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26 June, 2013
Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter XV - Mr. Bryan Issues A Challenge
by Tumulty, Joseph P.


The contests for the delegates to the National Convention were on in full swing throughout the various states. In the early contests, particularly in the far western states, like Utah, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana, the Wilson candidacy, according to primary returns, began to take on the appearance of a real, robust boom. As the critical days of the Convention approached, evidences of a recession of the favourable tide to Wilson began to manifest themselves, particularly in the states of Massachusetts and Illinois, both of which swung to Clark, with New York in the offing quietly favouring Champ Clark. It was clear to the campaign managers of Wilson that from a psychological standpoint the pivotal states were New Jersey and Ohio; New Jersey, because ex-Senator Smith had again challenged the leadership of Wilson and had notified his friends throughout the country that New Jersey could be relied upon to repudiate its governor in an overwhelming fashion. Smith had made deals and combinations with all the disgruntled elements of the state, and with powerful financial backing from the so-called interests in New Jersey and New York and the mighty support of the Hearst newspapers, he was pressing the New Jersey man closely, until at times it seemed as if he might succeed in at least splitting the delegation. The friends of the New Jersey man, therefore, realizing the effect upon the democracy of the country of an adverse verdict in his home state, concentrated all possible forces at this critical point. In the meantime, and before the actual determination of the issue in New Jersey, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania swung into the Wilson column, and the Ohio primaries resulted in a split delegation between Wilson and Harmon, in Harmon's home state. All eyes were, therefore, intently watching New Jersey. A repudiation would be disastrous, although the old-timers in the Wilson camp tried to encourage us by saying that even though New Jersey might turn against its governor, Grover Cleveland, under similar circumstances in 1892, despite the opposition of his home state, had been nominated and elected President. But, fortunately for us, New Jersey in the handsomest way stood by her favourite son. The news of New Jersey's endorsement was flashed through the country, and there was jubilation in every Wilson camp. The day following the New Jersey primaries the New York World, the great Democratic paper, carried a striking editorial under the caption of "WOODROW WILSON FOR PRESIDENT." The New Jersey primaries and the Ohio results were great feathers in the caps of the Wilson men, and with enthusiasm and ardour they followed up this advantage.

As the days for the opening of the Baltimore Convention approached the New Jersey Governor and his family left Princeton for Sea Girt, a delightful place along the Atlantic seaboard, where the state of New Jersey had provided for its governor an executive mansion, a charming cottage, a replica of General Washington's headquarters at Morristown. With us to these headquarters, to keep vigil as it were over the New Jersey Governor, went a galaxy of newspaper men, representing the leading papers of the country.

The first, and indeed the most important, situation the candidate was called upon to handle at Sea Girt as a preliminary to the Convention was his reply to the now famous Bryan-Parker telegrams, which played so important a part in the deliberations and indeed in the character of the whole Convention--It will be recalled that Mr. Bryan, who was in attendance at the Republican Convention at Chicago as a special correspondent, had telegraphed an identic telegram to each of the Democratic candidates, Messrs. Clark, Underwood, Wilson, and Harmon, as follows:
Chicago, June, 1912.

In the interest of harmony, I suggest to the sub-committee of the Democratic National Committee the advisability of recommending as temporary chairman some progressive acceptable to the leading progressive candidates for the Presidential nomination. I take it for granted that no committeeman interested in Democratic success would desire to offend the members of a convention overwhelmingly progressive by naming a reactionary to sound the keynote of the campaign.

Eight members of the sub-committee, however, have, over the protest of the remaining eight, agreed upon not only a Reactionary but upon the one Democrat who, among those not candidates for the Presidential nomination, is, in the eyes of the public, most conspicuously identified with the reactionary element of the party.

I shall be pleased to join you and your friends in opposing his selection by the full committee or by the Convention. Kindly answer here.

