When Roosevelt returned from Africa in June 1910, one of the first public events he spoke at was a luncheon of the Camp Fire Club of America (CFCA) held on the roof of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue in New York City. The New York Times treated the stag luncheon as a glitzy convention of the conservation movement, minus Gifford Pinchot. In getting from Oyster Bay to Manhattan, the always competitive Roosevelt decided to race the Long Island train in his Ford car; he beat it by five minutes. Blind in one eye and with blurred vision in the other, Roosevelt was reckless at the steering wheel and heavy-footed on the accelerator—in short, a menace on the road. After talking with reporters in his Outlook office, Roosevelt headed to the Waldorf-Astoria roof, which had been decorated like a rustic camp. There were a lot of pinecones and picnic tables. Large heraldic shields honored the heroes of the CFCA and the conservation movement: Boone, Crockett, Carson, Pike, Frémont, Audubon, Lewis and Clark. Roosevelt arrived with his son Kermit and his publisher, Arthur H. Scribner. Everybody wanted to hear Roosevelt’s African tales. He delivered stories about lions, zebras, and gazelles. And he took “nature fakers” like Jack London to task. According to the New York Times, when he was done with his hourlong talk, the CFCA members “fired their revolvers to punctuate their enthusiasm.”1
The CFCA was the inspiration of the zoologist William Temple Hornaday. Disgruntled with the Boone and Crockett Club’s ethos of trophy hunting, refusing to count dead elk or moose antler points, Hornaday broke ranks with the hunters.* In 1897 he created the CFCA, with an emphasis on sportsmen committed to the preservation of wildlife habitats, the primitive arts of the outdoors life, and the wise use of natural resources. Based in Chappaqua, New York, the CFCA included Ernest Thompson Seton among its early founding members. One of its primary objectives was to keep the Adirondacks forever wild. The CFCA, in fact, had challenged New York state to immediately set aside more than 1 million new acres of forestlands. Entire Adirondack watersheds needed immediate protecting. The club also wanted New York railroads not to use coal and timber companies to stop the destructive practice of clear-cutting.2
Studying the map of the United States—particularly in the territories of Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Alaska—the CFCA members wanted to create more huge federal reserves like the Yukon Delta (known as the Roosevelt Bird Reserve) in Alaska. Later that year, in December, Hornaday held a dinner for about 350 people honoring Colonel C. J. “Buffalo” Jones for helping save bison in Arizona.3 Hornaday, who was largely responsible for the effort at the Bronx Zoo to bring about buffalo repopulation in Oklahoma and Montana, urged the CFCA to fight to protect wildlife habitats in the far west and Alaska. “Roosevelt’s idea of science as a tool for conservation seems a truism to us now,” Aldo Leopold wrote in Game Management (1933), his manifesto on wildlife protection, “but it was new in 1910.”4
A guiding principle of the CFCA was privacy; no reporters have ever attended an annual meeting. The event of June 22, 1910, at the Waldorf with Roosevelt was no different; there are no transcripts of his remarks. Evidently, however, a beautiful American rose was held over Roosevelt’s head, representing “campers’ freedom” to speak their minds candidly and off the record. Hornaday, who had the great honor of introducing Roosevelt, called him the premier outdoorsman of the era. The club’s gold medal was then handed to Roosevelt, and he received a standing ovation. On its reverse side of the medal was engraved: “For his work in the protection of wildlife and forests and for his contributions to zoology.”5
That July, Hornaday also teamed up with Pinchot to further the Adirondack Park “forever wild” program. Pinchot saw Taft’s departments of the Interior and Agriculture as a joke. Back from visiting Roosevelt in Italy, he started investigating corporate abuses in the Adirondacks. He spent time around Mount Marcy with Overton Price, editor of Conservation. The CFCA had achieved a victory in New York with a bill forbidding the sale of wild game. Now, with Pinchot as point man, they were urging a bill to forbid the sale of timber in the Adirondack Park. Two attorneys—A. S. Houghton and Marshall McLean—were drafting a lawsuit. Hornaday wanted the CFCA to sue “big timber” for wasteful clear-cutting of forests that belonged to the people of New York.6
Just a few days after the CFCA dinner, Hornaday attacked the Taft administration harder than Pinchot had ever dared. Hornaday, as the New York Times reported, accused the head of Taft’s Fur Seal Board—Walter I. Lembkey—of personally profiting from the killing of Alaskan seals and otters. The CFCA—seemingly with Roosevelt’s support—declared Lembkey “manifestly unfit” for his position. According to Hornaday, the Fur Seal Board should be purged of such members. President Taft and his secretary of commerce and labor were complicit in the slaughter of Pribilof Island seals, whose number had shrunk dramatically.7 It sickened Hornaday to contemplate that his government was complicit in the harvesting of Pribilof seals—even pups—for their pelts of thickly packed hairs (300,000 per square inch). As far as Hornaday was concerned, the Fur Seal Board was nothing more than a band of pirates. If Taft wanted war over protecting Alaskan seals, then Hornaday was glad to confront him.
Throughout the summer of 1910 Hornaday tore into Taft for running a Fur Seal Board that, instead of “watch-dogging” the Pribilofs, was allowing cash-and-carry profiteers and businessmen cronies to profit while the northern fur seals’ numbers diminished. Out of all the pinnipeds—that is, mammals with flippers—the northern fur seals intrigued Hornaday the most. For one thing, their migratory journey from the Bering Sea to the central California coast was exceeded in length only by the migrations of harp seals of Newfoundland and some whales. From a biological perspective, the northern fur seal had the most pronounced sexual dimorphism of any mammal species. And these seals were tough defenders of territory. “It is not safe to enter a rookery in breeding season, but bulls normally will not pursue intruders beyond the edge of their own territory and much of their angry display is bluff—though not to other bulls,” Briton Cooper Busch wrote in The War Against the Seals. “The northern fur seal is fully capable of driving off an interloping Steller Sea Lion three times its size.”8
By the time Roosevelt arrived in Denver that August to deliver an important speech on conservation, speculation was rampant that he would run for president in 1912. He was driven by malice against Taft and against the “lawless man of great wealth” who was skinning public lands in New York, Alaska, and elsewhere.9 Every syllable Roosevelt uttered from the podium was infused with vehemence and urgency. He called for inheritance taxes on large estates as a fair mechanism to fund more and better big government. Demanding obedience to the sportsman’s code, he pushed his conservation agenda forward, “dee-lighted” to demonize investment bankers as “debauchers” of the American landscape. Positioning himself as the arbiter of economic justice and a countervailing force to Wall Street, Roosevelt thundered that the lamentable antinational tide had to be reversed. Alaska’s coastal waters, for example, needed to be protected by a powerful Bureau of Fisheries, or else the salmon runs would end. Regulation of huge cannery operations, Roosevelt said, would occur only in the form of vigorous federal regulation of Alaska’s waterways. And the Pribilofs—those rugged breeding grounds for seals, walrus, and otters—needed to remain fully in the portfolio of the U.S. Biological Survey, not in the Commerce and Labor Department. The five-year ban against sealing, in Roosevelt’s eyes, needed to become permanent.
