When Three Presidents Ran Against Each Other But Whiskey Won the Election: The 1912 Campaign Songs of Teddy Roosevelt, Taft & Wilson

Teddy, Woody & Will: Roosevelt, Wilson and Taft were an Oppositional Triumvirate in the Presidential Election of 1912.

Historically, running for President against a President is always an uphill battle. Especially for someone unwary of Washington’s wily ways.

First of all, they know what they’re talking about after four years of working on the job and trying to keep happy the perpetually arguing family that is our good nation of people.

Secondly, they’re already infused with the power and the glory – and Air Force One to make “presidential” trips which might just be in key electoral states.

Hoover.

Thirdly, they have the power right now  and can issue presidential proclamations or initiate emergency legislation,  like new tax breaks for the oil industry or new road projects in Ohio – and if it so happens those things make captains of industry with extra money looking for a campaign to contribute to or  governors who suddenly like you and want to tell their residents all about your virtues, well – so be it.

Van Buren.

A dismal first term, however, can trump all three such benefits. And any number of factors can determine that to the point where that relatively rare turn of events alters history and an incumbent President is fired.

An economic depression cost Herbert Hoover re-election in 1932 and Martin Van Buren in 1840.

The impossibly delicate Iranian Hostage Crisis was as much a factor in Jimmy Carter being ousted as was high unemployment in 1980.

For Grover Cleveland in 1888, it was a worsening economy and deteriorating constituency.

Bush.

Harrison.

Sometimes, its the nature of the opponent which can sink an incumbent President. In the 1892 case of Benjamin Harrison, however, it was an opponent who was a former President which did him in. Apparently, four years is time enough for delusional nostalgia to sink in for that year, Americans seemed to forget why they had defeated Grover Cleveland and decided to elect him again, for his famous second non-consecutive term. In 1992, George H. Bush found himself tossed from the Oval Office by an eloquent, intellectual son of the South governor of a small state by the name of Bill Clinton.

President Taft, trying to make his case.

And for poor William Howard Taft, ambivalently seeking a second term one hundred years ago it was two opponents – not just a former President but an eloquent, intellectual son of the South who was governor of a small state.

The former President was Taft’s popular and immediate predecessor Theodore Roosevelt, always popularly called “Teddy” by the public – which he hated.  And the eloquent, intellectual son of the South who was governor of a small state was the native Virginian and New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson.

Taft wore the crown, but Roosevelt had crowned him.

Teddy and Will had started out as pals. In fact, the former had anointed the latter as his successor. Within a year of Taft taking over his beloved old job, however, Roosevelt was rumbling with disappointment. It didn’t help that Taft had fired some of Roosevelt’s people – most notably Teddy’s good friend and fellow environmentalist, Interior Secretary Gifford Pinchot.

Roosevelt campaigning.

With his unbridled ego, however, it couldn’t have helped that Roosevelt’s legendary fame as “The Trust-Buster” was itself busted by the more judicious Taft, whose Justice Department initiated far more anti-trust suits against corporate monopolies.

Hoping to pull off a Grover (see above), former President Roosevelt formally entered the race to get his own second non-consecutive term, challenging his old friend Taft for their Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

To his shock and awe, Teddy lost. He fumed. He called Taft a “fathead” and a “pig-brain.”

And then he bolted the G.O.P. to lead the Progressive Party, and taking the massive and dangerous bull moose as his campaign symbol, threatening to stomp out Taft just like his new mascot would.

And, just to cover his bases, he got a great new campaign song with a simple and clear message, entitled We’re Ready for Teddy Again! Take a listen and watch Teddy gesticulate:

The aggressive challenge by his dear old pal Theodore left President Taft genuinely depressed.

When he finally realized he had to defend himself with some rudimentary negative campaigning, Taft delivered a speech before the Massachusetts primary and worked up enough nerve to call Roosevelt a “fibberjig.”

Taft in Boston

It was so against his fair and balanced nature that once he’d returned to the privacy of his train after the speech, President Taft broke down sobbing. With Teddy spicing up the headlines, however, Taft’s conservative sensibilities seemed less like caution and more like inertia to an American public addicted to distraction even then.

Updating his 1908 campaign song might have helped. It left a visual impression of him that matched the many cartoons of him as a lumbering behemoth, in truth a reflection of his over-eating addiction out of unhappiness. Roosevelt ran, bolted, and dashed, but the sound of Get on the Raft With Taft! suggested that the fellow with the walrus mustache was too lazy to swim across the shore.  Here it is:

There was a good reason Get On the Raft With Taft!‘s composer Harry D. Kerr did not turn out a new Taft song for 1912 – he bolted with Roosevelt to instead pen We’re Ready for Teddy Again!

A cartoon satirizing Roosevelt’s zealous determination, Wilson’s reformist agenda and Taft’s appetite.

If the former President found that stealing the incumbent President’s campaign songwriter as a good sign he could also steal his votes, he was far more threatened by the want-to-be President, the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson walks his way to a rally.

Dee-lighted! he famously roared when he first heard the rumor that Wilson may have had committed adultery, but he just as soon felt deflated by the possibility of it harming Wilson’s campaign, rumbling that nobody would believe that Wilson could be a “Lothario” because he looked like “an apothecary.”  If he was annoyed by Taft, Roosevelt was angered and perhaps threatened by Wilson, who billed himself as the only genuine Progressive of the trio with a record of reform, whereas Roosevelt was just promising it.

It wasn’t just Taft and Roosevelt, however, who failed to recognize the common household item which threatened to cost them both the election and give it to Wilson. In fact, so did Wilson.

One of the era’s most successful lyricists, Ballard MacDonald had a nimble wit and way with words.

Sheet music for a MacDonald hit.

Perhaps his most famous compositions were the Tin Pan Alley hits Beautiful Ohio, Rose of Washington Square and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. He would also write the words to Georg Gershwin’s Somebody Loves Me.

Wilson Whiskey.

He could hardly have been the only American that election year to find some ironic humor while paging through the popular magazines.

There, he stopped at an advertisement for a famous brand of blended whiskey which carried a slogan already so popular it had become a momentary Pop Culture phrase:  “Wilson – That’s All!”

But he sure seemed to be the only Tin Pan Alley lyricist to do something about it. MacDonald turned it into what proved to be the best-selling campaign song sheet music of 1912 – Wilson – That’s All!

Here it is, with footage of the man, not the whiskey:

Without having to even make direct reference to the whiskey, the song suggests that by sharing its name, the presidential candidate would unwittingly benefit: “…From East to West, from North to South, There’s just one name in every mouth. When a fellow meets a fellow. And he says to him, “What’s yours? He says, “I think I’ll have a drink for the Democratic cause.”

Coincidence or not, Wilson won.

Inauguration Day 1913 when Wilson assumed the presidency from Taft.


Categories: Advertising & Marketing, Campaign Music, Presidents, The Roosevelts, The Tafts, The Wilsons

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2 replies »

  1. Where did you find the footage of Woodrow Wilson at the Democratic National Convention 1912?

    • Dear Jackson Alexader: I’ve got no original sourcing on this clip. For many years I purchased on ebay reels of historical footage sold as VHS tapes, almost always unidentified and requiring me to watch through it and try to pin down – unfortunately, none of this footage is identified as to the source of copyright holder.

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