W. J. BRYAN.
I was on my way from New York to Sea Girt when I read a copy of this telegram in the evening papers. I believe that I grasped the full significance of this move on the part of Mr. Bryan. In fact, I became so anxious about it that I left the train before reaching my destination, in order to say to Governor Wilson over the 'phone how important I thought the message really was and how cautiously it should be handled. I tried to impress upon him the importance of the answer he was called upon to make to Mr. Bryan. He calmly informed me that he had not yet received the telegram and that he would, of course, give me an opportunity to discuss the matter with him before making his reply.

It was clear that Mr. Bryan, whose influence in the councils of the Democratic party at that time was very great, was seeking by this method to ascertain from leading Presidential candidates like Wilson, Underwood, Clark, and Harmon, just how they felt about the efforts of the New York delegation, led by the Tammany boss, Charlie Murphy, and the conservative element of the Democratic party in the East, to control the Convention and to give it the most conservative and standpat appearance by controlling the preliminary organization and nominating Alton B. Parker as temporary chairman. For many weeks previous to the Convention it had been rumoured that that was the programme and that the real purpose which lay behind it was to unhorse Bryan and to end for all time his control and that of the radicals of the West over the affairs of the Democratic party. It was a recrudescence of the old fight of 1896, between the conservative East and the radical West--Bryan assuming, of course, the leadership of the radicals of the West, and Charlie Murphy and his group acting as the spokesmen of the conservative East.

It was clear to me that Bryan anticipated just what replies Underwood, Clark, and Harmon would make to his inquiry. Whether he was certain of what the New Jersey Governor would say in answer to his telegram, I never could ascertain. Indeed, many of the New Jersey Governor's supporters were ungenerous enough to say that behind the inquiry lay a selfish purpose; that Mr. Bryan took this method to reestablish his leadership and to place himself at the forefront of the liberal, progressive forces of the Convention.

It is clear, as one looks back upon this incident, that a misstep in the handling of this inquiry from Mr. Bryan might have been fatal to the New Jersey man's candidacy.

When I arrived at Sea Girt to discuss the matter with Governor Wilson, I was surprised to find that he had not even read the telegram, although a copy of it lay upon his desk, and when he did read it and we were discussing it he did not share my view of its great importance. In attempting to emphasize its importance I experienced one of the most difficult jobs I ever had in the eleven years I was associated with Woodrow Wilson. In vain I tried to impress upon him what I believed to be the purpose which lay behind the whole business; that his reply would determine the question as to whether he was going to line up with the progressive element which was strong in the West, or whether he would take sides with those of the conservative East, many of whom were bitterly opposed to him. He finally informed me that he was in touch with Mr. McCombs, his campaign manager at Baltimore, and that he would not reply to Mr. Bryan's telegram until he received some word from the former as to what his opinion was in regard to handling this difficult matter. I left him, after impressing upon him the necessity of early action, lest our progressive friends both at Baltimore and throughout the country who were awaiting word from us should be disappointed by his apparent unwillingness to take his position with the progressives.

The newspaper correspondents at Sea Girt, realizing the importance of the candidate's decision, industriously kept upon our trail to find out what reply would be made to Mr. Bryan. The direct wire between Baltimore and Sea Girt was kept busy with inquiries from our friends as to what attitude we were taking in the matter. While my relations with McCombs at the time were of the friendliest sort, I feared that the Eastern environment in which he lived, and his attempt to bring Tammany into camp for the New Jersey Governor, would necessarily play a large part in influencing his judgment, and I was apprehensive lest Governor Wilson should be too much inclined to accept Mr. McCombs' final judgment in the matter.

On June 21, 1912, the following telegram came from Mr. McCombs, as the basis of a proposed reply to Mr. Bryan by the New Jersey Governor:
Baltimore, June 21, 1912.

HON. WILLIAM J. BRYAN
Lincoln, Nebraska.

I quite agree with you that the temporary chairman of the Convention should voice the sentiments of the democracy of the nation which I am convinced is distinctly progressive. However, before receiving your telegram I had given the following statement for publication in the Baltimore Evening Sun: My friends in Baltimore are on the people's side in everything that affects the organization of the Convention. They are certain not to forget their standards as they have already shown. It is not necessary that I should remind them of these standards from New Jersey and I have neither the right nor the desire to direct the organization of a convention of which I am not even a member.

