1912 Election, Rating Presidents, Russia

Article excerpt

Byline: Roger Fontaine, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

There is one accurate generalization about American presidential elections, and that is that no two elections are ever alike. This certainly goes for 1912, when four candidates made a serious bid for the presidency. Well, perhaps three.

In James Chace's crisp account of that momentous year, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs - The Election That Changed the Country (Simon & Schuster, $26.95, 336 pages, illus.), we learn how the Republican Party broke apart. The incumbent William Howard Taft was the choice of the party regulars, while his predecessor in office, Theodore Roosevelt, took the progressive faction from the GOP and formed the Bull Moose Party.

Woodrow Wilson, the eventual winner, was a first-term governor of New Jersey who had difficulty in defining himself - or rather in redefining himself, but he did well enough to win, thanks to a divided opposition.

As for the fourth candidate, Eugene Debs, Mr. Chance makes him a sympathetic character whose 900,000 votes were the high-water mark for the Socialist Party and all of the radical counterparts that followed it.

The real question about the 1912 election is: Why did T.R. do it? I am not sure Mr. Chace has answered that question fully. Perhaps no one can.

The consequences, however, are quite plain: the splitting of the Republican Party, which is evident even today. This election also meant the handing of the presidency to the Democrats and to Woodrow Wilson, who chameleon-like became a "progressive," much to the consternation of white Southern Democrats.

In the end, of the 1912 Four only Taft would find relative happiness, even in losing. He never wanted to be president in the first place. When Warren Harding appointed him chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1921, Taft achieved his life's ambition.

Teddy Roosevelt, on the other hand, never did. Although he would make a bid for the presidency again, his health failed him long before the 1920 election.

Wilson's end is better known: living out his second term in a twilight, too sick to be president, too stubborn to resign. Harding would succeed him in a Republican landslide while Debs barely got more than half the vote he had won in 1912.

Harding, of course, raises the whole question of rating presidents in the first place. As even schoolchildren know, the man from Ohio is consistently rated as one of the worst chief executives in history, right down there with Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. A few disagree, including this reviewer, but now is not the time to explore that question.

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And this brings us to the most recent attempt to rate our presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush, James Taranto and Leonard Leo's Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House (Wall Street Journal Books, $26, 304 pages).

The twist this time is the rating procedure, devised by a group of more or less conservative students of the presidency. In the past, such lists have been compiled by liberal academics - something that annoys conservatives to no end.

The book is divided into three parts. First, there are thumbnail sketches of each president, which come in handy when dealing with the likes of Millard Fillmore and Chester Arthur. The quality of these sketches, each written by a different author, varies considerably.

One of the toughest to write - who can say anything new about Abraham Lincoln? - is one of the best, however. In little more than seven pages, Jay Winik gets the man exactly right.

Second come the actual ratings; the surprise here is that there are really no great surprises. The great presidents remain Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt (Franklin Delano, that is). The worse are the familiar Pierce, Buchanan, Harding and Andrew Johnson, who are all described as failures. …