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Posted at 2:58 PM ET, 01/18/2011

When Teddy Roosevelt was shot

By E.J. Dionne

Since the Tucson killings, the country has been debating whether violent words spoken in politics can be fairly seen as pushing unstable people toward committing actual acts of violence against politicians.

One historical figure who is widely respected by contemporary Republicans, Democrats and Independents had very strong views on the matter. He expressed them at an extraordinary moment: very shortly after he had been shot himself.

On October 14, 1912, while he was campaigning for president on the Progressive Party ticket, Theodore Roosevelt was shot just before entering an auditorium in Milwaukee. The former Republican president insisted on giving his speech anyway.

TR, whose comment that he was as fit as a Bull Moose had given the Progressive Party its nickname, began his speech with a drama only he was capable of. "Friends," he declared at the outset, "I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. 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."

The 1912 campaign was one of the most exciting in our history, pitting four major candidates against each other. It involved three men who at one point or another served as president: Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who prevailed and served as president from 1913 to 1921; the Republican incumbent, William Howard Taft, who served from 1909 to 1913; and Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909. The fourth candidate was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist who received six percent of the popular vote, the largest share in American history for a Socialist.

Roosevelt was quite resentful of the attacks against him from all of these sources. And he was not shy about suggesting that those attacks had incited the man who had just shot him. Here's what he said. I have italicized passages that seem most relevant to our current debate.

I don't know anything about who the man was who shot me to-night. He was seized at once by one of the stenographers in my party, Mr. Martin, and I suppose is now in the hands of the police. He shot to kill. He shot -- the shot, the bullet went in here -- I will show you.

I am going to ask you to be as quiet as possible for I am not able to give to challenge of the bull moose quite as loudly. Now, I do not know who he was or what he represented. He was a coward. He stood in the darkness in the crowd around the automobile and when they cheered me, and I got up to bow, he stepped forward and shot me in the darkness.

Now, friends, of course, I do not know, as I say, anything about him; but it is a very natural thing that weak and vicious minds should be inflamed to acts of violence by the kind of awful mendacity and abuse that have been heaped upon me for the last three months by the papers in the interest of not only Mr. Debs but of Mr. Wilson and Mr. Taft.

Friends, I will disown and repudiate any man of my party who attacks with such foul slander and abuse any opponent of any other party; and now I wish to say seriously to all the daily newspapers, to the Republicans, the Democrat, and Socialist parties, that they cannot, month in month out and year in and year out, make the kind of untruthful, of bitter assault that they have made and not expect that brutal, violent natures, or brutal and violent characters, especially when the brutality is accompanied by a not very strong mind; they cannot expect that such natures will be unaffected by it.

He went on to denounce "that kind of slander and mendacity which if taken seriously must incite weak and violent natures to crimes of violence."

I want to thank Graham Smith of Natonal Public Radio for calling this speech to my attention. It is quite a remarkable thing to read now. Neither he nor I think Roosevelt's comments settle the matter under debate at the moment. But speaking for myself, I do think that pondering TR's remarks is helpful because it puts the current conversation in context. Recent critics of violent talk in our politics are by no means the first Americans to suggest -- well, let's just cite TR -- that individuals can "be inflamed to acts of violence by . . . awful mendacity and abuse." Exactly how that fits in to our contemporary discussion, I'll leave to you to decide.

By E.J. Dionne  | January 18, 2011; 2:58 PM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Comments

Ember:

You are grasping at straws here. So far the evidence has not supported in the least bit any linkage between the tone of political discourse and the mass murder in Tucson.

If this had been a classic political assassination there would have been one victim only the political figure present plus maybe a few bodyguards. In this case Jared Loughner did not just limit himself at attempting to kill congresswoman Giffords he proceeded to indiscriminately attempt to kill as many people as he could.

Also you seem to be missing the most important motive of many who attempt to assassinate public figures in the U.S. be they politicians or celebrities. Namely the desire to be noticed for their actions.


I suggest Mr. Dionne that you actually take the time to read a certain Secret Service study on assassins and their motives. The study found that the main motive for those assassins was not politics in itself but the desire to be noticed by society.

You have quite stubbornly spent the time since the incident making a fool of yourself by trying to link without the least shred of evidence and, dubious logic the actions of a madman to political figures and groups he dislikes.

Posted by: werehawk | January 18, 2011 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Quite a remarkable commentary, especially given the context!

Posted by: Itzajob | January 18, 2011 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Werehawk, nobody is suggesting that we press charges against the Jesse Kellys and Sarah Palins of the world.