(signed) MCCOMBS
I was greatly disappointed, of course, at the character of reply suggested by McCombs and argued with the Governor at length on what I considered would be the disastrous effects of making a reply such as the one contained in the above telegram. Clearly, Mr. McCombs' suggested reply was a rebuke to Mr. Bryan and a bid for the Eastern vote in the convention. Of course, Governor Wilson was most reluctant to disregard the advice of McCombs. He felt that he (McCombs) was "on the job" at Baltimore and more intimately in touch with the situation than he himself could be at Sea Girt. After a long discussion of the matter, the proposed reply prepared by McCombs was ignored and the following telegram was prepared and sent by Woodrow Wilson:
W. J. BRYAN, Chicago:

You are quite right. Before hearing of your message I clearly stated my position in answer to a question from the Baltimore Evening Sun. The Baltimore Convention is to be a convention of Progressives, of men who are progressive in principle and by conviction. It must, if it is not to be put in a wrong light before the country, express its convictions in its organization and in its choice of the men who are to speak for it. You are to be a member of the Convention and are entirely within your rights in doing everything within your power to bring that result about. No one will doubt where my sympathies lie and you will, I am sure, find my friends in the Convention acting upon clear conviction and always in the interest of the people's cause. I am happy in the confidence that they need no suggestion from me.

(Signed) WOODROW WILSON.
This reply, more than any other single thing, changed the whole attitude and temper of the Convention toward Woodrow Wilson. The progressive forces in it were seeking leadership and Mr. Bryan, by his inquiry, had provided an opportunity, of which. Mr. Wilson took full advantage.

An interesting incident occurred in connection with this affair. Being unable to induce the Governor quickly to reply to Mr. Bryan, and realizing that our friends at Baltimore would expect him to agree with Mr. Bryan, and thus take his place with the progressive element in the Convention, I was firmly convinced that he would at the end be found in agreement with Mr. Bryan. I, therefore, took the liberty of saying to the newspaper men in our group--those who were favourably disposed to us--that when Mr. Wilson did reply to Mr. Bryan he would be found in harmony with the Commoner's ideas. This unofficial tip was immediately conveyed to Baltimore and our friends, after returning from the Convention, told me how this piece of inspired information had put heart in our men, and that on a bulletin board before the Baltimore Sun offices there was posted the announcement "WILSON AGREES WITH BRYAN" and before it hundreds of Wilson men gathered, cheering the message of the New Jersey Governor.

The reply of the New Jersey Governor was prepared by him while he was seated on the side of a little bed in one of the rooms of the Sea Girt cottage. He looked at me intently, holding a pad and pencil in his hands, and then wrote these significant words to Mr. Bryan: "You are right."

I have often wondered what effect on the Convention McCombs' proposed reply, which contained a rebuke to Mr. Bryan, would have had. From that time on Mr. Bryan was the devoted friend of the New Jersey Governor. Mr. Wilson's reply had convinced the Nebraskan that the Governor was not afraid to accept the issue and that he was in favour of supporting a preliminary organization that was to be progressive both in principle and by conviction.

McCombs was obsessed with the idea that the New York delegation must be won; that everything else was negligible compared with that. Therefore he wished Mr. Wilson in his reply to say something that would be considered by the New York delegation as a public rebuke to Mr. Bryan. I afterward learned that McCombs, nervous, incapable of standing the strain and excitement of the Convention, had retired to a friend's house at Baltimore where, after the Woodrow Wilson telegram to William Jennings Bryan, he was found in a room, lying across a bed, crying miserably. To the inquiries of his friends as to what was the matter with him McCombs replied, weeping, that the Governor had spoiled everything by his telegram to Bryan; that had the Governor followed his [McCombs'] advice, he could have been nominated.