Arriving in Osawatomie, Kansas, on August 31, 1910, Roosevelt artfully preached his “new nationalism,” which included vigorous conservation. With a discernible intensity, Roosevelt expressed his conviction that the U.S. government was a far better steward of the land than the self-interested House of Morgan and similar types who populated Wall Street. He was anxious to bring corporate power to heel. Conservation, he said, was the great moral issue of the day. Roosevelt claimed that President Taft had unnecessarily created the Bureau of Mines with U.S. Forest Service funds. Why not more fully fund the Bureau of Fisheries, which he had created in 1903? Government regulatory powers, Roosevelt insisted, had to be increased dramatically to impede human degradation of wild America. Spontaneous enthusiasm and reverberating cheers greeted every line of conservationist populism that Roosevelt shouted out.
“I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few, and here again is another case in which I am accused of taking a revolutionary attitude,” Roosevelt said in Kansas. “People forget now that one hundred years ago there were public men of good character who advocated the nation selling its public lands in great quantities, so that the nation could get the most money out of it, and giving it to the men who could cultivate it for their own uses. We took the proper democratic ground that the land should be granted in small sections to the men who were actually to till it and live on it. Now, with the water-power, with the forests, with the mines, we are brought face to face with the fact that there are many people who will go with us in conserving the resources only if they are to be allowed to exploit them for their benefit. That is one of the fundamental reasons why the special interests should be driven out of politics.”10
Besides preaching for conservation in the Midwest, Roosevelt was captivating audiences across the country with his riveting tales about British East Africa. The publication of his African Game Trails was a huge event throughout America in the fall of 1910, and the memoir became a best seller. The farther west Roosevelt traveled, the denser the crowds became. People lined up for miles just for a chance to touch the Colonel’s sleeve, and they would let out a collective yell at the sight of his famous toothy smile. Knickknack booths, refreshment tents, and toy stands were set up at many appearances. Roosevelt delivered short, impromptu speeches at book signings, denouncing plutocrats and financiers but also sharing stirring adventure tales about chasing lions, sleeping in the jungle, and inventorying the Kenyan forest belt for conservation purposes. Working for the Smithsonian Institution, the Roosevelt party had collected 8,463 vertebrates, 550 large and 3,379 small mammals, and 2,784 birds.11 Some wildlife biologists thought it was a slaughter. In city after city, Roosevelt met with conservationists, offering his support in local fights against rapacious land developers. He spoke of the need for a Global Conservation Congress—the multinational organization the Taft administration had nixed. “Conservation means development as much as it does protection,” Roosevelt told a crowd of farmers. “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them.”12
African Game Trails became a popular boys’ book, selling more than 1 million copies.13 Everywhere Roosevelt went that autumn, huge groups of adolescents paraded after him, hungering for stories of the wilderness and adventure. Never one to disappoint children, the ex-president regaled them with tales of Mount Kenyan fantail warblers, giraffes eating out of his hand, and the honeyguide birds that always led to trees of sweets. As if foreshadowing the New Deal, he urged young people to form a youth army to protect wilderness areas from vandals. “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm,” Roosevelt wrote; “swamps where the slime oozes and bubbles and festers in steaming heat; lakes like seas; skies that burn above deserts . . . mighty rivers rushing out of the heart of the continent through the sadness of endless marshes; forests of gorgeous beauty, where death broods in the dark and silent depths.”14
When Roosevelt stopped in Oak Park, Illinois, the ten-year-old Ernest Hemingway, awestruck, dressed in a khaki safari suit, stood with his grandfather in a receiving line to shake hands with his hero. Young Ernest had just received his first gun (a 20-gauge shotgun) from his grandfather, and he had been playing Teddy Roosevelt instead of cowboys and Indians. Hemingway also joined the Agassiz Naturalist Club, learned taxidermy, and pleaded to go on his own safari to collect specimens. The green hills of Africa were calling him. As a young adult Hemingway—aspiring to qualify for the CFCA—would retrace Roosevelt’s safari to British East Africa and would befriend one of the men who had been the ex-president’s guides in 1909.15 “More than any other individual in history, Roosevelt opened the African frontier to the imagination of America’s youths,” Sean Hemingway, grandson of Ernest, wrote in a helpful introduction to Hemingway on Hunting. “The fresh scent of a new frontier and the thrill of the hunt, both with their overwhelming sense of valor and excitement, would captivate Hemingway for the rest of his life.”16
During Roosevelt’s absence in Africa, President Taft had tried to garner a little of the “teddy bear” magic for himself. At a dinner in Atlanta, Georgia, Taft had been served a southern dish, barbecued possum. Imitating Roosevelt, Taft swore it was a “dee-licious” meal. Cartoonists jumped on the anecdote, calling Taft “Billy Possums.” A few cartoons ran in syndicated newspapers, and although these cartoons lacked pizzazz, Billy Possums cookouts became a brief fad in the Deep South. Also, enterprising entrepreneurs in New York quickly manufactured a new stuffed toy, Billy Possum. The sales were dismal, however. “A dealer—one of the biggest in the country—got a telegram on the night of the dinner,” the New York Evening Post reported. “He immediately went to a manufacturer. They put their heads together and possum skins were obtained. But the genuine skin, stuffed, looked like a gigantic rat.”17
The possum toy sank without a bubble. Nobody was going to get excited over a novelty associated with William Howard Taft. “Before long,” the biographer Kathleen Dalton noted, “cartoonists parodied Taft as a lost boy searching for his Teddy Bear.”18 By contrast, everything associated with TR, from stuffed toys to bobble-head dolls, boomed after his African adventure. Abercrombie and Fitch advertised a khaki “Roosevelt Tent,” completely waterproof. It was Taft’s misfortune to follow such a charismatic force of nature as Roosevelt into the White House. Nobody could connect with the average American youth like the old Rough Rider. Colonel William Selig of Selig Polyscope made a nickelodeon movie of Roosevelt on a studio lot, renting tame lions to simulate a safari. The film, Hunting Game in Africa, featured a bad actor as Roosevelt, always in “bully” mode. It was a disappointment at the box office but it inspired the trademark roaring lion at the opening of MGM movies.19
