Introducing Our 1912 Project; Something's Wrong with La Follette

The exciting portion of the 2012 primary season may be winding down, but one hundred years ago one of the most dramatic elections in American history was just getting underway. Which made us wonder: what would it be like to cover the 1912 race the same way we cover the current contest?

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The exciting portion of the 2012 primary season may be winding down, but one hundred years ago one of the most dramatic elections in American history was just getting underway. Which made us wonder: what would it be like to cover the 1912 race the same way we cover the current contest? An experiment then: blogging the 1912 election.

The familiar story in history books is that 1912 was an election that centered on the role of the government in the industrializing American economy. Debate among Republicans, deeply split between conservatives lead by President William Taft and progressives like former President Theodore Roosevelt and Sen. Robert La Follete, would determine the shape of the party for at least the next century. Third parties -- Progressives and Socialists -- would give the two-party system that had dominated U.S. politics since its founding its biggest challenge. And there was (spoiler alert) a deeply philosophical debate between Roosevelt's muscular "The New Nationalism" (recently channeled by Barack Obama) and the Democrats' Woodrow Wilson's more limited-government program dubbed  "The New Freedom." You can read as much on Wikipedia, if you want to skip ahead.

So why take a more bloggy approach? The first reason is that the issues of 2012's Tea Party-infused election aren't all that different. Second, though, is simple curiosity: how would someone following politics have experienced the race? (There's also a question of our own endurance: will we be able to keep this up through Election Day.) We're setting one main ground rule for each day's post in The 1912 Project: we can only draw on sources that someone on the same date in 1912 would have had access to. That means newspapers, magazines, books and photographs. But no peeking into the future or prying into diaries and other archival matter. With that, let's get started...

La Follette Meets the Press Sen. Robert La Follette, stalwart of the progressive wing of the Republican Party, presidential hopeful, enemy of trusts and rival of former President Theodore Roosevelt, has learned a lesson: newspaper publishers are a prickly lot. Just after midnight on Thursday night in Philadelphia, La Follette gave a speech to 600 banqueting members of the the Periodical Publishers's Association extending his familiar criticism of the growing national power of corporations to the nation's newspapers. "I have sketched the growth and power of the great interests that today control our property and our governments," he started out. " I have shown how subtle and elusive, yet relentless, they are. Rising up against them is the confused voice of the people. Their heart is true, but their eyes do not yet see all the intricate sources of power. ... One would think that in a democracy like ours seeking for instruction, able to read and understanding, the press would be their eager and willing instructors." And then, courtesy of The Gazette Times of Pittsburgh -- owned by fellow Republican Senator George T. Oliver -- he lit into the daily papers his gathered audience published:

But what do we find has occured in the last few years since the money power has gained control of our industry and government? It controls the newspaper press. The people know this. Their confidence is weakened and destroyed. No longer are the editorial columns of newspapers a potent force in educating public opinion The newspapers, of course, are still patronized for news. But even as to news, the public is fast coming to understand that wherever news items bear in any way upon the control of government by business the news is colored; so confidence in the newspaper as a newspaper is undermined.

Cultured and able men are still to be found upon the editorial staffs of all great dailies, but the public understands them to be hired men who no longer express honest judgments and sincere conviction, who write what they are told to write and whose judgments are salaried.

To the subserviency of the press to special interests in no small degree is due the power and influence and prosperity of the weekly and monthly magazines. A decade ago, young men trained in journalism came to see this control of the newspapers of the country. They saw this unoccupied field. And they went out and built great periodicals and magazines. They were free.

A provocative critique! How did the newspapers react?  The New York Times went with this for their front page: "LA FOLLETTE ILL; MAKES NO EXCUSES, Friends Declare His Outbreak Against Newspapers Due to Mental Collapse." The Baltimore Sun took a similar tack: "LA FOLLETTE ILL, Wisconsin Senator Said to Be a Physical Wreck from Overwork, CANCELS ENGAGEMENTS, Will Drop Work and Rest for Two Weeks, COLLAPSE AT PHILADELPHIA, Hissed and Hooted for Denouncing American Press in a Rambling Speech Before Publishers." And The Pittsburgh Gazette Times goes with the clearest political analysis: "LA FOLLETTE IS ON VERGE OF COLLAPSE."

