The hair-raising election long before pregnant chads

In a three-way race, Woodrow Wilson won with 42 percent

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The year 1912 - that apple-pie time before world wars, the Holocaust, nuclear angst, or secret terrorist webs - wouldn't seem to be a likely moment for a crucial American election.

But James Chace shows with clarity and insight that a little- remembered political season 92 years ago has echoed mightily throughout the 20th century and on into the 21st.

Through their calls for federal action to address social ills, two leading candidates, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, "created the modern presidency," Chase says.

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By choosing the "judicious conservatism" of President William Taft over the social activism of Roosevelt, the Republican Party defined itself as a conservative rather than a progressive party, a badge it wears with honor today.

And the 6 percent of the vote cast for another candidate, Eugene Debs, represented the high-water mark for American socialism, which found its best issues co-opted by the front-runners, a fate modern fringe candidates from H. Ross Perot to Ralph Nader would share.

In 1912, the GOP was the dominant party, having controlled the White House for 44 of the previous 52 years (back to Abraham Lincoln). Although it regained the presidency after Democrat Wilson's two terms (1913-21), the party was never the same.

The early 20th century saw an industrial, technological society emerging in the United States. Jefferson's dream of an agrarian utopia of independent farmers was being replaced by the reality of millions of factory and office workers in the thrall of giant corporations.

The question became how to rein in the excesses of the era while keeping cherished democratic ideals in place. Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" and Wilson's "New Freedom" shared the belief that an activist federal government should blunt the hard edges of capitalism for workers and consumers - a philosophy that would find its full expression in FDR's "New Deal" two decades later.

It was a crazy election in 1912. Taft, the sitting president, finished third. Roosevelt, denied the GOP nomination by what he saw as backroom chicanery, took up the Progressive Party banner (and gave it a mascot to match his personality, the Bull Moose).

He finished second, splitting the GOP vote and denying a sure victory to Taft. That the two onetime allies had become bitter rivals added poignancy to the race. (Taft once broke into tears in front of a reporter, admitting, "Roosevelt was my closest friend.")

Wilson, the former Princeton University president and New Jersey governor, won the White House by default, with only 42 percent of the popular vote.

In Chace's eyes, Roosevelt remains the flawed marvel others have revealed, a man of "drive, ebullience, and sweeping intellect."

Taft once remarked that Roosevelt had not only captivated the world, he had "seeped into the small crevices of the universe." The Nobel Peace Prize-winner and former president was tired of being a celebrity. "Confound these kings," Roosevelt had said on a European swing. "Will they never leave me alone?"

He longed to return to the political fight, and in the 1912 campaign he let loose with a blizzard of what were then considered radical proposals, including calls for the imposition of income and inheritance taxes, the eight-hour workday, voting rights for women, and campaign-finance limits.

He drew rock-star crowds on his whistle-stop campaign, which included a quintessential Roosevelt moment when he was shot by a deranged man and insisted on giving his speech with the bullet lodged in his chest.

But Wilson proved to be an unexpectedly engaging and effective campaigner, too, despite his professorial demeanor. A contemporary spoke of "the personal magnetism of the man, his winning smile, so frank and so sincere." With Roosevelt's foes painting him as that "half-mad genius" (sometimes they left out "genius"), Wilson was a safe, sensible alternative for a public eager to elect a reformer.

Yet Wilson's "self-righteous moralism," Chace says, would serve him ill during his presidency, scuttling Senate approval of US participation in the League of Nations when Wilson refused any compromise with the GOP majority.

"If I didn't feel that I was the personal instrument of God, I couldn't carry on," Wilson remarked ominously at a post-World War I peace conference.

For the altogether honest and decent Taft, 1912 meant being relieved of a presidency he hadn't enjoyed, followed by a touching reconciliation with Roosevelt and a return to his real love, the law, through a Supreme Court appointment.

Finally, in revealing Eugene Debs as sincere, selfless, and utterly American, Chace puts a positive spin on American socialism, later to be hammered to pieces as the dupe of foreign communism. "What is socialism?" Debs once asked. "Merely Christianity in action. It recognizes the equality in men."

In "1912," Chace has sketched an engrossing political horse race that is at once familiar and strange. In revealing both aspects, the book makes for engaging historical reading during our own election season.

Gregory M. Lamb is a healthcare policy and technology writer for the Monitor.

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