1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs --

The Election That Changed the Country

By James Chace. Simon & Schuster. 323 pp. $25.95

Kevin Phillips once wrote that Americans achieve through presidential elections what in other countries it takes a revolution to accomplish. The noted intellectual provocateur was exaggerating, of course. But, on occasion, our quadrennial circuses do produce or certify durable shifts in power.

Andrew Jackson's triumph in 1828 ushered in an age of mass parties based on the needs and prejudices of ordinary white voters. Lincoln's victory in 1860 led directly to the Civil War (so much for elections substituting for armed conflict). Lashed to the Depression, Herbert Hoover lost the election of 1932 more than Franklin Roosevelt won it. But FDR, backed by a new multi-ethnic coalition, went on to build the modern welfare-warfare state that governs us still.

James Chace would include the contest of 1912 in that select group. The election, he writes, "introduced a conflict between progressive idealism . . . and conservative values" that raged through the rest of the 20th century and continues today. Obviously, President George W. Bush now waves the banner of the right; only a publisher's deadline kept the author from naming John Kerry the latest defender of the liberal alternative.

To flesh out his claim, Chace offers a brisk, consistently entertaining narrative that is alive both to politics and personality. The four serious candidates in 1912 were all men of intellectual substance, able to debate the major question of the day: how to sustain economic growth without widening the gulf between the corporate rich and everyone else. Republican President William Howard Taft and Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs occupied the right and left poles. The incumbent feared that a true crackdown on the mighty trusts that ruled the marketplace would endanger prosperity; the radical wanted to abolish private capital altogether. Running on the Progressive ticket, Theodore Roosevelt favored strict regulation of big business; Democrat Woodrow Wilson argued that the state should break up monopolies, not just force them to behave responsibly.

Taft was never comfortable on the stump and spent more time that fall playing golf than giving speeches. But the other three contenders were gifted orators who drew huge, adoring crowds. Chace describes Debs reaching out his long, bony arms to working-class audiences, urging them to "tear up privilege by the roots, and consecrate the earth and all its fullness to the joy and service of all humanity." He recounts how Roosevelt delivered a spirited hour-long address minutes after a would-be assassin shot him in the chest. He captures Wilson's success at shedding his Ivy League hauteur to emerge as a strong advocate of the rights of labor and small business.

The most affecting passages in the book describe the troubled relationship between Taft and TR. The rotund incumbent owed his office to Roosevelt, and the two had been close friends. Their break -- caused by a blend of clashes over principle and fits of pique -- split the Republicans, then the majority party, in two. It made Wilson's victory in 1912 all but inevitable. But the rift always tormented the kinder, gentler Taft. By a lucky accident, the two men met six years later in a Chicago hotel. Though they conversed warmly and at length, the two never spoke again. Chace, a gifted biographer, appreciates the multiple threads that weave pathos with power.

Alas, a good story does not make up for the lack of sound historical judgment. Every contest that dethrones an incumbent president "changes the country." But Chace doesn't make clear why he thinks 1912 was a major pivot on which American politics turned. He describes TR as both a conservative and a radical and so can't speculate on how a new Roosevelt administration might have differed from Wilson's. In fact, despite his campaign rhetoric, the Democrat knew he could not destroy the power of big business and thus was satisfied, during his tenure, when Congress enacted a progressive income tax, the Federal Reserve Act and somewhat tougher ground rules for corporate behavior. Chace does mention that Debs's six percent of the vote in 1912 marked the zenith of Socialist strength in America. But, given the chronic weakness of the Marxist left in this country, that hardly qualifies the election as a major departure.

There was one contest that decisively punctuated the long stretch between the presidencies of Lincoln and FDR -- one that, in Chace's florid phrase, "tackled the central question of America's exceptional destiny." In 1896, William McKinley bested William Jennings Bryan in a campaign that many Americans likened to a civil war, fought with clashing visions of the future instead of guns. McKinley's victory over Bryan's coalition of left-wing Democrats and Populists ended the most serious challenge that Eastern industrialists, based in the growing cities, would ever face. Any realistic chance for a "producer's republic," ruled by wage-earners and small farmers, died that year.

As stirring as it was, the 1912 campaign neither signified nor resulted in such a momentous change. Unlike during the hot race between Bryan and McKinley, the identity of the victor was never in serious doubt. And Americans seemed to sense that, despite all the eloquence, the stakes were rather limited. In 1912, for the first time since the beginning of the modern party system, fewer than 60 percent of eligible voters turned up at the polls. The rate has not climbed much higher since then. It's not the kind of "destiny" to which a democracy should aspire. *

Michael Kazin is writing a biography of William Jennings Bryan. He teaches history at Georgetown University.

On the campagin trail in 1912: Taft on an elephant, Wilson on a donkey and Roosevelt astride his party's eponymous bull moose