Timothy Noah

The Titanic And The Virgin

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I had forgotten, until I picked up my copy of Steven Biel's Down With The Old Canoe: A Cultural History Of The Titanic, that Henry Adams booked passage on the Titanic's return trip. "My ship, the Titanic, is on her way," he wrote in a letter on April 12, 1912, "and unless she drops me somewhere else, I should get to Cherbourg in a fortnight." (Adams, then 74--he would die six years later--mentioned in the same letter that the as-yet-unpublished Education, which he'd forwarded to his correspondent, was "hardly ... fit for any public. [...] Burn up the volumes when you are done with them!")

On April 15, 1912, Adams learned that he'd have to find himself another ship. He wrote to a different correspondent: "I do not know whether Taft or the Titanic is likely to be the furthest-reaching disaster." Adams was referring to former President Theodore Roosevelt's victory over then-President William Howard Taft in the April 13 Pennsylvania primary, hard on the heels of an Illinois primary victory four days earlier. Adams' assessment that the GOP's prospects for 1912 had abruptly cratered was exactly right. Roosevelt would eventually win twice as many delegates in the primaries as Taft. Taft got renominated anyway--presidential primaries weren't at that time remotely decisive in the winning of party delegates--but TR launched a third-party candidacy that eventually threw the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. 

"Taft, Titanic!" Adams wrote. "Titanic--Taft!" He was just getting warmed up. "The Republican party is at the bottom of the deep sea, and the corpses are still howling on the surface. Whatever happens, our old party is done." And: "I am more perturbed by the political situation than by the Titanic." And: "Politically, we are drifting at sea, in the ice, and can't get ashore." None of this was in the best of taste, since Adams himself knew people who had gone down with the Titanic. In one of his letters he confessed to being "Adamsy" about it.

One hundred years on, it is the Titanic that appears (at least in the public imagination) to be the further-reaching disaster--not, as Adams judged, the GOP's looming presidential defeat in 1912. Arguably Taft's defeat wasn't even a disaster for the GOP. The Republicans would recapture the White House three times more before Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats settled in for a long leisurely spell, realigning American politics and government. Nonetheless, this was an epoch that in some ways still haunts American politics. It was in the 1912 campaign that TR proposed (through the Bull Moose party platform) government-funded health insurance, a pledge that went unfulfilled until the 2010 passage of Obamacare, which Republicans are now desperate to kill off, and which a Republican-dominated Supreme Court shows at least even odds of overturning. Two years before the Titanic went down TR had given his "New Nationalism" speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, which would inspire a similarly-themed (actually, less-provocative) speech from Obama in 2011. In attacking Obama for giving it, contemporary Republicans (or at least their fellow partisans on Fox News) cut TR loose, too, calling him a socialist.

Two years after the Titanic sank the New Republic was founded and the Progressive Era was in full swing. The Progressives and Wilson are, according to far-right demonology, the people who expelled America from its 18th-century Eden, or at least made it a lot easier for FDR to expel it a generation later. So Adams wasn't wrong to perceive in the spring of 1912 that wrenching change, probably of a type he wouldn't much like, was occurring, and that 19th-century America (which he'd always inhabited warily, feeling greater kinship with the 18th) was sinking to the ocean floor. At the very least, it's interesting to ponder that 100 years ago a great mind contemplated the prospect of GOP self-destruction, just as we lesser minds do today. A significant difference is that some of us don't feel particularly sad to see that great reactionary ship go down. Glub-glub. Good riddance.

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