Teddy Roosevelt during his Milwaukee speech in 1912 he gave after he was shot, saved by his speech text and eyeglass box.
Teddy Roosevelt during his Milwaukee speech in 1912 he gave after he was shot, saved by his speech text and eyeglass box.
KOKOMO — When Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders canceled appearances and left the campaign trail last week because of a heart ailment, I was moved to reach down into the old bag of amazing but true historical incidents to find a relative parallel. I didn’t have to look too far. Normally, when I want to be dazzled by presidential heroics, I usually turn to either Theodore Roosevelt or Andrew Jackson for my fodder.

I had Mr. Peabody turn back the time machine to Oct. 14, 1912, to the final month of the heated presidential election between Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican William Howard Taft, and former president and Bull Moose Party candidate Theodore Roosevelt.  

Roosevelt had served out the term of office of assassinated President William McKinley and had then been elected to a term on his own. During his time in office Roosevelt had been a hurricane of activity on just about every front imaginable. He combined his vision with enormous energy and a remarkable capacity for salesmanship. His willingness to bring the United States to the forefront of world leadership, at the same time as he assaulted many of the egregious excesses of American capitalism, rankled opponents of all stripes.  

It is difficult to make a brief recitation of the accomplishments of the Theodore Roosevelt presidency. In foreign affairs, Roosevelt doubled our nation’s naval power and projected that power around the globe. He expanded the army and restructured it from top to bottom. He fought vigorously to uphold the Monroe Doctrine. He was prescient enough to identify both Japan and Germany as the greatest threats to world peace and focused both our military and diplomatic efforts toward countering those threats. Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese war. This was back when they awarded the Nobel after a president accomplished something.  

Roosevelt pursued closer relations with Great Britain, which allowed the British Navy to focus on the German threat, and began construction of the Panama Canal, an engineering marvel that both expanded international trade and facilitated the movement of our navy from ocean to ocean.

On the home front Roosevelt was a progressive reformer. He aggressively attacked monopolies and trusts, making many enemies among the economically powerful. He facilitated passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act to regulate food safety. He increased the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission. He interceded to negotiate an end to the great Coal Strike of 1902.  He launched the conservation movement and greatly expanded the system of national parks and national forests. He appointed three Supreme Court justices.

When Roosevelt completed his second term of office, he eschewed running for a third term and ended his service as a very popular president with the American people. His reform of big business and his pursuit of manifest destiny rankled many on the right and left of American politics, but John Q. Public loved the man.  

Roosevelt spent his time after leaving office on a whirlwind tour of the world, with adventures and expeditions galore. The travels and safaris eventually became mundane for the ex-president and he found himself, once again, longing for the thrill of the political arena.

Roosevelt’s problem in 1912, after he had decided to run for president again, was that the Republican Party already had a candidate in mind. William H. Taft was serving ably as president and was less toxic to the big business interests and Brahmins of the Republican Party. Undeterred, Roosevelt forged ahead and challenged Taft for the Republican nomination. The battle was so fierce that convention organizers had to wrap barbed wire around the podium, concealed by patriotic bunting. Roosevelt lost his quest to be the Republican standard bearer and promptly went rogue and announced the formation of a Progressive Party, quickly nicknamed the Bull Moose Party.
Roosevelt was branded by political opponents and much of the press as a power-hungry traitor who callously disregarded the tradition of two-term presidencies. Each of Roosevelt’s political speeches was dogged by protesters and agitators sent by either Republican or Democrat interests to disrupt the proceedings.

During his final sprint to the finish line, Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Milwaukee, Wis., to make his case for a return to office. Roosevelt was introduced to a wildly enthusiastic crowd of supporters and took the podium. The first sentence of his speech was uncharacteristic of the former president, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible.” His second sentence was shocking and a bombshell: “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.”  

With that, Roosevelt unbuttoned his vest to reveal his bloodstained shirt to the gasping crowd. “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose,” Roosevelt reassured the audience.

The shooting of Theodore Roosevelt had occurred just after 8 p.m. as Roosevelt stepped into his car outside the Gilpatrick Hotel. As he stood up in the open-air auto, he doffed his hat and waved it with his right hand toward the crowd. Immediately, a muzzle flash from a Colt revolver, fired from five feet away, lit up the night. The would-be assassin was grabbed by Roosevelt’s stenographer before he could fire a second shot.

Roosevelt’s well-wishers morphed into a vengeful pack, beating the shooter and calling for his death. Roosevelt cried out to the mob, “Don’t hurt him. Bring him here. I want to see him.”  

Roosevelt asked the shooter, “What did you do it for?” When the man refused to answer, the wounded candidate said, “Oh, what’s the use? Turn him over to the police.”

There were no outward signs of blood, but the former President reached inside his heavy coat and felt a dime-sized hole in the right side of his chest. “He pinked me,” Roosevelt told a campaign aide. He coughed into his hand three times, looking for blood and the telltale sign that he had been shot in the lung.  

An attending doctor ordered the driver to go to the hospital, but after Roosevelt determined that the bullet had missed his lung, he demanded, “You get me to that speech.”

Roosevelt completed his entire 90-minute campaign speech. When spectators called out for him to receive medical attention, the former Rough Rider announced, “I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap.” Few witnesses to the speech could disagree.

After the speech, Roosevelt went to the hospital and had X-rays taken. The bullet had lodged against his fourth rib on an upward path to his heart. The bullet had been slowed by his heavy overcoat, steel-reinforced eyeglass case and a 50-page speech tucked in his right jacket pocket.

Despite his prior meritorious service rendered in his terms as president and his unquestioned personal bravery, Theodore Roosevelt was defeated in the election.  Woodrow Wilson won with 41% of the vote, followed by Roosevelt’s 27%, Taft’s 23% and William Jennings Bryan’s 6%.  

Theodore Roosevelt became many things to many people. He is respected by liberals for expanding the role of government in addressing the ills of society. Advocates of a strong military and an activist foreign policy appreciate his work in making the United States an unchallenged world leader.  Any candidate who has ever handed out a brochure, knocked on a door or given a speech appreciates the day that Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech after being saved by his speech.

I can give no greater compliment to Roosevelt than to say that he knew no fear, was a man’s man and was an American. 

Dunn is the former Howard County Republican chairman.