Weakest front-runner ever?

Newt Gingrich opined recently that Mitt Romney was about the weakest front-runner since Leonard Wood. Leaving aside the question of what that, if true, says about Newt’s campaign, it piqued my interest – just who was Leonard Wood?

In 1920, the Republican National Convention met in Chicago, and this was truly a contested, if not actually a brokered convention of the type some appear to be yearning for this year. As Republicans, locked out of the White House for 8 long years, convened in the Windy City, Illinois Governor Frank Lowden and Gen. Leonard Wood were considered the frontrunners. Wood carried the banner for his friend, former President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had told his supporters that he wanted Wood to run for the nomination in 1920 if, for any reason, he was unable to run himself. When the original bull moose died early in 1919, Wood assembled a group of Roosevelt supporters, military men, and wealthy industrialists, most notably soap magnate William Procter, and proceeded to run the most expensive campaign in American history. On the road to Chicago, he entered primaries in Ohio and Illinois, angering supporters of favorite sons Frank Lowden and Warren G. Harding. An icon of US imperialism at the time of the nation’s evolution into a global power at the dawn of the twentieth century, Wood ran a campaign that relied heavily on the Red Scare; his themes were Americanism and universal military service.

At the convention, the forces of Wood and Lowden were deadlocked from the start. Even after having spent nearly 3 times as much as Frank Lowden, Hiram Johnson and Warren Harding combined, Wood arrived in Chicago with only 124 delegates, far shy of the 493 needed for nomination. In addition to not having enough delegates, Wood had more than his share of enemies who were against him for a variety of reasons. Anticipating a deadlock, Harding operative Harry Daugherty had his men meet every single train that pulled into Chicago, telling arriving delegates to keep Harding in mind should the convention become mired in deadlock, which appears to be what happened – caused, in part at least, by concerted action of Wood’s foes. Henry Cabot Lodge, an erstwhile ally of Wood’s, gaveled the meeting into adjournment after the fourth ballot, when Wood’s troops were scrambling to increase his vote count. It was all downhill from there, and whether it was that the delegates remembered Warren Harding from those train platform pep talks or the result of backroom dealing, it was Warren G. Harding who emerged as the GOP nominee after the 10th ballot. As Wood’s biographer Jack McCallum sums it up, “had he (Wood) won, the U.S. would have had a combination of militarism, nativism, and authoritarianism in the White House instead of Warren Gamaliel Harding” (and, we might add, Calvin Coolidge). Perhaps it was all to the best. Parallels with how 2012 might unfold are far-fetched at best – as of this writing, the delegate math may yet confer a first-ballot win on Mitt Romney, and with a winning VP pick he may yet turn things around for a successful run in November. Should he fail to come to Tampa with the necessary 1,144 pledged delegates, however, we may see his foes combine and thwart him, as they did Gen. Wood. In this case, it would almost certainly be to the detriment of both party and country.

Wood’s military and political paralleled that of his mentor Theodore Roosevelt, and the rise of American imperialism and progressivism. His career included ministering as White Housse physician to presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, helping capture Geronimo, assembling the Rough Riders, and working as administrator in both Cuba and the Philippines. He also was the first surgeon to be named Army Chief of Staff. His last career assignment came from the man who defeated him for the GOP nomination – Harding named Wood Governor General of the Philippines, a post he held from 1921 to his death from complications following the operation on a brain tumor in 1927 at the age of 66.

Leonard Wood made the cover of TIME in 1926

Leonard Wood made the cover of TIME in 1926

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