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Remembering The Political Drama of 1912, A Century Later

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Woodrow Wilson, a few hours after his upset victory at the Democratic Convention, on July 2, 1912.
Library of Congress
Woodrow Wilson, a few hours after his upset victory at the Democratic Convention, on July 2, 1912.

If we could go back in time, exactly one hundred years, to the America of 1912, what would our nation look like?

Local writer Paul Dickson says 1912 was a particularly memorable year. New Mexico was admitted to the United States in January, and Arizona followed in February. The Titanic sunk in April. And on the political front, the first party primaries were held.

"And the big story of course is when the Democrats have their convention, a man named Champ Clark is favored to be the nominee of the Democratic Party," says Wilson. But a dark horse — Woodrow Wilson — is competing for the nomination.

"In the first ballots," says Dickson, "it looks like Clark is clearly ahead. But Clark needs two-thirds of the convention, and he's not getting it. And so they go again and again, vote after vote, and as the votes are taking place, Wilson keeps creeping up on Clark."

Finally, on the 46th vote, Wilson takes the nomination, a dramatic result that's hard to imagine taking place in our modern party conventions.

Wilson went on to take part in an unusual four-way contest featuring Republican William Howard Taft, Bull Moose Party nominee Teddy Roosevelt, and Socialist Eugene Debs.

"It's a really very interesting time because you've got Taft, who's much more conservative, much less of a speaker, much less of a person who can elevate crowds," says Dickson. "And you've got Wilson, this sort of sharp academic who is basically promising among other things to keep the country out of war."

Wilson ended up winning the election. And Dickson says despite the unusual elements that make the 1912 election unique, he sees plenty of parallels with our modern political system.

"Again, it's still politics," he says. "You realize the big struggle going on in both parties was between conservatives and progressives... it was in fact a typically very American campaign, which you can argue this is as well. These are the two forces that have always been the yin and yang of American politics."


[Music: "Music From Citizen Ruth" by Rolfe Kent from Citizen Ruth Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]

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