Come, ye puzzlewits and honeyfuglers

As the contest for the GOP presidential nomination continues after last night, Donald Trump will continue to dish out his carefully crafted insults to Ted Cruz (“Liar”) and Marco Rubio (“Little Marco”), and Senators Cruz and Rubio will be hitting back. Trump slammed Rubio in the course of his victorious press conference last night; Cruz and Rubio both slammed Trump in the course of their remarks as well.

The insults don’t make an edifying theme. They don’t figure to taper any time soon. Moreover, the candidates’ followers have found inspiration to follow their leaders. Lloyd Grove, for example, documents the abuse sustained by commentators criticizing Trump.

We seek to understand the present in the light of the past. I have asked myself: when has so much rancor emerged among Republicans in the course of a presidential campaign?

One could advert to the 1964 campaign, when liberal Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton and George Romney recoiled from the ascendance of Barry Goldwater. Goldwater’s forces took over the Republican Party and transformed it into the conservatives’ party. George Will argued that Goldwater “lost 44 states but won the future.”

Whereas Richard Nixon had found it necessary to enter into the so-called Treaty of Fifth Avenue in 1960, in 1964 liberal Republicans proved themselves a spent force. They came away with nothing as the party’s center of gravity shifted south and west. Goldwater of course lost massively to LBJ, but he transformed the party and no Republican was going to win the election a year after the assassination of JFK anyway. It simply wasn’t in the cards.

One could advert to the Ford-Reagan contest of 1976. Goldwater’s most notable supporter in 1964, Reagan came close to taking the nomination from the incumbent Republican president. Yet Reagan kept the challenge to Ford focused on the issues. His challenge was never personal.

I don’t think 2016 is comparable either to 1964 or 1976. To say the least, Hillary Clinton is vulnerable. She should be beaten. The prospect, however, grows dimmer every day, and personal animus has come to define the contest for the GOP nomination.

I may be mistaken, but in the spirt of inquiry I suggest that the intraparty hostility of the 1912 campaign makes a closer parallel. The circumstances and the issues are vastly different. William Howard Taft was Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor and the incumbent president; Roosevelt was the two-term former president. When Roosevelt came out of his restive retirement to challenge Taft for the nomination, the fur flew.

Lewis Gould took a look back in his 2008 Smithsonian article on the 1912 convention (and in his book on the 1912 election). I am reliably informed that the book to read on the 1912 election is the one by Sidney Milkis. The last chapter of Jean Yarbrough’s book on TR provides an invaluable guide to TR’s thought at the time.

Taft and Roosevelt had serious differences over important issues, but the differences descended to personal abuse. Gould recalls:

Taft dominated the Republican Party machinery in many states, but a few state primaries gave the voters a chance to express themselves. The president and his former friend took to the hustings, and across the country in the spring of 1912 the campaign rhetoric escalated. Roosevelt described Taft as a “puzzlewit,” while the president labeled Roosevelt a “honeyfugler.” Driven to distraction under Roosevelt’s attacks, Taft said in Massachusetts, “I was a man of straw; but I have been a man of straw long enough; every man who has blood in his body and who has been misrepresented as I have is forced to fight.” A delighted Roosevelt supporter commented that “Taft certainly made a great mistake when he began to ‘fight back.’ He has too big a paunch to have much of a punch, while a free-for-all, slap-bang, kick-him-in-the-belly, is just nuts for the chief.”

I can say this for the insults of 1912: they have expanded my vocabulary. “Puzzlewit” and “honeyfugler” were new to me, but I love them. I’m sure I’ll find them of use before long.

The convention failed to unite the party. Indeed, it led to Roosevelt’s walkout. Gould notes:

Roosevelt won all the Republican primaries against Taft except in Massachusetts. Taft dominated the caucuses that sent delegates to the state conventions. When the voting was done, neither man had the 540 delegates needed to win. Roosevelt had 411, Taft had 367 and minor candidates had 46, leaving 254 up for grabs. The Republican National Committee, dominated by the Taft forces, awarded 235 delegates to the president and 19 to Roosevelt, thereby ensuring Taft’s renomination. Roosevelt believed himself entitled to 72 delegates from Arizona, California, Texas and Washington that had been given to Taft. Firm in his conviction that the nomination was being stolen from him, Roosevelt decided to break the precedent that kept the candidates away from the national convention and lead his forces to Chicago in person. The night before the proceedings Roosevelt told cheering supporters that there was “a great moral issue” at stake and he should have “sixty to eighty lawfully elected delegates” added to his total. Otherwise, he said, the contested delegates should not vote. Roosevelt ended his speech declaring: “Fearless of the future; unheeding of our individual fates; with unflinching hearts and undimmed eyes; we stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!”

The convention was not Armageddon, but to observers it seemed a close second. Shouts of “liar” and cries of “steamroller” punctuated the proceedings. One pro-Taft observer said that “a tension pervaded the Coliseum breathing the general feeling that a parting of the ways was imminent.” William Allen White, the famous Kansas editor, looked down from the press tables “into the human caldron that was boiling all around me.”

Having a lost a key procedural vote in advance of the first ballot, Roosevelt bolted the Republican Party. He moved on to run as the candidate of the Progressive Party. Doing so, he handed the election to Woodrow Wilson, the first president expressly to have disparaged the United States Constitution. Gould makes a different point, but his conclusion (as Paul Mirengoff intimates) stands: “That outcome would resonate for decades.”