In October of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was about to give a speech in Milwaukee in support of his reelection campaign under the newly created Progressive “Bull Moose” Party when a bartender named John Flammang Schrank walked up and shot him in the chest. Roosevelt of course was not killed, but neither his survival nor Schrank’s claim that he was instructed by the ghost of William McKinley to prevent a third term for the two-term former president were the most extraordinary parts of the whole affair. It was the fact that Roosevelt decided to deliver his speech in the Milwaukee Auditorium anyway, for an hour and a half, with blood seeping through his clothes. “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible,” he began, “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.”
Reading a transcript of the speech is probably more comical than it should be, or than it would have been at the time. Having concluded from the fact that he wasn’t dead that the bullet had not penetrated any vital organs, Roosevelt spent the better part of the first half of his prepared remarks assuring the alarmed crowd and the various dignitaries and medical personnel pleading with him to leave the stage that he was not dying and in fact not much affected by the bullet wound. “Don’t pity me,” he said, “I am all right. I am all right, and you cannot escape listening to the speech either.”
The character named Teddy Roosevelt—the blustering, mustachioed bull moose caricature that posterity has given us—tends to shine through here. Only Teddy Bear the Rough Rider, the red-blooded man’s man, would have endured a gunshot wound to deliver a speech in which he somehow tied the attempt on his life to the Taft/Wilson Republican regime’s attempt to disavow worker’s rights and assassinate the former president’s character. Only the notoriously long-winded Teddy Bear would have been saved from death partially by the thickness of his speech manuscript, which was folded into his jacket pocket over his right breast where the bullet struck him. Only Teddy Bear, fiery activist and intimidating orator, would never let a bullet’s progress inhibit the chance for real social progress.
The image is a dream, of course, but it’s always been a compelling one, more so now because one can hardly imagine such a person existing, or such a thing occurring, in modern politics. There are no Roosevelts in either the Republican or Democratic party of today, even among those who invoke him. Such booming candor would hardly be appreciated on the eggshell-laced floors of Congress, where integrity has been been traded out the market door like so much speculation on rotting fish. Is there a man or woman in our assembly of politics who one could see standing next to Teddy on that platform, crippled from relentless attack, but spurred on by the sheer volume of their ideas and their will to push the country forward? Gabrielle Giffords comes to mind, but her story has already been wrapped, neatly bowed, and forgotten at the department of public inattention.
Everyone plays the game the same old way, not applying the lessons of history, but admiring them in a china display of fragile, pretty ornaments to be used when campaign funds dry up. Yet in the back of the cupboard on some glazed filigree of the past, a scene is illuminated in which a bespectacled man reads out to a gathered assembly of concerned American laborers a plan for labor rights and fair economic play, in the state where almost a century later, concerned laborers would again gather in protest against the belligerence of Republican authority—the authority which the bespectacled man had abandoned a century earlier for a now oxymoronic progressive-conservative tandem agenda.
Roosevelt excoriated the party which he had abandoned, and which he felt had abandoned him. “But while they don’t like me,” he said, “they dread you. You are the people they dread. They dread the people themselves, and those bosses and the big special interests behind them made up their mind that they would rather see the Republican party wrecked than see it come under the control of the people themselves.” He probably didn’t even need the bullet-shattered notes in his bloodied coat pocket. The bull had steam, and the hunt was on. “There are only two ways you can vote this year,” he said. “You can be progressive or reactionary. Whether you vote Republican or Democratic, it does not make a difference, you are voting reactionary.”
The cycles of economic crisis precipitated by political ineptitude, followed by the typical blind swing at the nothing of reactionary politics, are well chronicled, to the point that we can look into the reflection of “I have just been shot” and witness the faint outline of our own moment a century later. Republicans, it turns out, haven’t changed that much. The Perrys and Romneys might as well be the Tafts and Wilsons, as beholden to oil and other special interests near the end of their influence as their predecessors were at the beginning (Perry in particular is a bath tub away from infamy). Their voices are interchangeable, monotone, and more those of David and Charles Koch than the otherwise well-meaning Tea Party stooges, who unwittingly voted more money out of their own bank accounts and into those of the wealthiest because they were scared into believing that “progressive,” a word that essentially describes the course of human events that led to their existence, is wrong. In response to this insult, the Democrats have once again disappeared to wherever it is they go, leaving a would-be progressive president to weather a reactionary battery of frantically backward-receding minds (think not of 1912, but of 912). Meanwhile, as winter comes on, Occupy Wall Street, a genuinely progressive movement, struggles with how to proceed or communicate its complaints against a conservative business class whose impaired empathy and endemic contempt for the poor have finally been stripped naked in the public square.
All around us in politics and business, we witness the reactionary—the dread by those in power that the people of this country might not actually like things as they stand. This is as it should be. But where is the voice of reason, haggard from wounding, that nevertheless rings out? Roosevelt the Republican was no perfect president. His jingoistic bravado and imperialistic tendencies softened the bite of his more democratic beliefs. For all his trust-busting, he was at base a conservative with a mind toward expanding American commerce by any means necessary. Likewise, though he loved nature, his enthusiasm was somewhat undercut by his penchant for hunting endangered species.
Still, it was his belief in commerce that pushed him to improve the lot of the average American. It was that same zeal that caused him, an environmentalist Republican, to take the advice of noted hippie scientist John Muir in the matter of conserving natural resources and preserving national park lands. It was Bull Moose Teddy who finally broke away from the establishment, pushing the phantom third party platform that still has no foothold to this day, campaigning tirelessly for the “square deal” he planned to make with all Americans. And then he was shot.
Many of us have been shot, too, many, many times, again and again, in the same exact place. But like Roosevelt, we stagger to our feet after each blow, mindful that we are still alive, though the wound gapes ever wider. Our own speeches have changed over the years, shrunken down now to fit the economy of social media and the various factions which claim pieces of it. One version says, “We are the 99%,” while another cries, “Don’t tread on me.” One’s enemy is big business, the other’s is government. Both decry corruption. Our collective sighing is the echo of one weakened voice nevertheless booming out over the heads of a Milwaukee crowd 99 years ago. “I do not care a rap about being shot,” it says, “not a rap.” Let the hunt begin.
Erik Martz is a writer living in Minnesota, where a famous president once implored state fair attendees to “speak softly and carry a deep-fried candy bar on a stick.”