With the end of the Trump presidency in sight, observers are wondering whether he will seek his old job in 2024. It’s too early to know; Trump himself probably doesn’t even know yet.
But this much is certain: Ex-presidents running for another term are exceedingly rare. And the last time it happened, the public witnessed sheer political drama. It was the only time that three presidents (the immediate past, the current, and the next one) all ran at the top of the ticket in the general election.
Nitpickers will argue something similar happened in 1976 when Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan ran for president. However, Ford and Reagan slugged it out in the primaries while Ford faced Carter that fall. Then, in 1980, Carter and Reagan faced off with future president George H.W. Bush as Reagan’s running mate.
But let’s focus on the top of the ticket, when Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson were all on November’s ballot in 1912.
The story starts on election night 1904. Roosevelt, you will recall, inherited the job in 1901 when William McKinley was shot and killed. Roosevelt ran on his own three years later and won a solid victory. It was a sweet moment — until he did something incredibly stupid.
In a moment of euphoria that still baffles historians, Roosevelt excitedly blurted out to reporters that he wouldn’t seek another term. When 1908 rolled around, he was bound by his promise and so passed on running again, anointing fellow Republican Taft as his successor instead.
Taft won. But then, a big problem emerged within the Republican Party. Roosevelt was the head of the GOP’s “progressive” wing. Taft took a conservative approach to the presidency, angering progressives in general and Roosevelt personally. The men not only broke politically, their friendship ended as well. That deeply hurt the rotund Taft, who soothed his pain with overeating, adding to his 350-pound frame to become our fattest president.
While all this was happening, a former Princeton University president turned New Jersey governor was making a name for himself as a reformer. Woodrow Wilson shook up things in Trenton with such vigor that leading Democrats were pushing him for their party’s presidential candidate after one year in office. Wilson narrowly won the nomination at a hard-fought convention in Baltimore.
Yet, the Republicans had the spotlight that summer. Roosevelt couldn’t stand seeing Taft remaining in the office he dearly loved. So, he announced he was running again. But first, he had to contend with that pesky 1904 pledge to not run again.
In an early example of media spin, Roosevelt said he meant he wouldn’t seek another term in 1908, explaining it this way: “When a man says he doesn’t want another cup of coffee, he means he doesn’t want it at that moment. It doesn’t mean he never wants one again.” The country didn’t buy it. Vaudeville comedians got big laughs asking audiences, “Want another cup?”
Denied renomination at the GOP convention in Chicago, Roosevelt and his followers bolted. They formed the Progressive Party, which is remembered by its nickname, the Bull Moose Party. It came from a widely circulated Roosevelt quote. Asked after he lost the Republican nomination how he felt, he replied that he was “as strong as a bull moose.”
And so, Taft, Roosevelt, and Wilson headed into the fall race. Even Eugene Debs of the Socialist Party of America got in on the act. Taft went through the motions of campaigning, but his heart clearly wasn’t in it. Wilson aggressively promoted a bundle of idealistic changes he labeled “The New Freedom.”
But Roosevelt stole the show as he always did, blustering around the country pushing his own reform package called “The New Nationalism.”
Things reached a dramatic high-water mark in Milwaukee on Oct. 14. A saloonkeeper from New York (who said McKinley’s ghost had ordered him to prevent a third Roosevelt term) shot Roosevelt in the chest. The bullet was slowed by a 50-page speech folded inside Roosevelt’s coat; doctors said the papers saved the former president’s life. Being Teddy Roosevelt, he insisted on delivering his lengthy speech as planned, bleeding the entire time, only consenting to be rushed to the hospital when it was finished.
As if that weren’t dramatic enough, Vice President James Sherman died just six days before the election.
When the votes were counted, the Republican Party’s split gave Democrat Wilson an easy victory. Wilson got just 42% of the popular vote, but thanks to the split, he got 435 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8.
Roosevelt was preparing to run for president yet again in 1920 when he died suddenly in 1919. Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke and was incapacitated for the final 18 months of his presidency. Taft and Roosevelt eventually buried the hatchet, much to Taft’s relief. In 1921, he achieved his lifelong dream of becoming chief justice of the Supreme Court, the only former president to do so. Happy at last, Taft finally shed weight while on the bench.
The path to post-presidential happiness, it seems, involves passing up running one more time.
J. Mark Powell (@JMarkPowell) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He’s VP of communications at Ivory Tusk Consulting, a South Carolina-based agency. A former broadcast journalist and government communicator, his “Holy Cow! History” column is available at jmarkpowell.com.