The story began with a promise. Following his electoral victory in 1904, Theodore Roosevelt vowed to the public he would not run again in 1908. Assuming office in 1901, following the death of William McKinley, then Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt could have run in ‘08. But he had made that promise.
Selecting an heir, TR tapped the occupation governor of the Philippines, William Howard Taft. TR believed he could happily step aside and pursue private interests with Mr. Taft in the White House. Taft did not want to be president, but his wife did. Though preferring a seat on the Supreme Court, Taft soon caved to his wife and accepted TR’s offer.
Reform and good government played a large part in Roosevelt’s administration. He challenged unfettered capitalism, pushing for regulations of railroads, and breaking John D. Rockefeller’s stranglehold on the oil industry. One of Theodore’s paramount issues was preserving America’s treasure trove of national parks, and wilderness areas.
TR loved the West and wished to regulate development where it wasn’t needed. After completing his term, and Taft safely elected, TR went on safari in Africa with one of his sons. By the time Roosevelt returned he learned things were not to his liking in Washington. Taft had made decisions, and endorsed policies Roosevelt had opposed during his administration.
In short, Taft had the audacity to run his own administration.
A big issue of contention was conservation of lands and natural resources. Unlike TR, Taft opened up Alaska’s Chugach National Forest to coal mining. Worse, Taft fired TR’s man in the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, a spokesman for public land as recreational for the people. Suffice it to say this, and other disputes turned ugly.
The 1912 campaign season began with TR’s new third party, the Progressive or Bull Moose Party. William Howard Taft also announced his run for a second term for the GOP. New Jersey Governor, Woodrow Wilson, received the Democratic nomination in Baltimore.
Of course the Republican Party split between Republican conservatives, and the Progressives backing Roosevelt. And Wilson became the 28th President of the United States.
What does that moment of time portend for today? Certainly a major Republican split between traditional and reactionary members is in the offing. Much like TR’s progressive agenda, and Taft’s middle-of-the road-conservatism, GOP voters are going to have to decide.
Clearly this same party is sliding into another major split in 2024. Is neofascism the preference of today’s organization? That one announced candidate has another term coming, and has made plenty of promises too. Will middle of the road conservatives tone him down and redeem the party in their own image? Maybe. But for today the smart money is on that 80-year-old moderate incumbent.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Chumbley has penned two historic plays, “Clay” about the life of statesman Henry Clay, and “Wolf By The Ears,” exploring the the beginnings of slavery and racism.