The tumult and the shouting dies—
The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!
Growing up I loved reading and by the time I was in my teens I had gained a particular fascination for books about politics. I remember checking out a story from the Bookmobile in the summer of 1972, that would become a political classic. Taking the title of her novel Captains and the Kings from Kipling’s poem, Taylor Caldwell put her fictional protagonist, Pennsylvania Senator Rory Daniel Armagh, at the heart of the 1912 Democratic Convention battling New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson through multiple ballots for the presidential nomination. I was intrigued by the rags-to-riches story and fascinated, though a bit frightened, by the machination of Twentieth Century presidential politics. I was a elected a county delegate a few years later after turning eighteen, and have been involved ever since.
Last week I wrote about my fourth experience as a national convention delegate at the RNC in Tampa and shared the interesting story of the1912 GOP convention battle between incumbent President Taft and former President Teddy Roosevelt. The main issues that pitted the two former friends against each other were the debate over the extent of government regulation and the influence of corporate America on politics. These subjects continue 100 years later as major factors in debates about the proper role of government. In Tampa few protestors showed up in the wind and rain, butRomney-unified delegates cheerily waived goodbye as Ron Paul supporters left the building.
I am not attending the DNC convention in Charlotte this week but I’m watching on TV. Of course all 6,000 delegates are unified behind reelecting President Obama, but thousands of protestors showed up on the streets of Charlotte protesting economic inequality and the influence of money in politics. Indeed, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Just one week after the 1912 Convention in Chicago that resulted in the cataclysmic split between former GOP presidents over government regulation vs. corporate greed; the Democrats met in Baltimore, Maryland in a convention that itself became one the most historic events in presidential nominating history. On the first ballot in the sweltering July heat inside the Fifth Regiment Armory, U.S. Speaker of the House Champ Clark held 440 votes compared to 324 for New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. With 265 delegates voting for two other candidates, Clark was far short of the two-thirds required for the nomination. The Missouri attorney didn’t achieve a majority of delegates until the ninth ballot when the New York delegation threw in with him as directed by the Tammany machine. His bandwagon was hitched and it looked as if the long-time Congressman would become the nominee to take on incumbent President William Howard Taft. Then something extraordinary happened.
The standard bearer of the Democratic Party in the three previous presidential elections, William Jennings Bryan, alarmed by the Tammany Hall political machine he considered corrupt, spoke up and began a change that would make history. Bryan was the innovator of the stump speech and champion of the “common man,” and when he spoke, the delegates listened. He accused the Speaker of the House, with a quarter of a century in Washington, of having become the “Wall Street “candidate and the lawyer in the pocket of the wealthy upper-class. He asked the delegates instead to consider the Washington outsider who was an academic and former president of Princeton, whose Ph.D. in history and political science, Bryant argued, uniquely prepared him to be president. Delegates began to bail off of Clark’s bandwagon. It still took two more days and a record forty-six ballots before Woodrow Wilson would receive the required two-thirds of the delegates and became the Democratic nominee and subsequently 28th President of the United States in a November landslide when Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote.
In her depiction of the making of a president, Taylor Caldwell focused on a group of powerful insiders who “talked only of money, the greatest of powers, the most pragmatic of common denominators. It was accepted that all other things besides money and the power of money were outside the consideration of intelligent men.” Lest we forget, one can only hope that in this election 100 years later between campaigns that will spend well north of $1 Billion, there will be less of captains and kings and more of Kipling’s ancient sacrifice.