Saturday, June 27, 2015

The War of 1912

One hundred years after that other one which took place on the high seas, Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay and New Orleans harbor at which time the Brits came over with a box of matches and toasted the White House and Tchaikovsky named his overture commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleon……

came the big fight between two American heavyweights, William Howard Taft tipping the scale at 330 and Teddy (the Moose) Roosevelt. 550 pounds of flesh might only be rivaled by Chris Christie in the ring with Donald Trump’s ego. Teddy and Will were bosom buddies four years before but times were changing rapidly back then and T.R. wanted back in after his seven year tenure as POTUS.

We are children of history but many Americans have orphaned themselves as if they just fell to earth with no antecedents. I want to know about those years that led up to where I came in, the prequel movie and ones before that.

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, The Bully Pulpit, brings to life these two larger-than-life figures in those turbulent years beginning the last century. Both T.R. and Will were so-called Progressives in the Republican Party. They were joined at the hip fighting against corporate Trusts in oil, railways, meat-packing and mining. They railed against corrupt machine politics with city bosses controlling elections.

Yet temperamentally they were on opposite poles. Roosevelt was pugnacious, impulsive, robust, living out loud. Taft was deliberate, judicious yet affable and most certainly ample. Their relationship was complementary and both had constituencies, wide as Taft's tuch, often the same people.

It shocked the country when they went head to head in the election of 1912. Together they got the majority of votes but Woodrow Wilson won with 42% of the total. In fact all three candidates embraced reform. It was to be the last Progressive peep from the Republican Party... with the single exception of Wendell Willkie in 1940.

The rift between the two owed as much to T.R.’s ego as to the complex issues of the day. His outsized personality did not easily lend itself to compromise. Every plank in the platform of the Progressives, radical as they were at the time, has long since been adapted as law.

Happy to report that Taft and Roosevelt patched-up their differences six years later. Taft’s magnanimity risked T.R.’s big stick and overcame his bully. After Roosevelt’s death in 1919 Taft went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1920-1931). This was his calling all along. He had turned down appointments to the high court from Roosevelt three times before due to other obligations.

What relevance does all this have, I hear you (me) ask? It teaches me that History comes down to people, in turn shaped by their moment on stage. The new technology and industrialization of the early 20th century led to upheavals in the lives of everyone. Crises in financial markets followed years of abuses and wanton greed. The average worker earned $8 a week or $400/year. Income disparity was outrageous. Sound familiar?

When we study the past we see how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t. Progress happens but the clock can also be turned back as it recently has in terms of buying elections and voter suppression. The same arguments in 1912 against social progress are being dusted off and re-tried today. It helps to recognize the echo.

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