president in history to come in third in a presidential election.

He told reporters on Election Night, “Like all other good citizens, I accept the result with good humor and contentment.”

Except…he didn’t.

“Wilson had scored the greatest electoral victory yet accorded a presidential candidate.” The Democratic party had won control of the Senate and increased its majority in the House. Theodore Roosevelt had a once-in-a-generation political mind; he had to know that the massive defeats the Republicans had suffered were in a large part his fault, and that he would get to spend the next few years beholding the fallout from it.

But he spent the day after Election Day railing against everyone from the libelous press to Elihu Root and Robert LaFollette and “the great mass of ordinary commonplace men of dull imagination who simply vote under the party symbol and whom it is difficult to stir by any appeal to the higher emotions and intelligence as it would be to stir so many cattle.”

The press, when it was not on his side. Stick-in-the-mud establishment politicians. Men of no imagination or vision, who dare nothing and thereby achieve nothing. In his sour defeat, Teddy lashed out against the villains who had plagued him throughout his entire career.

What was different now was that this was the first time these nemeses had managed to beat him.

Teddy was in a dark place. He was out past the end of a triumphant and history-making political career, flailing around in uncharted territory where he was unpopular, justifiably criticized, and a loser. The papers that came to Sagamore Hill in the next few weeks described in great detail the considerable damage Teddy’s “hat in the ring” had done to the party he had belonged to his whole life, the one founded by the President whose funeral procession had passed beneath his window when he was just a boy.

***

As was the case at the time, the electoral numbers took a while to come in, and the picture wasn’t as bleak as originally supposed. Considering the fact that Teddy had started a third party from scratch, and on short notice, his vote totals were historic.

They just weren’t enough.

He had made Woodrow Wilson a minority Chief Executive, but president nonetheless. The Senate and House were in Democratic control. Wilson, no matter how many votes he had gotten or failed to get, held all the cards. Teddy could only rage against his own hubris, then settle down into a morose stew.

For a man who never gave up, this, of all the dark times in his life, would be the perfect time to give up. He had a remarkable wife and family, children and grandchildren to dote on, and books to write. Once the memory of the 1912 debacle faded, he could once again reassert himself as America’s premier elder statesman.

All he had to do was stop.

He told the publisher of the autobiography he was about to begin writing: “Being out of politics is not precisely retirement for me.”

Oh boy.

***

His would-be assassin, John Schrank, cooperated with the prosecution against him, admitting that he had fully intended to kill Theodore Roosevelt. He believed that Teddy’s election would have plunged the country into another civil war, and saw killing Teddy as his patriotic duty.

He was judged insane and incarcerated for life in the Wisconsin state asylum.

On the way there, a guard noticed him gazing out the train window at the passing landscape and asked Schrank if he liked to hunt.

“Only Bull Moose,” Schrank said.

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Historian

Historian

Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.