In June 1910—owing in part to Roosevelt’s outdoors philosophy and his African safari—the Boy Scouts of America was founded in New York City by Robert Baden-Powell; it would soon become the biggest youth organization in the United States.20 The front porch of the CFCA headquarters in Chappaqua, New York, surrounded by beautiful wilderness, was the site where this founding had first been thought of. Young boys needed to learn how to survive in the wild, how to tell a poisonous plant from an edible one. According to Daniel Beard, a founder of the Boy Scouts, Roosevelt’s promotion of faunal naturalism was the main impetus for creating an outdoors-oriented youth organization. Beard had been concerned that young boys had admired antiheroes like Blackbeard, Laffite, and Billy the Kid, so he tried to promote the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Robert Peary. He believed that boys needed to develop honor, as well as outdoor skills such as knowing how to build campfires, tie knots, fly-fish, and use a jackknife, if they were to develop into first-class men. Only when boys understood that a bird’s egg was the most perfect thing in the world would their character be strong enough to resist the lurid carnival of American decadence. Shortly after the Boy Scouts was created, Beard had a private audience with Roosevelt. There was a direct lineage from the Boone and Crockett Club to the CFCA to the Boy Scouts; Roosevelt linked all three. “The Colonel,” Beard later boasted in Outlook, “gave me the authority to use his own name.”21
By September 1910, Roosevelt was praising the Boy Scouts and the CFCA on his book tour. American boyhood, Roosevelt often said, should be oriented toward the outdoors and woodcraft, and away from the open-hearth furnaces of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. Youngsters needed to be able to identify a common rock wren, appreciate the beauty of the tall-grass prairie, and smell fir boughs beside a campfire at night. Being in touch with nature and honoring all humans and wild creatures would help develop high moral character. Instead of becoming apathetic brats whining about money and profits, youngsters would develop into citizen conservationists of the highest order.22 “I believe in the Boy Scouts movement with all my heart,” Roosevelt said. “The excessive development of city life in modern industrial civilization which has seen its climax here in our own country, is accompanied by a very unhealthy atrophying of some of the essential virtues, which must be embodied in any man who is to be a good soldier, and which, especially, ought to be embodied in every man to be really a good citizen in time of peace.”23 Roosevelt regularly touted Alaska, the Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest as great places for a young man to climb mountains, camp, and hike—wilderness zones where the young man could test his mettle against nature. By 1914, in part owing to Roosevelt’s plea, there were five Boy Scout troops in Alaska, with four scoutmasters and thirty scouts.24
As the Boy Scouts developed into a nationwide idea, Rooseveltian conservation became one of the organization’s central tenets. The new generation of American boys needed to be both citizen-naturalists and citizen-scientists. The original Boy Scouts Handbooksold 7 million copies in three decades, a number second only to the Bible.25 By 1914, the Boy Scouts had awarded its first William Temple Hornaday Gold Medal for “conservation excellence” and the Gifford Pinchot Award for “notable work in extinguishing forest fires.” And Roosevelt became an honorary vice president of the Boy Scouts of America. Urging that all Boy Scouts follow the “golden rules,” Roosevelt said the real qualities that made a boy a man were unselfishness, gentleness, strength, bravery, and protection of the wilderness. “One of the prime teachings among the Boy Scouts will be teaching against vandalism,” Roosevelt wrote. “Let it be a point of honor to protect birds, trees, and flowers, and so make our country more beautiful.”26
Throughout the summer of 1910, Roosevelt worked hard to get Pinchot to contain his anger at President Taft. After all, it was a midterm election year, and Roosevelt didn’t want to be blamed for causing the Republicans to lose congressional seats and governorships. Slowing down a conservationist hothead like Pinchot, however, wasn’t an easy matter. Recognizing that Taft’s political power was ebbing, Roosevelt took a paternal approach toward Pinchot, never saying that Pinchot was wrong, always showing affection and concern, but always signaling, Knock it off. In a fatherly way, Roosevelt told Pinchot to “husband” his influence, to “speak with the utmost caution” and not to “say anything that can even be twisted into something in the nature of a factional attack.”27Secretly, Roosevelt admired Pinchot’s progressive-minded “Insurgents” movement and was pleased that Lincoln-Roosevelt clubs were being formed across the country as a Republican bulwark against Taft and “Morganism.” Outwardly, however, he continued to feign uninterest in seeking the White House again.28
Nevertheless, Roosevelt did object that it was unacceptable for private concerns to despoil Alaska of its natural resources for the purposes of big mining, big timber, and big railroads. Pinchot cheered the Colonel on. Because Alaska was geographically huge, transportation was always going to be a contentious issue there. The territory had no reliable network of roads for moving cargo. In 1912 there were four practical ways to get around: walking, dogsled, horse, or steamboat (Alaska had more than 4,000 miles of navigable waterways, of which approximately 2,700 were in the Yukon watershed). The Yukon River, flowing bow-shaped for 2,300 miles, was the great artery for freight, effectively dividing Alaska east-west into two halves. Only three North American rivers were longer than the Yukon: the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Mackenzie. Roosevelt was in favor of internal improvements in Alaska, such as roads, canals, and railroads, but only if the U.S. government was in charge of construction on leased public lands.
To Roosevelt, who had lobbied against the railroad industry’s segregating Yellowstone National Park in the 1870s, too many Alaskan roads would mean too much Alaskan development. Places like the coastal panhandle of southeastern Alaska, an ecosystem of thousands of islands equalizing the size of Florida where huge schools of humpback whales, orcas, and sea lions swam along the forested shorelines of the Alexander Archipelago and the Tongass National Forest, should be treasured, not exploited. The Tongass had the world’s highest density of grizzlies, black bears, and bald eagles. Their habitat should be left alone. The real value of Alaska, to Roosevelt, resided in managing its wilderness better than land skinners had managed that of the Lower Forty-Eight.
Everywhere Roosevelt looked there were scoundrels wanting to make quick dollars on dubious transportation or reclamation projects in Alaska. The Morgan-Guggenheim syndicate had finagled financing to construct a 1,550-foot steel-truss bridge on behalf of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, to transport copper from the mines to the seaport wharf in Cordova. Dubbed the “million-dollar bridge” (it actually cost $1.4 million), the construction project smacked of a boondoggle from day one. To Rooseveltians, the bridge was an expensive ploy to eventually open up the Chugach National Forest to increased private-sector copper mining. The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the “million-dollar bridge” took place in 1910, with officials of the Taft administration smiling alongside Kennecott copper miners. Boomers in towns such as Seward and Cordova celebrated the bridge. Alaska was on the rise! But Rooseveltians were prescient about the foolishness of Alaska’s first “bridge to nowhere.” By 1930, the Copper River and Northwestern Railway had gone bankrupt. Few folks used the expensive train tracks.
