Meanwhile at home, Taft began a series of political missteps that would erode public support, alienate important political lobbies, and lead to a drastic rift in the Republican Party. Although he initiated scores of anti-trust lawsuits, his public speech seemed to support big business, leaving neither reformers nor corporations happy. Allegations that his Secretary of the Interior was colluding with the logging industry drew fire from the large and vocal conservationist constituency. Roosevelt eventually turned his back on Taft and announced his candidacy for the 1912 Republican nomination.
Although he had broad popular support, Roosevelt had thrown his hat in the ring too late to receive the backing of the party leaders, who still felt threatened by his progressivism. The discontent that he had felt with the Republican Party when he first entered public life 30 years earlier reemerged. Although he’d refused to bolt the party then, he did so now. After losing the nomination at the 1912 Republican Convention in Chicago, his delegates split and met to lay the groundwork for the Progressive Party. Nicknamed the Bull Moose Party after Roosevelt’s claim that he was “as strong as a bull moose,” the main plank in its political platform was fighting corporate corruption. The Progressives wrote, “To destroy this invisible Government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day.”
In a pivotal speech delivered just minutes after being shot in the chest by a would-be assassin, Roosevelt fired up the crowd against the party to which he had remained loyal all his life: “…while [Republican Party bosses] don’t like me, they dread you. You are the people that they dread. They dread the people themselves, and those bosses and the big special interests behind them made up their mind that they would rather see the Republican Party wrecked than see it come under the control of the people themselves.”
A political cartoon of the day satirizes Roosevelt’s Bull Moose speeches by depicting him as a chef mixing together Progressivism, Pure Democracy, Conservative Views, and Radical Spice with Any Old View, and Teddy declaring, “The more you mix in, the easier to satisfy everyone.” The fiery rhetoric may have reflected a hodgepodge of views, but it drew crowds at every campaign stop.
Although Taft and Roosevelt split the Republican vote and gave the election to Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt far outperformed the incumbent. This made Taft the only sitting president to come in third in a race for re-election, and Roosevelt the only third-party candidate to come in second in a presidential election.
Just as he did after the mugwump vs. stalwart battle 30 years earlier, Roosevelt took his frustration into the wilderness, this time to the jungles of Brazil. The Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition in 1914 was the first to chart the River of Doubt, one of the least explored and impassable of the Amazon’s tributaries. Returning from the expedition gaunt and sickened by malaria, the former president spent his few remaining years battling the illness and infection worsened by the arduous trip. He died in his sleep in 1919 at just 60 years old.
“I Have Just Been Shot…”
On October 14, just weeks before the 1912 presidential election, Roosevelt was preparing to deliver a campaign speech in Mikwaukee when a would-be assassin shot him in the chest. John Schrank, a saloon owner who had been following the candidate around the country, had reportedly been motivated by dreams in which former president McKinley urged him to kill Roosevelt. The bullet struck Roosevelt in the chest, but only after penetrating his eyeglasses case and the folded text of the 50-page speech he planned to give. Ignoring his friends’ advice to seek medical help immediately, he proceeded with his speech as blood darkened his overcoat:
Friends… I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet – there is where the bullet went through – and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.
He spoke for 50 minutes before finally letting his staff take him to the hospital.
PHOTO CREDIT: LOC LC-USZ62-134760