It is early in the presidential primary season. The Republican Party is split between two front runners. A trusted confidante of both men has taken a sabbatical to Europe to regain his health. During his trip abroad, he must determine for whom he would work for. The future of the Republican Party and the outcome of the presidential election is dependent on this man’s decision.
Is this scenario taking place in 2012? No, it is happening in 1912. The two GOP front runners are former president Theodore Roosevelt and his hand-picked successor in 1908, the reluctant but dutiful William Howard Taft. Throughout his adult life, Taft had envisioned himself sitting on the US Supreme Court. At a dinner, hosted by then President Theodore Roosevelt, told his dinner companions, his Secretary of War, Taft and his wife, Helen, that he had visions of a very large man about to be given a new title. ‘Shall it be the presidency or the Supreme Court?’ Helen Taft, happily recalled an incident from her teenage years, when she was a guest of President Rutherford B Hayes and his wife at the White House. Helen’s father had been a law colleague of the President. Walking through the White House, young Helen Herron took in every sight and vowed to return one day as First Lady of the United States. ‘Is it the Presidency?’ Mrs. Taft excitedly asked Roosevelt. ‘Is it the Supreme Court?’ The Secretary of War inquired. Turning to Mrs. Taft, and wearing his trademark big grin, Roosevelt said to Helen, ‘Yes, it is the Presidency.’ A somber Taft knew that he was outnumbered, and reluctantly accepted the presidential draft.
The third man in this political drama is Major Archibald Butt. He had been born in Augusta, Gerogia in September of 1865, some five months after the end of the four-year long Civil War. His father died when Archie was a young teenager, and from then on, he was obliged to work to support his mother and his sister and brother. Through the intervention of the pastor of the family’s church, Young Archie secured a position as the school librarian, which eventually enabled him to enroll in the University of the South in Tennessee, graduating in 1888. Fresh out of college, Butt set forth on a career in journalism, His first position was at the Louisville Courier-Journal. His talents led to the nation’s capital, where he reported for several Southern newspapers. Among the newspapers he wrote for were The Atlanta Constitution and the Nashville Banner. In 1895, when President Grover Cleveland appointed North Carolina Senator Matt Ransom as US Ambassador to Mexico, Butt was appointed to serve as the first secretary at the US Embassy.
In 1900, Butt received a commission as a Captain in the US Army of Volunteers. He served in the Philippines, from 1900 to 1904, where he met the then Military Governor of the Islands, William Howard Taft. Returning to the US, he met President Theodore Roosevelt, who commissioned Butt as a Captain and sent him on a peace keeping trip to Cuba. Upon his successful complettion of his mission, Captain Butt returned to the White House where he was named chief military aide to President Roosevelt. He stayed on, in the same capacity, when Taft became president in 1909. Two years later, he was promoted to the rank of Major.
The adventurous TR spent the first two years of his years out of the White House traveling to Africa and Europe. In 1910, he led the US delegation of mourners at King Edward VII’s funeral in London. But reading the daily newspapers, Roosevelt became increasingly aggitated and disappointed by Taft and his policies. They were, decidedly conservative, and did not follow the progressive stance that TR had followed during his 7 1/2 years in the Oval office. Major Butt was loyal to both men and was caught in this political tug of war that threatened the Republican Party. His health became a concern, and he asked for a medical leave, in order to regain his health.
In early 1912, he set sail for a six week trip abroad. His one official act was a private audience with Pope Pius X, during which he delivered a personal communication to the Pope from President Taft. On April 10, 1912, with his health steadily improving, Butt boarded the ship at Southhampton in the United Kingdom that would take him home. After a great deal of soul searching, he had made up his made up his mind as to which candidate he would work for. But, sadly, we will never know, because the ship in which Butt boarded on that early Spring day was the RMS Titanic. Butt was, reportedly, playing a leisurely game of cards, when the Titanic struck the iceberg. Published reports of the disaster claim that Butt valiantly assisted the Captain of the doomed ship by helping women and children onto lifeboats. Butt, himself, made no effort to escape from the doomed ship. He was one of the more than 1,500 who were lost on that terrible night, now, nearly a century ago.
History tells us that Theodore Roosevelt and his supporters bolted from the Republican National Convenion in Chicago, later that Summer, and formed their own ‘Bull Moose’ Progressive party, with TR as its standard bearer. A seriously divided Democratic Convention, meeting in Baltimore, took 43 ballots to nominate a first term Governor of New Jersey and former President of Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson.
In October, upon arriving at a campaign speaking engagement in Milwauke, Wisconsin, Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest. Refusing immediate medical assistance, the feisty TR said, ‘I will make this speech or die.’ The candidate finished his prepared remarks. The manuscript of his speech and his eye glass case had been in his breast pocket and had substantially slowed the impact of the bullet. The former president was then taken to a local hospital and treated for his wounds.
Taft, feeling increasingly alone, saw his friendship with the former president irrevocably broken, and keenly felt the absence of the man who had been a trusted aide to both men. To add to Taft’s difficulty in the closing days of the campaign, his incumbent vice-president, James Schoolcraft Sherman, died on October 30, 1912.
The split between the conservative and progressive elements of the Republican were too much to overcome. When the popular votes were counted, the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson received a plurality with 41.84% of the vote. He carried 40 states and earned 435 Electoral votes. Former president Theodore Roosevelt received 27.38% of the vote. The Progressive party ticket carried 6 states, earning 88 Electoral Votes. Taft, who had never wanted to be president in the first place, received 23.18% of the popular vote, earning 8 Electoral votes from 2 states.
100 years after that tragic night, when the Titanic went down on her maiden voyage, no one knows to this day for whom Major Archie Butt had chosen to work for in the campaign. But, his absence was keenly felt by both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
At a memorial service in his honor at Arlington National Cemetery, President Taft eulogized Butt by saying:
“If Archie could have selected a time to die he would have chosen the one God gave him. His life was spent in self–sacrifice, serving others. His forgetfulness of self had become a part of his nature. Everybody who knew him called him Archie. I couldn’t prepare anything in advance to say here. I tried, but couldn’t. He was too near me. He was loyal to my predecessor, Mr. Roosevelt, who selected him to be military aide, and to me he had become as a son or a brother.”
Archie Butt remains part of the mystery of the Titanic to this very day.