In 1910, every Alaskan mining town wanted a road built for its district. Likewise, a priority list was established by a territorial commission to deliver mail more efficiently. The U.S. Signal Corps led the way by connecting Valdez (then the most northerly open port in North America) to Fairbanks (the practical head of navigation on the Tanana River). A 385-mile road linking Valdez to Fairbanks allowed Alaska to become an economy based on exporting natural resources. When Roosevelt left the White House, there were about 770 productive placer mines in Alaska, employing about 4,400 men. Only a few years later, owing to transportation innovations, these numbers had grown dramatically. Coal deposits could be found throughout 12,600 square miles of the territory.
At Copper Mountain, a 250-ton smelter was polluting the air, and long tramways had been built at Niblack, Skowl Arm, Karta Bay, and Hetta Inlet to transport the most valuable ores. On the Seward Peninsula auriferous lode mining was taking place along the Solomon River. The brownish-black coal on the peninsula was lignite, frozen solid. Like peat, it cracked and crumbled on exposure to sun. However, this coal, lowest-ranked in terms of energy, burned readily, leaving chalky ash billowing upward from factory smokestacks. Carbon dioxide emitted from plants using lignite coal was more toxic than that from comparable factories using black coal. Lignite was so combustible that railroad companies, fearing industrial accidents, didn’t like to transport it for long distances.29
Clearly, Alaska wasn’t a worthless icebox, even though its nicknames, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, were “Walrussia,” “Icebergia,” and “Frigidia.”30 It was the next West Virginia: a source of coal, a storehouse of limitless rock fuel ready to be extracted for an economic bonanza. (And probably at the cost of human lives. In 1907 alone 3,242 West Virginian miners perished in mining accidents.) The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle had promoted this notion about coal in the “Great Land” to more than 3.5 million visitors in 1909–1910. Conservationists circa 1910, by contrast, saw Alaska as John Muir had seen it—as “nature’s own reservation”31 where “nothing dollarable is safe.”32 Huge dams or copper and coal mines, these wilderness advocates believed, would kill rivers and destroy the breeding areas of migratory birds. “Conservationists and boosters were united in admiration for the frontier and in agreement on its importance as an ingredient in American culture and history,” the historian Peter A. Coates wrote. “However, they differed, often diametrically, in the ways they expressed affection and how they formulated the best means to ensure the survival of their revered frontier.”33
Writing to his twenty-two-year-old son, Ted, Theodore Roosevelt pined for the Alaska Range, longing to be thrust into a territorial wilderness with ospreys and eagles overhead.34 The distance from Point Hope, Alaska (a spit of land jutting into the Chukchi Sea), to Washington, D.C., was greater, in miles, than that from New York to Senegal. The Colonel loved this kind of remoteness.35 He wanted to be anywhere outdoors in Alaska where there wasn’t a book to sign or a hand to shake. Roosevelt had shipped his sixteen-year-old son, Archie, off to the Black Hills under the watchful eye of Seth Bulloch, a sheriff and forest ranger who was by nature a scoutmaster and who knew how to toughen up boys. Heading out to the University of California–Berkeley, Roosevelt wrote to its president, Benjamin Wheeler, about the difficulties of being overbooked as both father and speaker. Proudly preaching the “new nationalism,” Roosevelt made it abundantly clear that he wanted the Republican Party to prosper in the midterm election come November. He would hold his nose and vote for Taft. “I have a much larger following west of the Alleghenies than east of them,” Roosevelt wrote to his son Ted, “and have my own difficulties here in New York simply because New York is of course the center of big business, of the big lawyers who guide the big business men, and of the multitude of small business men and small lawyers who take their care from the men at the top of their respective professions.”36
That November the Democrats gained fifty-seven seats in the House and ten in the Senate. The party of William Jennings Bryan now had outright control of the House (and working control of the Senate in combination with a smattering of progressive Republicans). The Democrats were pulling down the shade on the Republican Party for the first time since Grover Cleveland had worked his electoral magic in 1892. But Roosevelt didn’t feel paralyzed. The midterm defeats suffered by the Republicans turned his attention more toward his conservationism. Briefly swearing off politics, Roosevelt returned to wildlife biology, his lifetime passion, swapping information with professional peers. The entomologist Willis Stanley Blatchley, for example, had sent Roosevelt a book on beetles. Roosevelt knew that Darwin, just a few weeks before dying, had written about a water beetle that attached itself to a clam in a pond in the English Midlands. Feeling diffident about his own knowledge of beetles, Roosevelt was glad to study Blatchley’s fine new research. “There was one beetle found on Lake Victoria Nyanza that almost came in the category of big game,” Roosevelt wrote to Blatchley that Christmas, using a kind of insider’s shorthand. “It was considerably larger than a mouse. You of course know all about it, it is called the galia beetle.”37
The Christmas season of 1910 also found Roosevelt defending the immense national forests and federal bird reserves in Alaska that had been created during his presidency and were now, in some quarters, targets of cynicism. To Roosevelt (prodded by Pinchot), protecting the Tongass and Chugach national forests became a high priority. The Democrats’ victories in 1910 caused a wave of resource development advocacy aimed at undoing Roosevelt and Pinchot’s forestland initiatives in Alaska, Washington state, and Oregon. Acting as a lobbyist, Roosevelt fired off sharp letters to new members of Congress, explaining why federal protection of timberlands in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest was imperative. On behalf of Pinchot’s new, nonprofit National Conservation Association (the forerunner of today’s Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC),38 Roosevelt urged legislators to stop desecrating mountaintops and slopes across the country. “At this very moment we are endeavoring to get the United States Government to take over from the Eastern states the Appalachian and White Mountain reserves, just because the states have not done as well as the Nation is doing or can do,” Roosevelt wrote to one recently elected congressman, Abraham Walter Lafferty, a Republican from Oregon. “There are two reasons why the National Forests in Oregon, for example, should not be turned over in trust to the state. The first and most important one is that the forest in question is necessarily, through its connection with the rivers and in other ways, an interstate question, and the National Forests can be handled far better for the general welfare by the Federal Government than by the State.”39
