GLENN: No examination of crazy elections in America would be complete without mentioning the nation-altering election of 1912. Who would have guessed? Woodrow Wilson will make an appearance.
That would be the year incumbent president Republican William Howard Taft, you know, the bathtub guy, battled for his party's nomination against former president Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was the celebrity candidate of the day with the press and throngs of admirers following him wherever he went. During the primaries, Roosevelt easily outdistanced the sitting president Taft in votes, roughly 1.2 million to 800,000.
History professor Margaret O'Mara shares how different the convention turned out to be from the primaries.
VOICE: When the convention opened, there were so many contested delegates that no single candidate had enough for the nomination. It was open. Open season.
So Roosevelt decides it's time for some bold moves, for some new politics. So he bucks tradition. Usually the candidates don't even show up at the conventions during this -- this era. He comes to Chicago, where the convention is happening and has a predictably, a rock star's reception. He doesn't go into the hall. But he's right outside, causing a big ruckus outside of it. But inside the hall, it's politics as usual. Taft's party machinery swings into action. And the result, Taft got nearly all the contested delegates and he got the nomination.
GLENN: When the dust settled, President Taft had taken 566 delegates to Roosevelt's 466.
Progressive giant Robert La Follette claimed just 36. On the Democratic side, Woodrow Wilson, and House Speaker champ Clark were locked in a virtual dead heat after the primary season, each having won five states. Wilson had a slight edge in votes. However, heading into the Democratic Convention in Baltimore, Clark actually had a significant lead in the delegate count.
Professor O'Mara explains.
VOICE: Even though he had the delegate lead, the conventional wisdom was that Clark was not up to the job of being president. And Wilson took advantage of that.
Over the course of multiple rounds of balloting day after day of the convention, Wilson steadily chipped away at Clark's delegate count. And on that 46th round of voting, Wilson got it.
GLENN: Amazingly, it took 46 ballots for the worst president in American history to finally win his party's nomination.
So the stage was set for a major showdown in the general election between Republican president Taft and the Democratic challenger Woodrow Wilson. However, Teddy Roosevelt wasn't about to give up his progressive party dream so easily.
Roosevelt left the G.O.P. and started a new American party called the Bull Moose Party, or the Progressive Party.
Yes, for those who refused to recognize it, it was the Republicans that started the progressive party. When you're running under the banner of Bull Moose or Progressive Party, the name sounds every bit progressive, but so did the words of Theodore Roosevelt.
THEODORE: We propose on the contrary to extend governmental power in order to secure the liberty of the wage workers of the men and women who toil in industry to save the liberty of the oppressed from the oppressor.
GLENN: Hiding his true meanings, as so many progressives do, Roosevelt set out a plan to put a positive spin on his new progressive politics.
THEODORE: Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare, they have become the tools of corrupt interests, which use them impartially to serve their selfish purpose. Behind the ostensible government, sits in throne an invisible government, owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people. To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.
Unhampered by perdition, uncorrupted by power, undismayed by the magnitude of the task, the new party offers itself as the instrument of the people, to speak away old abuses, to build a new and nobler government.
GLENN: Taft did his part to counter the popular unrest and division being created by Roosevelt, but perhaps not in the most electric or exciting ways.
VOICE: But insofar as the propaganda for the satisfaction of unrest involves the promise of a millennium, a condition in which the rich are to be made reasonably poor and the poor reasonably rich by law, we are chasing a phantom. We are holding out to those whose unrest we fear, a prospect and a dream. A vision of the impossible.
After we have changed all the governmental machinery, so as to permit instantaneous expression of the people, in constitutional amendment in statute and in recall of public agent, what then?
GLENN: Almost sounding desperate, Taft bellowed on.
VOICE: Votes are not bred. Constitutional amendments are not words. Referendums do not pay rent or furnish houses. Recalls do not furnish clothing. Initiatives do not supply employment or relieve qualities of conditions or of opportunity. We still ought to have sense before us. The definite plan to bring on complete equality of opportunity and to abolish hardship and evil for humanity.
GLENN: Seemingly splitting the difference between the two and presenting himself as the reasonable alternative was Woodrow Wilson.
VOICE: There is a new party, but it's difficult to characterize because it is made up of several elements.
As I see it, it is made up of three elements, in particular. The first consists of those Republicans whose consciences and whose stomachs could not stand what the regular Republicans were doing. Added to this element are a great many men and women of noble character and of elevated purpose, who believe that this combination of forces may in the future bring them out on a plain where they can accomplish those things which their hearts have so long desired. I have no word of criticism for them. Then there is a third element in the new party of which the less said, the better. To discuss it would be interesting, only if I could mention names. And I have forbidden myself.
We have in this party two things: A political party and a party of social reformers.
GLENN: Wilson continued, making it seem like there was no way the presidency could ever accomplish the reforms he sought, never mind that years later, Wilson wouldn't let that stop him when he was the chief executive.
VOICE: Mr. Roosevelt put forth an admirable platform of what he would like to do for the people, but how is he going to do it?
He proposes in his platform not to abolish monopolies, but to take it under the legal protection of the government and to regulate it.
In other words, to take the very men into partnership who have been making it impossible to carry out these base programs by which all of us wish to help the people. It is perfectly idle to talk of doing things when your hands are tied for you, so long as the men who now control the industry of the country continue to control it.
GLENN: As the election drew near, just three weeks prior, while campaigning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he was about to deliver a speech, when Roosevelt was shot.
From the Roosevelts, an intimate portrait.
VOICE: The bullet passed through the ex-president's spectacles' case and the folded 50-page speech behind it, smashed through his chest wall and lodged in a splintered rib, less than a quarter of an inch from his heart. Roosevelt dabbed at his mouth, found no blood, and concluded his lungs were undamaged.
GLENN: Roosevelt informed the crowd that he had been shot. Asked them to keep the noise level down, as he was unable to project too loudly. He showed his glasses' case to his audience, the bullet hole that remained, and displayed his bloody shirt beneath his jacket.
VOICE: He insisted on delivering his speech despite his wound.
What we progressives are trying to do is to enroll rich and poor, to stand together for the most elementary rights of good citizenship. Mr. Wilson has distinctly committed himself to the old flint-lock muzzle-loaded doctrine of states' rights.
We are for the people's rights. Pail and sometimes swaying at the podium, he went on for more than an hour before his eight days eight days could get him to stop and agree to go to the hospital.
GLENN: In an age of people seeking medical treatment because they may have heard a word that triggered a negative feeling, it's nearly impossible to believe that a man who was severely wounded after being shot in the chest and bleeding profusely could deliver a 90-minute speech before agreeing to any kind of medical care.
But that was the world of 1912, especially if you were standing anywhere around Theodore Roosevelt.
What is almost as hard to believe was the Marxist rhetoric coming from the formerly fairly conservative Republican war hero President Roosevelt.
As it turned out, it was probably inevitable, Roosevelt and Taft would split the Republican vote, ensuring a Woodrow Wilson victory. Yes, we all have the fat bathtub president to thank for Woodrow Wilson.
That's exactly what happened. Wilson received 42 percent of the vote. Roosevelt was second. And Taft was third. Together, Roosevelt and Taft cornered 50 percent of the American people's vote. Socialist Eugene Deb finished a distant fourth at 6 percent. Woodrow Wilson used his victory to begin the fundamental transformation of the United States of America, reinstating segregation in the military and civil service and giving life to the KKK in the process. Yet, despite all of that and more, historians continue to place him among the top five presidents in US history.
Next time, the crazy election of 1948.