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Three Presidents had been assassinated in T.R.'s lifetime, and he had long ago prepared himself for such a moment. He put his fingers to his lips, saw that he was not bleeding from the mouth and concluded that the bullet had not perforated a lung. The bullet, slowed by the contents of his breast pocket--a steel eyeglass case and a copy of the speech he was about to give--had lodged in a rib. He insisted on proceeding to an auditorium where a crowd of 10,000 was waiting for him. In full command of his political instincts, he showed the audience his bloodstained shirt and said, "I have just been shot, but it takes more than that to kill a bull moose." Roosevelt spoke for 90 minutes, then consented to go to a hospital.
From first to last, no candidate in 1912 fought harder than Roosevelt, but in the end, the country chose Wilson. The results resembled those of 1992, when Ross Perot's third-party run deprived Bill Clinton of a popular majority but gave him a victory, with 43% of the vote. Wilson's plurality was 42%. Roosevelt finished with 27% and Taft with 23%. Debs drew 6%, twice the share he had won in 1908. Monday-morning quarterbacks have claimed that if T.R. had sat out 1912, his votes would have gone to Taft. Not so. As the numbers show, 77% of the electorate wanted anyone but Taft.
Roosevelt lost, and in a political culture set in its two-party ways, the Bull Moose Party was destined for a short life. But T.R.'s 1912 campaign still quickens the pulse, in part because his foresight on social policy proved to be 20/20 but even more because he was that rare person able to see past the corruption and mediocrity of his time. Theodore Roosevelt understood what a government devoted to its citizens might achieve, and he got the country talking as seriously as it ever has about what it wanted to be.
•O'Toole is author of When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House (Simon & Schuster)