By January 1911, Gifford Pinchot was suggesting either that a progressive Republican (Roosevelt) should challenge Taft for the Republican nomination or (a less attractive possibility) that Roosevelt should bolt and create a third party. Certainly, Roosevelt paid close attention to all this political maneuvering. He had toured America enough, talked with enough farmers and laborers, and answered enough sacks full of mail, to believe that Taft was bad for the Republican Party. Deeply embarrassed for having chosen “Willy-Boy” Taft as his successor in the first place, he wanted to turn back the clock to March 1909 and send Taft back to Ohio. Taft’s firing of Pinchot had stuck in Roosevelt’s craw; also, Roosevelt couldn’t believe that Taft had supported the Payne-Aldrich Act, which continued high tariff rates. Demonizing the incumbent president now became a sport for Rooseveltians. Preparing to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination, Roosevelt simply didn’t want to admit that the president did anything right pertaining to conservation. (Taft’s record actually wasn’t all that bad. He had, for example, saved the Oregon Caves in Oregon, Rainbow Bridge in Utah, and Devil’s Potspile in California by declaring them national monuments.40 Taft had also created the first national monument in Alaska: Sitka, a lush, temperate rain forest containing more Northwest Indian totem poles than anywhere else.41)
For the first six months of 1911, Roosevelt avoided the warfare within the Republican Party, although there was an element of burlesque in his disclaimers. Instead, he worked hard throughout the spring to get the National Museum to properly prepare the skins, fur, and skulls from his African expedition for presentation to the scientific community. He was also hoping to arrange for Charles Sheldon to publicly display his specimens from Alaskan offshore islands in a coastal diorama. It wasn’t enough, Roosevelt wrote to Charles Wolcott, to merely “collect”—full reports from both Sheldon and himself should be furnished to the public at large. He didn’t want the Roosevelt Collection to go unattended, shut away in closets like Carl Akeley’s ape specimens at the Field Museum of Chicago. And Roosevelt wanted to keep Edward Heller—who had been on his safari in British East Africa as the Smithsonian’s leading naturalist—in Washington, D.C., until all of his specimens were stuffed by taxidermists and ready for public viewing.42
While Roosevelt was preparing his African mounts that April, a report was published in the New York Times that the last bull moose in New York state had been killed. These ungulates, with their huge racks, were once plentiful in the Adirondacks, but lumberjacks and hunters had slaughtered them. The Algonquin, a New York tribe, had called them moose (“twig-eaters”). The last moose had weighed 1,200 pounds, had immense antlers, and was shot by a poacher and left to rot in the snow. Roosevelt’s love of these generally solitary herbivores was bone-deep. Hearing their low mooing in the forest was one of the most moving experiences in the North American wilderness. In the following years, Pinchot and Garfield saw the “last bull moose” as standing for Theodore Roosevelt himself. “A curious thing about the bull moose,” the Independent would write the following year about what became the symbol of Roosevelt’s Progressive Party, “at such moments of emotional excitement [it] readily answers a call and comes headlong to meet it.”43
As president, TR had already created the Fire Island National Game Reservation (Executive Order No. 1038) on February 27, 1909, using the Antiquities Act of 1906. Fire Island—located near the head of Cook Inlet offshore from Anchorage—was the most important federally run breeding ground for moose in the United States.44 Roosevelt nurtured in his mind the notion of having many similar moose sanctuaries in Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont, New York, and Maine. According to Rooseveltian conservationists, Alaskan miners were overkilling moose for meat for use in their placer camps. Every camp had a moose specialty: moose hash, moose tenderloin, and crown roast of moose, among other recipes. Conservationists recommended canned hams or imported beef as better alternatives.45
Because Roosevelt had initiated the protection of bull moose in Alaska, his name was mud in the mining camps of the Kenai Peninsula, where there was a tornado of sentiment against his ethos of wildlife protection. A coalition known as the Coal Party, for example, was created by Alaska boomers hoping to recover the acreage of Roosevelt’s national forests and federal bird reserves. In May 1911, the former mayor of Cordova, Alaska, accompanied by an angry group of “territory rights” activists and debt-ridden people from the chambers of commerce, engaged in an act of civil disobedience reminiscent of the Boston Tea Party. They raided the wharves where the Copper River and Northwestern Railway was storing imported anthracite, split open crates, and dumped tons of imported Canadian coal into Controller Bay.46 “The Cordovans were striking back at a distant colonial government,” the historian Char Miller explained in his biography of Pinchot. “Then they put the torch to their own King George III, burning an effigy of Gifford Pinchot, denounced by The Alaska-Yukon Magazine, as a man who ‘thinks more of trees than people.’ ”47
Well-organized protests against Roosevelt and Pinchot erupted throughout Alaska that year. When Pinchot voyaged to Alaska on a fact-finding mission in September, the predominant complaint in the territory was that federal laws were stunting the economic growth of Alaska.48 Such legislation was called conservation colonialism. All the major Alaskan newspapers thought that Richard Ballinger—a former mayor of Seattle and the current U.S. secretary of the interior—was a hero and Pinchot a scoundrel. Covetous boomers intuited that they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive a wedge between Roosevelt’s conservationism and Taft’s pro-development philosophy; and prospectors who had missed out on the Klondike gold rush believed that coal mining would give them a second chance at wealth. Alaskan town hall meetings resounded with antigovernment rants and calls for direct action. Angry protest was everywhere. In the towns of Seward (on the Kenai Peninsula) and Valdez (on the eastern side of Prince William Sound), for example, President Roosevelt’s national forest orders of 1908 limiting corporate mining in the Tongass and Chugach were posted and defaced with an angry X. In the timber town of Katalla, unhappy loggers and miners burned Roosevelt’s order of 1908 in a public display of defiance. In another Alaskan town, a threatening placard that looked like a “Most Wanted” notice was posted:
PINCHOT, MY POLICY
No patents to coal! All timber to forest reserves! Bottle up Alaska! Put Alaska in forest reserves! Save Alaska for all time to come!49
Wherever Pinchot traveled in Alaska, he defended conservation in front of audiences full of skeptics. Pinchot argued that Ballinger had been ousted in a necessary effort to “prevent men who were trying to plunder and monopolize Alaska from carrying out their plan.”50 Town hall meetings turned volatile if Pinchot’s name was even mentioned. Many citizens in Valdez, situated on the lip of the Chugach, thought him hopelessly wrongheaded for locking up the forestlands. The Cleveland Press, for example, reported that a satirical anti-Pinchot banner had been hung in Seward, Alaska: “Conservation prices . . . British Columbia coal, $17 per ton . . . Wood, $7 a cord . . . But you must not mine your own coal, nor cut down your own wood . . . All reserved for future generation . . . signed Pinchot . . . ‘Pinhead.’ ”51