But the fact remains that, whether or not Jared Loughner was actually influenced by the many ads running in his hometown urging that Rep. Giffords be taken out with a gun, he or someone like him could well have been.

The test that should be applied to public figures seeking public office should not be whether they could actually be convicted in a court of law. It should be whether they have the character to be fit to serve. And inciting violence in this way, with no regard for the likely consequences, seems like a pretty clear disqualifier to me.

Posted by: Itzajob | January 18, 2011 4:07 PM | Report abuse

I'm missing something here. Loughner's actions appear to be motivated by insanity not politics. That said, his politics appear to be a goofy mixture of anarchist and leftist tendencies. The one thing we definitely know about him is that he is no conservative. If you want to fantasize that some politician influenced his actions, you'd have to look for someone on the left. Dionne should be happy that Loughner wasn't politically motivated.

Posted by: concernedcitizen3 | January 18, 2011 4:55 PM | Report abuse

All the short sighted "But durr, he's not a conservative" comments are pretty funny. Just because this guy doesn't agree with 100% of the political beliefs these posters do he's all of the sudden a liberal.
People need to realize that there isn't just a continuum of left to right and that the political compass has multiple axes. Liberals usually trust government. This guy didn't. Liberals trust "fiat money". This guy sure as heck didn't. Who knows and who cares what he thought about such things as Social Security or Medicare or Glenn Beck and who thinks that a rational follower of politics shoots people in the head? He was a nut who paid some attention to politics and the environment is all about "shoot people in the head", "take them out", "2nd Amendment Remedies" and other rhetoric that phrases politics as war. If you can't see that the environment is toxic then you're just a different type of crazy.

Posted by: andy27tx | January 19, 2011 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Werehawk, to your point on "the evidence has not supported in the least bit any linkage between the tone of political discourse and the mass murder in Tucson," I must respectfully disagree.

The dominant theme of Loughner’s ravings, in his writings, videos, etc. was a fundamental distrust of the government and its authority to govern. May I remind you that the legitimacy of the current administration is CONSTANTLY called into question by the talking heads of the far right and their birther, "secret muslim", teahadist allies. Other talking points of Loughner's included the gold standard and 9/11 conspiracy theories. There is a theme to this, and it is not merely that Loughner is crazy. There is a district political tinge to his ravings.

Posted by: VulpusMagnus | January 19, 2011 9:52 AM | Report abuse

VulpusMagnus; all,

IF we can believe the NPR news (some days i don't trust ANY "news broadcasts", as they all seem to have SOME agenda & are frequent "benders of the truth".), the CRAZED FOOL, who shot the numerous victims in Tuscon, was/is a "extremist fringe environmentalist", a member of BHO's claque of "worshipers" in 2008, a life-long leftist & a FOOL as well.

thus, IF anyone is to blame for what Lougher did (except Lougher, of course!), it is the "professional Bush-HATERS", the DIMocRAT extremists, the anarchists & other members of the left who must shoulder the blame.

note to the "members of the mainstream media": IF you were one of the people, who tried to blame the TEA PARTY for what Lougher did, you should hang your head in shame. = you KNEW the truth but CHOSE TO LIE about our movement.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | January 19, 2011 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Werehawk: Yes, assassins do it to be noticed. Don't you think that hearing people frequently saying that it would be great if someone were killed makes it look like killing that person would be a good way to be noticed?

Posted by: DavidSeibert | January 19, 2011 2:13 PM | Report abuse

When the Tea Bagger Treason people repeat that old saying "The tree of liberty must be watered" and imply that the watering will be done with the blood of their political adversaries (that is, people like me), this is not an innocent statement, but is an incitement to murderous rampage.

When the lunatics among us are incited by the tea bagger traitors and armed by the NRA, then the blood is on the heads of those who are inciting, and those who are arming.

We will not be silent. We will not be quelled by the right wingnut lunatics.

The right owns this atrocity, and must accept responsibility.

Posted by: snortz_the_cat | January 19, 2011 3:00 PM | Report abuse

snortz_the_cat; all,


just out of curiousity, are you REALLY so out of touch with the reality that normal people preceive that you truly believe the hate-FILLED, STUPID, fact-FREE bilge that you routinely post on "PP"
OR
could it be that you hope your readers are that empty between the ears?

IF you do believe that errant, PREJUDICED nonsense, you are to be PITIED rather than despised.

just my opinion.

yours, TN46
coordinator, CCTPP

Posted by: texasnative46 | January 20, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

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