1912 Seventy-five Years Ago

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Theodore Roosevelt stepped from his Milwaukee hotel that October 14 on his way to deliver a campaign speech. The former President was undoubtedly flashing his trademark horsey grin at the waiting crowd when a fanatic lunged forward, raised a gun, and shot him in the chest. Slowed by thicknesses of coat, a glasses case, and a folded manuscript, the bullet fractured a rib and finally lodged near Roosevelt’s right lung. The blow knocked him to the ground. He coughed, collected himself, and scrambled to his feet.

Doctors were summoned, and they urged the colonel to get to a hospital, but he ignored their advice. “I will make this speech or die,” he said, not yet aware his wound wasn’t fatal. “It is one thing or the other.” Shortly after, Roosevelt stood before a stunned crowd at the Milwaukee Auditorium, holding a bloody handkerchief to his chest. “Friends,” he said, “I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. 1 don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

Roosevelt was running for President a third time, but not as a Republican. Disappointed by the politics of his handpicked presidential successor, William Taft, and touched by a desire to be President once more, Roosevelt originally declared himself a Republican candidate. But when he sought nomination, the Republican machine rejected him. Angry and eager for revenge, Roosevelt formed the Progressive party, which was quickly dubbed the Bull Moose party in recognition of its leader, who liked to say he was “as strong as a bull moose.”

The party was a failure politically, but during its brief existence it embodied the ideals of the era—reforms of every stripe and color. Even before the party’s convention, however, Roosevelt knew he would lose to his Democratic opponent, New Jersey’s governor, Woodrow Wilson. “I would have had a sporting chance if the Democrats had put up a reactionary candidate,” he complained.

When he stood bleeding before his audience in Milwaukee, Roosevelt gave an electrifying performance. “I had my manuscript—and there is a bullet…there is where the bullet went through,” he said, pointing out the spot. “It probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now.…And now, friends…I want you to understand that I am ahead of the game, anyway. No man has had a happier life than I have led.” Roosevelt paused. “He shot to kill. He shot—the shot, the bullet went in here—I will show you.…Now, friends, I am not speaking for myself at all. I give you my word, 1 do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap.” Remembering his speech, he said: “Now friends, what we Progressives are trying to do is to enroll rich or poor…to stand together for the most elementary rights of good citizenship.”

For an hour Roosevelt kept his audience gaping and silent in their seats. After his speech was over, he submitted to the doctors, who soon agreed he would quickly regain his health. American politics has offered nothing remotely like that speech before or since.