Back in the Arena
The end of his presidency was a bittersweet one to TR. He could look back at all of his accomplishments with pride; with a hand-picked successor there would be a continuation of his agenda. He was but 50 years of age, however, and still a vigorous man, one who loved the hard work and rigors of the political arena. Upon winning the 1904 election, he said he would not be a candidate for another term, a decision he soon regretted. “I would cut my hand off right here if I could recall that … statement.”
Once his friend William Howard Taft became president, TR, along with son Kermit and naturalists from the Smithsonian, set off for a yearlong safari in Africa. Hundreds of animals and plant specimens were collected including elephants, rhinos, hippos and giraffes shot by father and son. Often times, the pair put themselves in harm’s way, getting so close to some animals that a failed shot might have resulted in serious injury or death.
In March 1910, TR and Kermit left Africa for a tour through Europe. Everywhere TR went he was met by royalty and political leaders. He stayed at the palace of the Kaiser reviewing the German army, received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, and even gave a belated speech in Norway for his 1906 Nobel Peace prize. And while attending the funeral of Great Britain’s King Edward VII, Roosevelt upstaged the deceased monarch. Everyone wanted to see TR, probably the most popular man on earth at the time.
While overseas, TR was troubled by reports of President Taft’s actions and policies. His protégé was not the progressive he had believed; all the momentum of the Roosevelt presidency might be lost. “Ugh!” he groaned. “I do dread getting back to America, and having to plunge into this cauldron of politics.” But he feared if he sat back and did nothing it might mean all his progressive accomplishments would be for naught.
When he returned to New York to adoring throngs and a 21 gun salute, the image of a returning conqueror was not lost on Taft. Soon afterwards, TR and Taft had a cordial but strained meeting. TR then toured the West, greeted by crowds at every stop—and with each speech he hinted at another run for the presidency.
When Republicans took a beating in the 1910 off-year elections, Roosevelt could no longer be a bystander. The progressive wing of the party had lost its faith in Taft – eyes began to look toward TR as a savior. A letter signed by several Republican governors urged Roosevelt to run in 1912. TR dropped the bomb that shook the political nation. “I will accept the nomination for President if it is tendered to me.” Many believed that the announcement assured a Democratic victory. A weeping Taft lamented, “Roosevelt was my closest friend.”
At the convention in Chicago, TR clearly was the popular choice, but Taft controlled the party machinery and barred many Roosevelt supporters. After a fiery speech, TR and his supporters marched out with him declaring he would accept the nomination of a third party. The Progressives, formed for this purpose, made him their nominee. Now it was a three-horse race: Republican Taft, Progressive Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, the progressive Governor of New Jersey.
TR’s entry split the Republicans, and as Wilson was seen as a progressive, the Democrat was the odds-on favorite to win the presidency. For the next three months, Roosevelt campaigned hard. Then, walking to a Milwaukee auditorium, a strange man approached TR and fired a gun at him at close range. A folded speech and metal eyeglass case slowed the bullet which lodged in his chest. A bleeding but undaunted TR gave his speech, telling his audience, “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” But the fight was over. Woodrow Wilson grabbed over 6 million votes to 4.1 million for Roosevelt and 3.5 million for Taft.
image of Theodore Roosevelt, (c) Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library
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