While a cabal of defiant Alaskans were up in arms over the Tongass and Chugach national forests, which they saw as having been grabbed by the U.S. government, Roosevelt was entering a nasty (if erudite) public argument with the naturalist Abbot H. Thayer of New Hampshire, who was a theoretician. The disagreement centered on theories of concealing coloration. Roosevelt first challenged Thayer, at some length, in Appendix E of African Game Trails. He also inveighed against Thayer in the introduction to Life History of African Game Animals (a magnificent two-volume zoology reference book whose coauthors were Roosevelt and Heller). Then—in the August 23, 1911, issue of the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History—in a 40,000-word monograph titled “Revealing and Concealing Coloration in Birds and Animals,” Roosevelt intensified his thesis with new field data from Africa. He particularly objected to Thayer’s claim that the stripes and spots of mammals had protective value against predators. Roosevelt himself argued, correctly, that these markings attracted mates. Rattling off the names of species in which coloration was clearly not protective, Roosevelt floated the theory of advertising.52
During August 1911, Gifford Pinchot, James Garfield, William Kent, and other conservationists were doggedly urging Roosevelt to campaign for the Republican presidential nomination against Taft in the coming year. They argued that his candidacy was an imperative if the conservation movement was to survive. Roosevelt thought the three men were becoming too self-righteous—they had forgotten to smile. “Come, come!” Roosevelt wrote to Kent, who in 1908 had given an old-growth redwood grove, Muir Woods near San Francisco, to the U.S. government to become a national monument. “You and Gifford are altogether crazy about Taft. I have been very much disappointed in him, of course, but you use language about him that is not justified.”53
Roosevelt believed that if there was a cardinal sin in public life, it was becoming a “dull pointless bore.”54 A political convention wasn’t a corporate board meeting; it was a roller-coaster ride at Coney Island, a fiesta in San Antonio, a horse race in Kentucky, a confetti-filled celebration in Times Square. Perhaps he would take on Taft over conservation issues. But he wouldn’t do it out of anger or for revenge. “We must not preach all the time or we will stop doing any good,” Roosevelt wrote to a friend who urged him to challenge Taft. “Life is a campaign, and at best we are merely under-officers or subalterns in it.”55
For self-given Christmas presents in 1911, Roosevelt read Charles Sheldon’s The Wilderness of the Upper Yukon, enthralled by the naturalist’s field reports of fast-ebbing currents, V-shaped flocks of geese, and previously unstudied mountain ranges north of Skagway.56 Sheldon, a young naturalist, had sent Roosevelt chapters of a proposed new book, Wilderness of the North Pacific Coast Islands, to proofread; it was published in 1912. In Roosevelt’s mind, Sheldon was the real deal—an outdoorsman who had become the Thoreau of the Yukon River basin, a hunter who understood that unlike land (which could be bought and sold), wild country had a personality distinctly its own.57 There was a touch of the old-fashioned faunal naturalist in Sheldon—a love of peace, solitude, wild things, and serenity—that Roosevelt stoutly admired.
At Sagamore Hill that Christmas, Roosevelt had a lot more to reflect on than Alaskan moose reserves, debates over bird coloration, and wilderness outings. In January, moderate Republicans split from their party and formed the National Progressive Republican League. The Progressives, championing Roosevelt, advocated reforming the political system to give control to the people, rather than to party hacks who had no ethics, no decency, and no commitment to the long-term interests of the American people. The Progressives supported the direct election of senators, presidential primaries, and the use of volunteer initiatives such as referendum and recall. They also called on Roosevelt and other leaders to challenge the anticonservationist “milquetoast mannequin”—that would be William Howard Taft—for the Republican nomination in 1912.
While Pinchot started plotting a Progressive campaign strategy for 1912, Roosevelt went back to the occupation he had preferred since leaving the White House: being a Darwinian naturalist. Roosevelt had discovered a new ornithologist with the potential to be another William Finley (of Oregon) or Herbert K. Job (of Connecticut). His name was Francis Hobart Herrick. Considered America’s authority on eagles, Herrick was named a professor of biology at Western Reserve University in Ohio. In 1901, he wrote The Home Life of Wild Birds, and by 1917 he had published a fine two-volume biography of John James Audubon.58
What really caught Roosevelt’s eye, however, was a pamphlet Herrick had written on nest building. Roosevelt and Herrick exchanged thoughtful letters discussing their ideas on modern biology. “Darwin and the great scientific men of his day forced science to take an enormous stride in advance in the decades succeeding the publication of On the Origin of Species, but for nearly fifty years now we have tended to make the same mistake that the schoolmen of the Middle Ages made about Aristotle,” Roosevelt wrote to Herrick. “The rediscovery of the works of Aristotle produced an immense forward movement in knowledge. Then there came a period of fossilization, when everybody accepted Aristotle as having summed up all possible knowledge, and when in consequence he became a positive obstacle to advance. It has been somewhat so with Darwin and the Darwinians.”59
Roosevelt was worried that a sense of complacency had engulfed university biology departments, whose members were willing to accept—without conducting new research, collecting species, or doing field studies—everything Darwin had proved about evolution. Where was the sense of excitement about the Alaskan outdoor laboratory? Who would be the new Gregor Mendel, describing the nature of inheritance? Weren’t the Aleutians the new Galápagos? Why was eighty-nine-year-old Alfred Russel Wallace still clinging to a theory of natural selection that he first articulated as early as 1858? Where were the neo-Darwinians who could offer the world something more than half-baked theories of protective coloration and nesting habits? Roosevelt hoped Herrick would become one of the new bright lights. In 1866, Ernst Haeckel had promised a practical application of the theory of evolution and had achieved dramatic results. Likewise, August Weismann in 1882 denied that a species could pass on acquired characteristics to its offspring through germplasm. What had happened to these people since then? Were they resting on their laurels?60 “I doubt if we have ever seen anything less scientific than the extreme dogmation of men like Haeckel,” Roosevelt complained, “and the solemn acceptance as facts of Weismann’s extreme theories.”61
Because the universities were slow to make discoveries about the natural world, Roosevelt placed more faith in the National Geographic Society (NGS). On June 9, 1912, for example, the Novarupta volcano erupted in Alaska’s Katmai district. Since the ice age there had been seven major eruptions in the Katmai volcanic cluster, and this was the worst. A preceding series of earthquakes had been followed by enormous ejections of red-hot pumice and ash over an area the size of Maine. More than forty square miles of verdant Alaskan forest were literally scorched, buried under a thick blanket of volcanic soot, in some places up to ten feet deep. To put Novarupta into a historical perspective, the blast was ten times more devastating than the eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. Only the eruption on Santorini in Greece in 1500 B.C. produced more volcanic matter than Novarupta. The cracked Alaskan earth shot up steam vents more than 500 feet high at more than a thousand holes in the Katmai district. Strange gas clouds formed and emanated from Earth. Dr. Robert Griggs of Ohio State University, a botanist who worked closely with the NGS, led a scientific expedition to the Katmai in the fall of 1912 and called the weird, smoking landscape the “valley of ten thousand smokes.” But Griggs optimistically understood that within a few years the ash-laden hillsides would become alive with “verdure.”62