Though La Follette was speaking in front of a room of newspaper men, actual reporting on what happend -- and what he said -- is remarkably thin. But there is plenty of speculation on La Follette's mental and physical condition. "The Senator's friends realize that he is a sick man, and his physicians have declared that he must give himself a rest for the next fortnight," The New York Times begins its diagnosis. "After the Senator left the Publishers' dinner in Philadelphia last night, he was seized with a violent attack of nausea," they add. According to the Pittsburg Press, which has one of the more generous accounts of La Follette's speech, "The senator's present condition traces back to his recent Western trip, when, although taken dangerously ill with ptomaine poisoning in Chicago, he insisted on not disappointing any of his audiences," adding that La Follette's doctor had been "compelled to resort to powerful drugs to keep the senator on his feet." Going further, the Pittsburgh Gazette Times carried the opinion of Donald Seitz, business manager of the New York World and the toastmaster for the evening: "There is only one thing to it. He was suffering from aphasia. I have seen my father ill in the pulpit from just the same kind of attack." (The textbook definition: "The term aphasia means literally the loss of the power of speech. It was used originally to indicate the condition of those who from accident or disease affecting the brain had lost in part or entirely the power of expressing themselves in spoken words.")

In a separate New York Times story, Gen. Felix Agnus, publisher of Baltimore American had nothing but words of concern for his fellow Republican:

Scattered in the reports are some details of what actually happened: Within fifteen minutes the audience started rushing for the exits and there were calls for him to sit down. La Follette angrily told them, "I have the floor; those that don't care to listen had better get out." He continued to speak for two more hours or so. On hand to witness the event, The New York Times notes, was New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson, the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. "Gov. Wilson sat at the right of Senator La Follette, and saw and heard his rival 'talk himself to death' in a political sense." And that is what happens when you pick a fight with newspapers in 1912.

Poll Time! Few American voters have phones in 1912 (according to the Census Bureau, there are 8.7 million telephones and a population of 95.5 million) but that doesn't mean there cannot be useless presidential polls. Newspapers around the country ask their readers to mail in post cards with their presidential preferences and then tally the results. Monday's New York Times has results from mail polls conducted by The Kansas City Star and The Minneapolis Journal, while the Pittsburg Press published its own mail poll results on Saturday. In all three tallies, Roosevelt has towering leads, while Democrats split the three polls. In Missouri, the largest of all the polls, Roosevelt dominated the Republicans. Among the Democrats, Rep. Champ Clark's home-state advantage gave him an edge, but just barely edging out three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan. Meanwhile, Wilson was edged out of third place by former Missouri governor Joseph Folk:

The Pittsburgh results were nearly identical as in Missouri for the Republicans. On the Democratic side, Bryan prevailed, with Alabama Congressman Oscar Underwood coming in second.

In Minneapolis, La Follette, who is from neighboring Wisconsin, did much better, but he still lost out to Roosevelt by a wide margin. Though there were few votes for Democrats in the Minnesota survey, Wilson far outpaced Bryan.

A mail-in poll sounds easily manipulated by a well-organized campaign. But, then again, they're probably just as useful as a straw poll at a state fair five months before primary season begins.

What Taft Eats And for the ladies -- you know this story is for ladies because it's in the Pittsburg Press' "Woman's Magazine and Society Section" -- we get a report on the President's after-hours habits. (You also know this story is for ladies because of the frilly decoration underneath):

It argues that Taft is "the greatest theatregoing President this country has ever had. He attends two theatres every week from the beginning of the season in September until its close in May." Among his current favorites are J.M. Barrie's What Every Woman Knows and Justin Huntly McCarthy's If I Were King. But as for the old story about being so fat he needs special-made bathtubs, there is this bit of evidence that he's been working on his weight:

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