Almost President – “Fighting Bob” La Follette, Part 2

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Robert M. La Folletter, Sr.

La Follette’s 1912 campaign ended, for all practical purposes, on February 12. On that night, he addressed the Periodical Publishers Association. La Follette arrived late. He was ill, and worried about his daughter who was in the hospital and scheduled for surgery. La Follette was normally a dynamic, inspiring speaker. But this night, everything went wrong. It was already late when he got up to speak, and he pulled out a large manuscript and explained why he was going to read it rather than speak as he normally did. He said, “For fear there may be some here who will not report what I say correctly, and because I am going to say some things I consider important, I want to have a record of them.” After this insult to his audience of publishers and reporters, he never won the crowd back again.

Things got even worse. After reading from his manuscript for a while, he realized things were going badly and began speaking off the cuff. When that didn’t work, he went back to his manuscript, repeating points he had already made while speaking off the cuff. At one point, after outlining the problems of capitalist control of the economy, he asked the rhetorical question, “Is there a way out?” In answer, a man got up and yelled, “We hope so!” and left the room. As his anger increased, La Follette’s attacks on the press became stronger and harsher.

When La Follette finally sat down at the end of his speech, the toastmaster, Don Sietz of the New York World, made a statement of his own. He told the audience, “I want to apologize to the newspaper press of the country in general for the foolish, wicked and untruthful attack that has just been made on it.” For the next few days, papers all around the country ran stories about La Follette’s collapse at the banquet. There were even stories that he had suffered a mental breakdown or that he had been drunk. Whatever chances he had of winning the nomination in that year of the progressives ended that night.

La Follette continued to champion progressive issues in the Senate. One that gained him national attention, and national abuse, was his anti-war stance. As the war in Europe grew in scope, it threatened to draw the U.S. into the conflict. President Wilson wanted a bill authorizing him to arm merchant ships to help protect them against the unrestricted submarine warfare being carried out by Germany. La Follette was one of the leaders of a group of Senators who determined to kill the bill by means of a filibuster (a long speech designed to prevent action from being taken). Wilson referred to them as a “little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, who have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.” They succeeded, but then Wilson discovered that he had the authority to arm the ships as commander-in-chief.

La Follette continued to oppose the war, the draft and any bills authorizing money for such matters. Once we were in the war, however, he ended his opposition to bills to support the troops. He felt that the war was wrong, but we could not abandon our boys in the trenches. During the war, there were even calls for his impeachment, but no action was ever taken. After the war, La Follette opposed the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations. He also opposed U.S. participation in the World Court.

By the time his Senate seat was up for election in 1922, most of his unpopular stands during the war had been more or less forgotten. The debates over the League of Nations made his opposition seem more acceptable. He was easily re-elected, winning with a more than 3-to-1 margin. Once again, he was at the head of the progressive movement. His call for investigation into the Teapot Dome scandals also added to his reputation for integrity in government.

In 1924, both major parties nominated a conservative. The newly formed Progressive Party nominated La Follette. The party was made up of progressives and liberals from both major parties. They agreed on La Follette as their presidential candidate, but nothing else. They could not even agree on a running mate for “Fighting Bob” so they let him choose his own. He chose fellow Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana.

The Republicans pictured La Follette as a radical and the Republican slogan was “Coolidge or chaos.” Coolidge won in an electoral landslide. La Follette carried only Wisconsin, but came in second in a number of western states, and managed to win 16.56% of the popular vote. With the exception of Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 (who was only technically a third party candidate), no independent had ever done so well in an election (with the exception of former Presidents running for re-election). La Follette was making plans to capitalize on his electoral accomplishment and create a new party to continue the progressive fight. As a result, he was expelled from the Republican Party in the Senate and stripped of his seniority. But there would be no new party and no next election fight. The next year, La Follette died at the age of seventy.

La Follette would probably not have made a good President. He saw every issue as a crusade. Those who opposed him became personal enemies. He did not see that someone who opposed you today might be a valuable ally tomorrow on another issue. His nickname “Fighting Bob” was appropriate. But the President has to bring various groups with varying viewpoints together. La Follette was not capable of this kind of leadership. He would have been miscast as President.

Still, La Follette fought for the common man, much as Jefferson did in his day. He fought for primary election of candidates, a fairer tax system, breaking up monopolies or near-monopolies, a drastic reduction in armaments, public ownership of railroads, an end to child labor, labor laws protecting women, and banning the use of court injunctions in labor disputes. He loved democracy and believed in it with all his heart. In a complacent age, La Follette, unlike Coolidge, would not have left well enough alone. As President he would have been the wrong man at the wrong time.

When La Follette died, his power was such that his thirty-year-old son, Robert La Follette, Jr., took over his Senate seat. Robert La Follette, Jr., was re-elected in 1928 as a Republican, and in 1934 and 1940 as a Progressive (the party his father had founded in Wisconsin). Interestingly, the younger La Follette was finally defeated in a Republican primary in 1946 by the infamous Joseph McCarthy, for whom “McCarthyism” was named. Liberal, progressive Wisconsin dumped La Follette after 22 years to give the nation Joe McCarthy, or as Truman called him, “Mac the Knife.”