The fissure floor of the Katmai—at the head of the Alaska Peninsula—was declared a geologic wonderland. Roosevelt thought that Novarupta, even more than Lassen Volcanic National Park in California,* could equal Yellowstone National Park as a tourist attraction. Nowhere else could volcanism and tectonic events be better understood by schoolchildren. Because Alaska was so sparsely settled, not a single person died in the natural event at Katmai. From 1912 to 1918, scientists traveled there to study waterfalls and lava flows. “It was as though all the steam engines in the world, assembled together,” Griggs wrote, “had popped their safety valves at once and were letting off surplus steam in concert.”63
On September 24, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson declared the “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” the Katmai National Monument. The boundaries of Katmai National Monument, which originally encompassed forty square miles of the Mount Katmai pyroclastic flow, were expanded in 1931, 1942, 1969, and 1978.64 Then, in one of the crowning achievements of the entire post-1960s environmental movement, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 put millions of additional acres surrounding the “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” under federal protection, enlarging the total area to more than 4 million acres. It was redesignated the Katmai National Park and Preserve on December 2, 1980.65
If Taft hadn’t tried to undermine Roosevelt’s national forestry agenda in Alaska, it’s doubtful that the ex-president would have challenged his successor for the Republican nomination in 1912. Even though, as president, Taft had prosecuted the Standard Oil and American Tobacco trusts, Roosevelt nevertheless painted him as a lackey of big business. Roosevelt was partially wrong. President Taft did enjoy automobiles more than bird-watching, but he had a decent record on conservation. Still, perception matters in politics. No matter whether they had sided with Pinchot or Ballinger in the notorious feud, journalists believed that there was a curious ambivalence about conservation issues in Taft’s White House. Taft, it seemed, had an old-fashioned Abrahamic concept of land, finding no real value in wilderness. Favoring the Department of Commerce and Labor, he seemed to enjoy rejecting expansions of forestland proposed by the departments of the Interior and Agriculture.
In February, after weighing the pros and cons, Roosevelt announced that he would indeed run for president again. His declaration was welcomed by a press corps eager for a riveting news story. On every major issue of the day, TR vowed to act uncompromisingly. Taft, in a foolish, backward-thinking way, had mocked Roosevelt’s Alaskan conservationism. If Taft wanted to sell off Alaskan lands to “big coal” instead of leasing them to locals, then Roosevelt would confront the president in the public arena. To Roosevelt’s everlasting fury, Taft had indeed followed through on his pledge to side with the dictatorial Speaker of the House—Joseph Cannon of Illinois—and Senator Nelson Wilmarth Aldrich of Rhode Island, both in the pocket of special interests.66
While the Republican old guard clung to Taft, Roosevelt beat out Robert La Follette of Wisconsin as the progressives’ favorite son. Before long, Roosevelt, in an ad hominem attack, cold and merciless, was calling President Taft an old-maidish “fathead” and “puzzle wit”—and many Americans loved hearing such insults. Taft shot back that Roosevelt was a “dangerous egoist” and “demagogue.” What Roosevelt understood was that rural Americans weren’t instinctively fond of lawyer-politicians like Taft, who supposed that the rifle was a toy for grown-ups and that dinner came from a grocery store, not from a farm or a duck blind. Although Roosevelt outperformed Taft throughout the spring of 1912 and arrived at the Republican convention in Chicago only a few delegates short of having the nomination locked up, the conservative old guard managed to stop the wilderness warrior. Roosevelt had even secured thirty-seven of Ohio’s forty delegates (and Ohio was Taft’s home state)—but these were of no avail in locking up the nomination. The Republicans handed Taft the nomination, by a slim margin.67
But Chicago hadn’t seen the last of Theodore Roosevelt. The ex- president joined a third party: the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party. On August 7, 1912, Roosevelt delivered the most impassioned speech of his political career at its convention. Surrounding him like bodyguards were a number of Rough Riders from the Spanish-American War, in full army uniform, who had served under the Colonel in Cuba in 1898. Roaring about the rights of working Americans over business conglomerates, Roosevelt laid out the Progressive platform, emphasizing conservation and promoting the principles of public domain lands, women’s suffrage, regulation of corporations, roadside beautification, federal assistance to the poor, better schools, and so on. He set forth a liberal domestic agenda for the twentieth century that Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Obama would build on. Roosevelt lambasted mechanization and human abuse of the environment. If financial titans thought the conservation movement was over, they were doomed to disappointment. Botany, biology, geology, soil science, entomology, and forestry offered clues to humans’ relationship with Earth. To Roosevelt, it was impractical to discuss land policy without placing people’s concerns first and foremost. However, it was blasphemous to rape and loot the landscape for profit, as the placer miners had done along East Creek near Fairbanks. If Taft was going to be anticonservation, Roosevelt would sink him like the Titanic—a disaster that was still fresh in people’s minds. “There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in the country,” Roosevelt declared. “Just as we must conserve our men, women, and children, so we must conserve the resources of the land on which they live.”68 As Pinchot pointed out, for Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party, conservation was a “moral issue.”69
Throughout the 1912 campaign, Alaskan fishermen went on strike against Roosevelt and Taft’s policies regulating fishing. They claimed the right to use salmon traps. Big canneries likewise insisted that the traps were a necessity. In Pacific Fisherman, their trade journal, packers called the huge clamlike traps, which were designed to funnel migrating salmon, “the best and only friend the canners have in Alaska.”70 A tender such as Little Tom would take the salmon—hundreds brailed from a fish trap—all day long. The goal was to “fish out” a place, then move somewhere else. Roosevelt wanted to shut the packers down for illegal fishing methods; otherwise, these “big fish” companies would deplete Alaska of salmon.
Most sourdoughs (or old-timers) in Alaska despised everything about the Bull Moose Party. Although Roosevelt was respected as a big-game hunter, his federal land grabs between 1902 and 1909 on behalf of wildlife and forests infuriated them. None of them, however, voted in the 1912 elections, so they didn’t matter. But coal and timber corporations in Washington and Oregon used the sourdoughs’ antifederal attitude to arouse contempt for all regulation of the extraction industries.