The direct wire between the Sea Girt cottage and the Wilson headquarters at Baltimore was kept busy from early morning until late at night. The telephone exchange in the cottage was so arranged that a branch telephone was kept in the little room under the stairway, which constituted a sort of listening post, which permitted me, in accordance with the suggestion of the Governor himself, to listen in on conversations, not by way of eavesdropping, but in order that we might intelligently confer after each conversation on the various matters that might have to be decided upon with reference to the organization of the convention. Many of the momentous questions having to do with the conduct of the Convention were discussed and settled over this 'phone. The most frequent users of the 'phone during these days were Colonel Bryan and Mr. McCombs, our campaign manager. During the opening days of the Convention I made it my business to keep in close touch with Baltimore both by conversations over the 'phone with the active managers of the Wilson boom and by carefully reading each morning the news items appearing in the New York Times, New York World, and the Baltimore Sun, this last-named paper being one of the leading advocates of the Wilson candidacy in the country.

I was personally, and in some cases intimately, acquainted with the special writers on these great journals and knew from previous contact with them that they were on the "inside" of the situation at Baltimore, and in this way much information was gleaned which proved helpful in keeping us in touch with the many happenings at the Convention.

Having successfully passed through the Bryan-Parker crisis, we decided upon a kind of strategy that would win to our side the various progressive elements in the Convention. In line with this idea, we suggested to our managers at Baltimore the advisability of putting forward the name of Ollie M. James of Kentucky for permanent chairman of the Convention. While he was a staunch Clark man and a devoted follower of Mr. Bryan, we knew he could be relied upon to give us a fair deal as the presiding officer of the Convention. There was another reason, too. Away off in Sea Girt we gathered the impression that the sober second thought of the Convention favoured his selection and that even though we might fail in our attempt to nominate him for this office, our efforts at least in this regard would give the impression to those who looked with favour upon Wilson as their second choice. Another reason was this: We were not afraid to trust our cause to a Clark man, and Ollie James for many years had been the idol of convention crowds. When, upon the conclusion of the Bryan-Parker episode, Mr. Bryan telephoned Sea Girt to discuss with the Governor the matter of the chairmanship, he was greatly surprised and pleased to have the Governor say, in the most hearty way that, upon canvassing the whole situation, he felt it would be an admirable and just thing to select Ollie James of Kentucky. Mr. Bryan said: "But, Governor Wilson, Mr. James is in the Convention as a Clark man." "It does not matter," was the Governor's reply. "He is our kind of a fellow, and I am sure my friends can rely upon him to treat our cause well." From Mr. Bryan's subsequent conversations over the telephone it clearly appeared that he was delighted at the suggestion of his own intimate friend, and it was plain that he was being convinced from moves of this kind by the New Jersey Governor that Woodrow Wilson was willing to stand or fall with him in attempting to organize the Convention along progressive lines.

Years after the Convention the senator from Kentucky, who became my closest and dearest friend, and who distinguished himself as a member of the Senate, and who was one of the staunchest defenders of the President and the Administration, told me of the wisdom which he thought lay behind the suggestion of himself for the chairmanship; that we, at Sea Girt, rightly sensed the situation and that the suggestion of his name had done more than anything else to convince the men in the Convention of the genuine character of the New Jersey Governor's progressiveness. We felt that strategic moves of this kind appealed to the progressive thought in the Convention and went far to remove the strange impression many of the delegates had that Wilson was a rank conservative. It was plainly perceptible that these acts were quickly turning the progressives in the Convention toward our candidate.

In following these suggestions, we were, in fact, acting independently of the New Jersey Governor's advisers at Baltimore. It was plain to be seen that the battle at Baltimore would finally simmer down to a contest between the reactionaries and the progressives, and we decided at Sea Girt that in every move that was to be made our purpose should be to win the progressive support in the Convention. McCombs was at no time found in harmony with this action, his principal activities at Baltimore being given over to an attempt to win for the New Jersey Governor the support of the conservatives of the East, and, particularly, New York, whose seventy- six votes he thought the great prize of the Convention.

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