By September 1912, President Taft, his popularity diminished, was looking irrelevant. Every rally for Taft was lackluster, sweltering hot, and newsless. Roosevelt, the youngest of the presidential candidates, relished attacking the “husks” of the Democratic and Republican parties, which had nominated “boss-ridden” men of weak moral fiber.71 Roosevelt called the president a “flubdub with a streak of the common and the second rate in him.”72 The combustible campaign centered on the Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson’s “new freedom” versus Theodore Roosevelt’s “new nationalism.” Wilson, a former president of Princeton University and popular reformist governor of New Jersey, pushed his attacks on corporate abuses even farther left than Roosevelt. Wilson, in some cases, claimed to support federal control of companies. But Roosevelt still held the progressive high ground when it came to the environment. Roosevelt considered Wilson nothing more than a “sham reformer,” embracing dull precedent because that was politically expedient.73
To Roosevelt and his supporters, Wilson was also hostage to the laissez-faire doctrine, an ignorant, outdated philosophy for the twentieth century. Only money-grubbers would put laissez-faire over the collective good of the American people. “Now the governmental power rests with the people, and the kings who enjoy privilege are the kings of the financial and industrial world,” Roosevelt said at rallies, promoting progressive democracy. “And what they clamor for is the limitation of government power, and what the people sorely need is the extension of governmental power.”74
On the campaign trail, Roosevelt was brilliantly successful at inspiring young, conservation-minded outdoors enthusiasts to join the Bull Moose cause. In Chicago, for example, Harold L. Ickes, an attorney deeply interested in reform politics, quit the Republican Party and signed up with Roosevelt. Reporting for the Chicago Record Ickes—whose clients included Jane Addams of Hull House, a leader in the social work movement—for the first time became informed about federal forest reserves, national parks, and wildlife protection. Quirky and combative, with an impish smile that often beamed forth from his thin lips, Ickes didn’t look like an outdoorsman. But looks are often deceiving. The acerbic Ickes was a dyed-in-the-wool Pennsylvanian conservationist, a proud native son of Altoona, whose great love in life was the Appalachian mountain range.75 Clear, fast-moving western Pennsylvanian rivers like the Little Juniata, and secret places like Horseshoe Cave and Blue Knob, were indelible images in his memory. Ickes, a self-proclaimed lone wolf, was a paradox: an urban wheeler-dealer who thought America’s salvation was in the backcountry. “I love nature,” Ickes declared. “I love it in practically every form—flowers, birds, wild animals, running streams, gem-like lakes, and towering snow-clad mountains.”76
As Ickes noted in his diary for 1912, nobody could claim that Roosevelt wasn’t striking a nerve in the body politic with his fiery Bull Moose rhetoric. At his rallies, huge crowds hung on his words as he attacked Wall Street, overcome more by emotion than by insight. Because the Socialist Party had nominated the labor leader Eugene Debs for president, Roosevelt was facing an able challenger in campaigning for economic justice for the laboring class. Budding conservationists like Ickes, however, chanted, “The Bull Moose has left the wooded hill/His call rings through the land/It’s a summons to the young and strong/To join with willing hand.”77 Outdoors enthusiasts had long before developed a firm affection for Roosevelt’s high-purposed stagecraft; they voted for him without hesitation in 1912. As a performer, Roosevelt was raw and visceral, brimming with defiance, insisting that he was an unshakable one-man squad for American betterment. His words seemed to glow in the air. But stumping from coast to coast was banal compared with the outdoors life. “I am hoarse and dirty and filled with a bored loathing of myself,” he wrote to Kermit. “I often think with real longing of the hot, moonlit nights on our giant eland hunt, or in the white rhino camp, with the faithful gun-boys talking or listening to the strumming of the funny little native harp.”78
It was in this circus atmosphere that John Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant from New York, arrived in Milwaukee for a Bull Moose rally with murder on his mind. On October 14, Schrank approached Roosevelt and shot him at close range with a .38-caliber pistol. Two spectators restrained the psychotic shooter as Roosevelt tried not to faint. Schrank, it turned out, was angry because Roosevelt was behind laws that closed saloons on Sunday. Luckily, a thickly folded fifty-page copy of a speech and a metal eyeglass case (used for bird-watching) inside Roosevelt’s coat pocket stopped the bullet from piercing his heart. A scuffle ensued and Schrank was apprehended. Roosevelt refused medical attention and went on to speak for ninety minutes before being rushed first to Emergency Hospital in Milwaukee and then to Mercy Hospital in Chicago. The bullet, lodged close to his lungs, was never removed. “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quick as possible,” Roosevelt had said from the stage, his chin thrust high. “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”79
When Pinchot heard the news from Milwaukee, he was at first disbelieving. But when he learned that Roosevelt had continued to give the speech while bleeding profusely, he knew it was God’s honest truth. “It may seem like a queer thing to say,” Pinchot wrote to Roosevelt, “but your being shot has been one of the finest things that has ever come into my life on account of the way you have handled the whole situation.”80 Roosevelt reassured Pinchot that he remained determined to win the presidential election, refusing to give up his effort.81
Americans were spellbound by the unfolding drama. Was Roosevelt still on the march? Or was his campaign now over? No matter how many scholars insist that Davy Crockett died of disease at the Alamo or that Abraham Lincoln was really a bigot, the general public refuses to abandon the orthodox view of these heroes. The larger public view—whether accurate or not—is that Crockett fought for the independence of Texas, and Lincoln emancipated the slaves. After Milwaukee it no longer mattered whether Roosevelt won or lost the 1912 presidential election. By the time he arrived at Madison Square Garden on October 24, and received a forty-five-minute standing ovation, the bullet still lodged in his rib cage, he had become an enduring American icon.82
On November 5, however, Wilson swept the election with 435 electoral votes to Roosevelt’s disappointing 88. “I won’t pretend,” Ickes later recalled in Autobiography of a Curmudgeon, “that we didn’t awake the day after the election with a bad headache.”83Roosevelt consoled himself with the fact that Taft had won only eight electoral votes and Debs—who, surprisingly, won 6 percent of the popular vote, the most ever by a socialist candidate—nevertheless failed to receive a single electoral vote. The Bull Moose Party succeeded in winning 27.4 percent of the vote and electing thirteen new members to Congress. Even more impressively, the Bull Moose Party brought more than 230 state legislators into office. To offset his own loss, Roosevelt boasted that he had fulfilled his pledge to make Taft a one-term president. But no genuine whoop of victory was conveyed by the Colonel’s reasoning. “Well,” he had written to Kermit on election night, “we have gone down in a smashing defeat; whether it is a Waterloo or a Bull Run, only time will tell.”84